AT THE beginning of the year Jeff Zucker, the boss of NBC Universal, a big television and film company, told an audience of TV executives that their biggest challenge was to ensure “that we do not end up trading analogue dollars for digital pennies”. He meant that audiences were moving online faster than advertisers, thus leaving media companies short-changed. Now, near the end of the year, the situation looks even worse, as the recession threatens to turn even the analogue dollars into pennies. Will this hasten the shift towards internet advertising, or will it decline too?
Advertising rises and falls with the economy, though how much is a matter of debate. Randall Rothenberg, the boss of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association for digital advertisers, points to the remarkable stability of advertising at about 2% of GDP since 1919, when the data began to be collected. This would suggest that ad budgets will move roughly in line with economic output
But Mary Meeker, an internet analyst at Morgan Stanley, believes that modern ad budgets rise and fall much more than GDP does. According to her estimates, if the economy stops growing, ad spending is likely to fall by 4%. If the economy shrinks by 2%, overall ad spending may fall by 10%. As for the online segment, recent history is cause for pessimism. Between 2000 and 2002, during the dotcom recession, online ad spending in America fell by 27%.
Yet the web has changed a lot since 2002. Back then, gaudy display “banners” on web portals such as Yahoo! and MSN were the preferred technology. These still exist, but they now account for less than 20% of online ad spending. More than half goes to search advertising on Google and rival search-engines, which place small text ads next to results based on the keyword of the query, and charge only when a user clicks on them. In brand advertising, “rich media” ads are taking over from banners. These allow users to interact by clicking, so their engagement can be tracked.
All this makes spending on advertising much less speculative, so that it starts to be treated instead as a cost of sales. This is one reason why online advertising should suffer less than other sorts. This week eMarketer, a market-research firm, predicted that online-advertising spending in America, which makes up about half the global total, will increase by 8.9% in 2009, rather than the 14.5% it had forecast in August. The firm thinks search advertising will grow by 14.9% and rich-media ads by 7.5%, whereas display ads will grow by 6.6%. In short, online advertising will continue to expand in the recession—just not as quickly as previously expected.
Another reason for optimism, says Mr Rothenberg, is that online advertising is making obsolete the old distinction between marketing spending “above the line” and “below” it. In the jargon, above-the-line spending drives brand “awareness” (probably on television) or “consideration” by a consumer planning a purchase (probably in a newspaper). Such spending is often slashed in recessions. Below-the-line spending includes promotions or coupons to whet the consumer’s “preference” for the brand as he nears a purchase, or schemes such as frequent- flyer miles to increase his “loyalty” afterwards. These budgets are more robust.
Online marketing increasingly aims for awareness, consideration, preference and loyalty all at once. Mr Rothenberg gives the example of a rich-media ad for Kraft, a food company, in which a yummy image raises brand awareness, a click reveals a recipe that increases consideration, another click provides coupons and yet another click initiates a game that can be shared with friends. Marketing managers can therefore defend their online budgets as being both above and below the line.
The industry is also cautiously excited about two new forms of online advertising. The first is video. So far nobody has found a way to advertise inside online clips on a large scale. YouTube, which Google bought for no less than $1.65 billion two years ago, is “a huge end-user success,” says Eric Schmidt, Google’s boss, “and we’re awaiting the monetisation.” This is his way of saying that YouTube, despite showing 5 billion video clips a month, has trivial ad revenues. The site is experimenting with text “overlays” inside clips and sponsored videos for specific search terms, but it is early days. “If only we could schedule the revolution,” jokes Larry Page, one of Google’s founders.
If something close to one is in fact near, it may not come from YouTube. Ads on Hulu, a video site that is a joint venture between Mr Zucker’s NBC Universal and News Corp, another media giant, appear to be selling well. Hulu is different from other video sites in that it only shows professionally produced videos, such as programmes and films from NBC, Fox, MGM and Warner Brothers. It runs a relatively small number of short, fun “pre-roll” ads. These incorporate some of the advantages of the web. Viewers can, for instance, vote on how good a particular ad was.
The lesson appears to be that the problem was not the format but the fact that so much of the footage online, especially on YouTube, is “user-generated”. Brands are wary of putting their ads next to amateur clips because they may be boring or offensive. This is less likely to be a problem with professional content. From a small base, says Mr Rothenberg, online-video ads grew from 1% to 3% of all interactive ads in America in the first half of the year.
The other hope is for ads on social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. They are experimenting with a variety of advertising formats, though none has yet proved very successful. Their big weakness is that users go to social-networking sites to socialise, not to shop (as they might on search engines). Their biggest strength is that users spend so much time there. Two years ago 11% of time spent online was at Yahoo! and MSN, two web portals; now their share is down to 5%, and 5% of online time is spent at YouTube and Facebook.
Online traffic, in other words, is moving towards sites where advertising has so far proved ineffective and is therefore cheap. This, says Ms Meeker, presents an opportunity for innovation and arbitrage by clever marketing managers as they cut their conventional ad budgets. It may also provide a glimmer of hope for the advertising industry as it enters recession.