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The invention of the World Wide Web created a new way to reach out to people—and for business to reach its customers. The World Wide Web is a communications network; as such, it is a natural venue for communicating advertising messages. Early on people needed computer know-how and command of communications protocols to use the Web. In the mid-1990s this began to change rapidly.
In the early 1990s came the first graphical browser. With that and the later spread of high-speed connections to the network, the World Wide Web, the Internet, became an powerful economic engine. The volatility associated with the early days of Internet growth has settled a bit; but fifteen years later it is still a enormous economic and cultural force; it is changing the ways in which we work and communicate.
Advertising on the Internet, online advertising, has seen many ups and downs. Exactly how best to use the Internet as an advertising medium is still a subject of debate. What is certain is that more and more people are using the Internet more and more regularly. The Internet has "the eyeballs." Advertising is about the eyeballs.
Small businesses may have a unique opportunity for advertising success on the Internet. There are many ways to do so. The sophistication of online advertising campaigns has grown with the proliferation of techniques, from banner ads and pop-ups to direct e-mail and paid search terms. The key to a successful campaign is getting the proper mix of techniques.
To get started involves an initial investment. It is the cost of building an online presence, a web page or web site. This is necessary because most Internet advertising involves bringing users to a web site, "generating traffic." The web site itself may consist primarily of a simple presentation of information about a company, its products and services. The site may also be a more interactive display with e-commerce capabilities allowing a visitor to read about and see pictures of products, to place an order or even to purchase and pay for items online. An e-commerce capable site is often referred to as a cyberstore. The cost of building a web site will depend on the complexity of the resulting web site.
The first questions to ask when deciding on the best way to advertise on the web are the same questions one would pose in launching an ad campaign.
Once these questions are answered, planning and designing a web site and online advertising campaign can begin.
Internet users usually navigate the web by starting their session at one of the Internet's search engines: AltaVista, AOLsearch, Dogpile, Excite, Google, HotPot, Lycos, MSN, and Yahoo—, to name but a few. The goal of an advertiser is to capture those users who may be interested in his or her product or service.
Google was one of the first search engines to offer advertisers the opportunity to do just that. Today, many search engine businesses offer this opportunity by selling terms. The practice is called paid search terms, or pay-per-click search-engine advertising, or, in the case of Google, AdWords. By purchasing a term through a search engine, you purchase the right to have a hypertext link appear on the result page of any search phrase that included the term you purchase. For example, a user types the words "air filtration system" into a search engine. The company that has purchased the term "air filtration system" from the search engine will appear on the list of results for that search and the user will have the opportunity to link directly to the advertising company's web site. The advertising air filtering company only pays if and when the user actually clicks through to its web site. This is called pay-per-click.
The use of paid search terms is the fastest growing method of online advertising; it represents 40% of the approximately $12 billion spend on online advertising in the U.S. in 2005. It's also the most potentially powerful online advertising tools for the small business, according to Seth Stevenson in his article entitled "Words That Sell." This is particularly true for companies dealing with specialized items. "Do a search for 'sling-back shoes,' for example, and you will find small e-commerce sites competing head-to-head with major retail chains" explains Stevenson. This form of advertising helps to level the playing field.
Paid search terms are an evolving advertising model. With popularity, the cost for terms will increase since they are sold in an auction format. Nonetheless, a carefully tailored advertising plan can maximize the traffic generated from the purchase of just a few words. And, if nobody clicks through to your site, you pay nothing.
Before the advent of paid search terms, search engine optimization (SEO) was the primary means of capturing the attention of web users as they began an Internet session with a search engine query. It is still a useful method for gaining exposure.
Through the use of SEO, companies can use a combination of HTML design elements (meta tags, links to and from other sites), text and keywords to ensure that their web sites are picked up by the search engines and appear high on a search results page. If done properly, this can increase traffic to the company's web site without paying a pay-per-click fee. However, implementing a successful SEO plan takes a great deal of expertise. That must be acquired or purchased; either way a cost is involved.
Banner advertisements are graphic advertisements that appear on a web site and are intended to build brand awareness or generate traffic for the advertiser's web site. Banner ads were once the leading form of advertising online. They are still an important advertising method, representing 20% of the market in 2004.
Often banners are part of a "link exchange," or cooperative advertising arrangement, in which two businesses with complimentary products and services advertise each other on their respective sites in order to reach a large segment of a given market. However, some Web advertising agencies claim that few people access web pages through banners; these agencies are now trying new motion and graphic technologies to make the banners more inviting. Some experts suggest that businesses consider advertising banners as just one part of an online marketing mix.
Sending advertisements by e-mail is another method of using the Internet as an advertising vehicle. The use of mass direct e-mail, in which businesses send unsolicited mail messages to a list of e-mail accounts, has fallen out of favor and in many cases breaks new laws designed to crack down on spamming.
An online newsletter sent out by e-mail is a more sophisticated way in which to reach actual and potential customers. An increasing numbers of businesses have supplemented their general customer satisfaction surveys with queries concerning customers' feelings about being put on a direct mailing list. Online surveys are also a way to build up an e-mail address mailing list that can be used to send out company information relatively inexpensively. When this is well done, the newsletter or promotional piece will include hypertext links to the company's web page and will encourage the reader to pass the newsletter on to other interested parties.
In addition to the online advertising methods listed here, there are many others. Companies use referral services through which link exchanges are managed. Some companies sponsor web sites for other groups in exchange for links to their own web site. Some publication sites sell classified advertisement space, much as it is done on more traditional print advertising. The list of options is lengthy and the field of online advertising is still quite dynamic.
The key to success is to build a web site that will serve your clients and customers well. This is not always an easy to achieve but essential to the success of any online ad campaign. Once the site is built, the task becomes generating traffic to that site. The methods described above are some of the more successful methods developed for that purpose, so far.
SEE ALSO Advertising Strategy
Bruner, Rick E. The Decade in Online Advertising, 1994–2004. DoubleClick, April 2005.
Fass, Allison. "Banner Ads Still Dominate." New York Times. August 15, 2000.
Lazaroff, Leon. "Internet Advertising, Markets rely less on 30-second spots as they press full-speed into online ads." Chicago Tribune. December 4, 2005.
Stafford, Marla R. and Ronald J. Faber. Advertising, Promotion, and New Media. M.E. Sharpe, October 2004.
Stevenson, Seth. "Words That Sell." Fortune Small Business. June 2005.
Streitfeld, David. "Ads Fail to Click with Online Users." International Herald Tribune. October 31, 2000.
"Time to Set a Standard." Marketing. November 16, 2000.
Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI