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Online marketing in the mix

Upon pondering a topic for what would finally be my first and long overdue post on Thought Leader, I began wondering just why all the talk is around Facebook, YouTube, blogging and various other forms of social media. Has this discussion not been the core focus for months now? It is certainly the longest-running topic I’ve yet encountered in my 10 years of being involved in online marketing.

So why exactly is this topic so fascinating? Why is the chatter ongoing? For me, as an online marketing specialist, it is the insatiable quest for answers; the magical formula that will yield the best possible returns for our clients. Consumer-generated media is exciting stuff indeed. It’s what we all, as consumers, want — the freedom to choose, the freedom to decide what marketing to take note of and who we are willing to allow to communicate with us. There is certainly no other medium that can harness and satisfy this phenomenal shift in mindset as instantly and rapidly, or on such a considerable scale, as the web.

Nowhere else, however, has this been more challenging than in today’s South African online climate. “On the cusp of something exciting” really is no exaggeration. But have we figured out how to make it work for marketers yet?

Casting my mind back to my first introduction into online marketing in the mid-Nineties, the pickings were slim. Much like traditional media, one merely sought out web sites whose audience demographics matched those of the advertiser’s target market. Back then, even demographic information was hard to come by, and placing a simple animated banner ad was mostly based on gut feel.

It’s hard to imagine that most websites back then had no idea who their audience was. I distinctly recall being challenged at an online marketing seminar in the early 2000s by a gentleman who was considered pretty high profile in those days, when I asked why websites didn’t provide information regarding their audiences. “Why on earth would you want to know that?” was the response. Thankfully, times have changed.

The year 2003 saw the introduction of the Online Publishers Association. Nielsen//Netratings, which tracks OPA member sites’ online readership soon followed. While page impressions were once considered the holy grail and benchmarked websites against each other, it’s slowly being realised that unique users provide a far better indication of reach. Can you imagine print reporting on the magazine with the most pages being the best? Scary thought, but this did happen in the online space, for a very long time.

From a publishing perspective, the South African web landscape is finally evolving. We’ve seen the introduction of social media on just about all the major players’ sites. Mobile is fast creeping into the space, and even smaller players have come up with some really exciting ideas.

Online banners have made way for interactive creative master pieces; the technology too has evolved, allowing geographic targeting to South Africans on any global website, and we can track return on investment with such precision. So, as an industry, I’m sure you will agree we’ve come a long way and fairing pretty well.

But what of the marketers?

Ten years down the line, I still hear online marketers (and, sadly, media owners in many instances) using click-through rates as a form of success measurement. It’s been about 18 months since I last wrote on this topic (and even then it was long overdue) yet I still find myself debating this on a daily basis. With all the ways to track return on investment of an online marketing campaign, why is it that marketers are so far behind?

I recently realised just how difficult it is to average out the level of understanding of online marketing in South Africa when I was asked to compile an Online Marketers’ Guide on behalf of the OPA. On the one hand, there are marketers really harnessing the space and making it work for them. On the other hand, are the marketers who are still stuck on click-through rates, having no idea what return they are getting. Or worse, still in the “we should be on the internet” phase. Trying to find the middle ground was no easy feat. This challenge is ongoing.

The point of all this is that we as South Africans are innovators and leaders in so many ways. As publishers, some really exciting stuff is emerging online. As consumers, we are diving in head first. We are the sixth-largest community on Facebook, have more than 25 000 local blogs to choose from, and have recently seen some of the most incredible minds creeping out of the woodwork with the advent of social media.

Where, then, is the online ad spend? We all agree the opportunities are exciting and endless. Why are marketers not jumping on to the bandwagon at the same rate that the progression is happening? What are we, as an industry doing to educate marketers? Why is online ad spend less than 1% of total ad spend in South Africa?

How can we, as representatives of the online industry, make the space viable for marketers? Marketers, what do you need? Publishers, what are you doing to introduce innovative marketing opportunities?