April 19, 2010

Special Pleading For The Web

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets started on the proof.” John Kenneth Galbraith*
Humans are funny. We are very reluctant to change our minds.

When facts don't match our beliefs we rarely change our beliefs. Instead, we re-arrange the facts.

We have all decided that the web is an awesome advertising tool. It has become an article of faith. We have conferences about it every week. We lecture our clients about it at every opportunity.

And yet, there is growing evidence that the web has thus far been a pretty weak advertising medium. Click rates on banner ads are an abysmal 2 per thousand; 99% of all video is still watched on an old-fashioned television; social media is all the rage, but where's the beef?

I recently challenged readers to come up with 10 major non-web brands that have been built primarily through web advertising. No one has yet come up with even one.

So how do we reconcile our faith in web advertising with the facts on the ground? We do exactly what Galbraith said we would do. We look for a way around the facts.

When faced with the reality of the weakness of web advertising, we retreat to one of two arguments.

Argument #1: "We just don't understand how to use the web properly yet..."

This argument has been made for over ten years. We're always just about to understand how to use the web as an effective advertising medium; we're always just now developing the technology to use the web more efficiently. The answer is always in sight but just out of reach. As I am (overly) fond of saying, web advertising is like communism. It's always going to be great someday. It's just never very good right now.

Argument #2: "The web is different. It's not about selling. It's about _____"

This is a common, and very tedious, argument. It is rooted in the assertion that the old idea of advertising is obsolete -- that advertising is no longer about selling or persuasion. Nobody makes this argument for any form of advertising other than the web. Nobody claims that radio advertising isn't about persuasion or selling. Nobody claims that newspaper ads aren't about persuasion or selling. But when it comes to the web, there is a different set of criteria.

If you listen to the discussion of my post The Failure of Web Advertising on the BeanCast, or read the comments from that post, you will hear these two arguments invoked in various ways.

Why does web advertising need special pleading? Why don't we apply the same standards to it that we do to other forms of advertising?

Simple. We are reluctant to change our minds.

Long ago we decided that the web would be great for advertising. Now we have to reverse engineer a rationale for that belief.

The web is massively popular and we are all spending more and more time with it. Web advertising ought to be highly effective. It ought to be a great advertising medium. But thus far it hasn't been.

Since we have too much invested in our belief to change our minds, our only recourse -- as Galbraith predicted -- is to resort to special pleading.

*Thanks to Vic at Sell!Sell! for reminding me of this quote.

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