A Report of the Working Group on Internet Advertising
September 28, 1994
With somewhere between 8 million and 20 million users (figures are decidedly imprecise), the international information highway known as the Internet is Madison Avenue’s dream: easy (and cheap!) access to a population that is literate (most information is in text form), moneyed (they have computers and the necessary communications accessories), intelligent (a large proportion are connected with universities or research centers), and willing to reveal interests and desires by joining “lists” and “newsgroups” that reflect passions from operating systems to social systems.
Yet the Internet, born out of a people-to-people effort that has its roots in barn raisings and volunteer fire departments, has traditionally been anti-commercial. Even answers to questions posed on lists like “fatfree” or in newsgroups like “alt.wedding” are often preceded or followed by messages that proclaim the respondent’s independence — commonly known as the “Standard Disclaimer.”
Several people have mentioned the Standard Disclaimer (.e.g., "I have no connection with this company whose products I am recommending") and described it as a cultural tradition, and as a way of escaping criticism for advertising. [From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Jon Schull) Date: Thu, 28 Oct 93 19:12:48 -0400]
Now, however, other forces are at work on the Internet, forces that do not come out of the volunteer tradition. They include:
>> Commercial services that provide Internet access to those not connected with higher education or research >> Businesses that provide commercial information via the Internet >> Those who are trying to sell products using this new way of gaining access to potential customers
Many Internet users are concerned about those new forces. Some have proposed banning advertising completely. Others have proposed limiting or controlling advertising. Still others argue that the free-speech rights that make possible much Internet discussion and activities are inimical to a prohibition on advertising.
The underlying feeling is one of discomfort. One commentator, slightly tongue-in-cheek, suggested we shorten “electronic advertising” to “e-vertising,” then shorten it again to “e-verts,”
"... which comes close to the way a lot of people feel about advertising, if you know how starfish eat." [From: Bob Rosenberg <email@example.com> Date: Sat 26 Mar 94 1:41:54-EST]
In the course of an on-line discussion of Internet advertising sponsored by the Coalition for Networked Information (from which all the quotes in this paper come), the consensus seems to be that some guidelines are important for Internet advertising, but that they should be guidelines only, and not requirements. Few were willing to take on the job of censor.
"...we all have to realize that we are in the dirty business of defining what acceptable free speech is on the Internet. While we are not necessarily going to ban certain forms of free speech, we are certainly looking to control it. So far the only criterion or definition of what we are going to control seems to be if it involves the crime of someone making money off of it. [From: Bob <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Thu, 28 Oct 93 01:47:37 -0400]
More important was the growing conviction among participants that advertising is as important an information source as many other electronic publications on the Internet, and that advertising serves the needs of Internetters as well as advertisers.
People want information about the products and services they buy; they want to make intelligent choices based on solid information. They want to know as much as they can about those products and services, and they want that information quickly and easily — and when they need it.
To achieve the goal of providing information, advertising itself must change. Today’s advertising tends not to be content rich. Its goal is to catch the attention of the potential customer and leave a simple message that can be translated into “buy me” when the time is appropriate. That is because most advertising is geared for mass media, where only a small portion of the audience is really interested in, or ready for, much information. The cost of delivering information in depth to people who may not want ANY information is too high in most mass media. As a result, campaigns like “Coke is It” become the standard. Where dense information is provided, it is most often unread — and advertisers realize that. For instance, the cautions, warnings, and considerations that accompany magazine and newspaper advertisements for pharmaceuticals are printed in the smallest possible type, and then only because federal law requires it. Pharmaceutical manufacturers know that only a tiny fraction of the people who notice their ads read that small type. If they did not HAVE to provide that information, the companies would not spend the money to put all that ink on paper.
Yet advertisers are delighted to deliver detailed information to the potential customer who seeks it. The person willing to call the 800 number or write for more information is a person thinking about buying, and businesses want to reach that person.
On the Internet, advertisers can provide “layers” of information, giving netters as much data as they can wade through on a product or service. That information is available immediately (unlike flyers for which people must write), and can be as current as the advertiser chooses to make it (unlike brochures that may be out of date by the time they are printed).
Moreover, the information can be offered in ways that allow netters to choose what to see, tailoring the material to their own needs and interests — much as an insurance salesman sitting with a prospect at the dining-room table might tell a young mother about disability insurance, and a retired professor about life insurance.
For both advertisers and Internetters, this emphasis on information controlled by the reader changes the nature of advertising. As Tim O’Reilly writes on GNN:
"...what information a customer retrieves is entirely under his or her control. We firmly believe that people on the Net are interested in solid, detailed information about commercial products. They don't want unsolicited advertising, but they do want to be able to retrieve information that they are looking for -- and that includes commercial information as well as free information. [http://nearnet.gnn.com/mkt/gnn/tim.letter.html]
For many years there was no debate about advertising on the Internet (or its predecessors). The Internet, originally supported almost entirely by federal funds, had rules about commercial participation that could be summed up in two words: Not Allowed.
However, public opinion changed. Those who object to advertising — although they are often more vocal than those who do not object — seem to have become a minority. As one participant said at a discussion of this paper, “I resent that I am not learning about things because some people hate advertising.”
In recent years, the nets that make up the Internet have expanded to include commercial cables and nets that are very comfortable selling access to businesses both for their own use and to reach individuals on the Internet. Many of those businesses now advertise. Some of the advertising is effective, some of that advertising engenders hostility and flames — manifesting the Internet’s unique role as a two-way communication highway. Advertisers rightly fear flaming, especially in a medium where the e-mail version of word of mouth can reach thousands at a flame.
So advertisers wisely are seeking the “right” way to advertise on the Internet — a question of efficacy, not of morality.
And participants in the CNI discussion were willing to help hammer out answers, to make advertising on this unique communications medium both as effective and as moral as possible. In general the conclusion most people reached was that advertising on the Internet has to satisfy two prime rules:
- Advertising should be passive, rather than active, allowing the Internetter to come to and unfold the message from the advertiser rather than having the advertiser foist a message on the Internetter.
- Advertising should be content rich, not hyperbole heavy, offering as much value in the words as in the product or service.
Madison Avenue has an opportunity to create a new form of advertising, one that is almost as good as sending a salesperson to each prospect’s house, to sit at the dining-room table and answer questions, give demonstrations, and make sure that this potential customer is sold.
That new form of advertising is being invented even as we write this, by those who are trying different forms of Internet advertising and identifying what works.
WHAT IS INTERNET ADVERTISING?
Internet advertising today falls into six categories, five acceptable and one definitely unacceptable:
- Endorsements — Recommendations from users or paid promoters
- Billboards — Postings on cognate lists or newsgroups
- Yellow Pages — Searchable data bases of information from advertisers
- Penny Shoppers — Product-focused electronic lists and e-mail subscriptions
- Newspapers — Advertising that underwrites editorial content
- Junk Mail — Direct (and unsolicited) to your mailbox