NEW YORK In today's fragmented, opt-in media world, Web users have developed specific sensitivities to advertising on the Internet—so much so that the same technology applied in different ways can represent both the most- and least-trusted forms of outreach. That's just one of the findings of a new study from Interpublic Group's Universal McCann to be released this week.
The study examines consumption of online media by "heavy" Internet users, defined as those who had accessed the Web at least 11 times in the previous seven days. The agency estimates that close to 100 million people, or about one-third of the country's population, now fit that description.
On the plus side, several kinds of ads were deemed "acceptable" by a majority of the respondents. Site sponsorships, banners, buttons and Google-sponsored search links were viewed favorably by more than 80 percent of those polled. But put those same banners, buttons and links in an e-mail and push them to consumers and the level of acceptance drops sharply, with just 48 percent of those polled in the survey viewing that form of marketing in a favorable light.
Not surprisingly, more subversive and invasive marketing techniques are viewed with disdain. Pop-ups are the least liked of all online forms of advertising, with only 12 percent of those surveyed saying they were acceptable. About 40 percent of respondents said they were "bothered" by seeded blogs (i.e., bloggers paid to endorse a product) while only 10 percent felt that corporate messages on blogs "can add value to my experience."
And despite all the lip service paid to the online medium by marketers, the study also concludes that more effective messaging techniques need to be developed for these platforms or marketers risk wasting the best opportunity they have to engage consumers.
Crafting such messages is the tricky part, said David Cohen, UM's U.S. director of digital communications. In the online world, he said: "Word of mouth and respected points of view mean a lot. The question is how to put advertising into that environment, because consumers have fairly sophisticated radar and don't want to be inundated with traditional forms of advertising."
That's particularly true of blogging, a platform that's quickly become a household term. The study reports that 71 percent of frequent Internet users between the ages of 16 and 34 have participated in "blogging activity." But blogs have also caught on with people ages 35 to 49: More than half of them (54 percent) also report engaging in blogging activity. A year ago, Cohen suspects, many of the bloggers in the older age category "probably would not have known what a blog was."
Among the findings that surprised him, Cohen said, was the extent to which Internet users simultaneously engage other media. "I'm not sure we knew just how prevalent it is," he said, noting that 54 percent of respondents reported "typically" watching TV while online. Forty-seven percent said they listen to music from a non-radio source while using the Internet, and 41 percent said they listen to the radio. Only 15 percent said they go online without participating in any other activity.
Those findings reinforce the industry's move "beyond the world of just reaching the consumer to really trying to engage them," said Cohen. All the multitasking, he said, presents the challenge of figuring out which media the user is most focused on and likely to respond to commercial messages.
Another surprise: Price-comparison sites are the second most-utilized online technology today, used by 40 percent of respondents. Comparison shopping was sandwiched between instant messaging and social networking as the first and third most-utilized Web applications, respectively. Commercial activity on the Internet "is still a burgeoning industry," said Cohen, representing myriad opportunities for marketers.
While podcasting has commanded a lot of press attention over the past year, the application is utilized by only 13 percent of heavy Internet users, according to the study. Cohen attributed that to the fact that podcasts take slightly more technological know-how than other Internet applications. It is, however, No. 2 on the list of platforms that Web users say they intend to use, behind Internet protocol TV.
In many ways, said Cohen, the Web is still a frontier for marketing applications. "This area makes marketers nervous because it's often unmoderated, unfettered and organic," he said. "But the challenge is to harness all the activity that's going on there. It's an area we have to play in whether we like it or not."
The study, conducted online in April with Insight Express, surveyed 1,000 frequent Internet users between the ages of 16 and 49.