Wednesday, April 17, 2013

There's A Word For 'Buying Traffic': It's Called Advertising

I’m writing this in the air, on my way back to New York from Ad:Tech in San Francisco, and I’m feeling…  I don’t know.  Confused? Frustrated? It’s hard to find the right adjective. Throughout the ongoing procession of meetings and conversations, both preplanned and impromptu, there seemed to be one theme, never actually mentioned outright, but rather subtly alluded to.
Apparently, when it comes to online media companies, the negative connotation associated with “buying traffic” has broadened to include visitors reached through paid advertising on tier-one outlets, including Google, Bing, Facebook and others.

“Organic” traffic, on the other hand, is the Holy Grail of online visitor acquisition, as it’s always been. After all, what could be better than traffic that comes to a site directly or finds their way there though clicking a link as the result of a natural search?  And that makes sense.  But why the sudden vinegar for traffic driven through paid advertising?  The term “buying traffic” has become too broad: lumping Google AdWords in with more sketchy practices like pop-unders and redirects isn’t just inane, it’s irresponsible.

Let’s break it down to a few key points:
Online video networks have a particularly difficult time with SEO.  In some cases, the variety of content may be too broad, and even for sites that are focused on specific categories, it can be quite a bit of work to get search engines to recognize video content properly.  So natural search is unlikely to yield the best results for audiences trying to find keyword-based content. 

  1. If marketers and ad exchanges as a whole suddenly decided only to monetize media sites (specifically video-based sites) that just entertained purely organic traffic, and had a large enough audience to be deemed an interesting advertising outlet, there wouldn’t be nearly enough sites on the market to handle the demand.  My guess is that we can count on two hands the number of sites that focus on video, have over two million unique visitors per month, and don’t spend a penny on PPC advertising.
  2. The fact is, “buying traffic” through tier-one sources is simply advertising.  It’s promoting a brand through paid media, and the only difference from TV, radio and roadside billboards is that the interaction is immediate via a click-thru, the very metric that all online advertisers (mistakenly) covet.  Isn’t Pepsi paying for consumers when it runs a TV commercial?  Isn’t Nike’s purpose for sponsoring an athlete ultimately to get people to buy sneakers?
  3. How would organic be measured for, say, a retail store – someone just walking in without having seen an ad for the store first?  What about the sign above the store that may have caught the shopper’s attention?  That costs money, too, and was installed for the purpose of driving traffic. Some might argue that these examples are of brands looking to sell actual products – they’re not advertising for the purpose of attracting viewers to sell even higher valued advertising to.  But that’s exactly what TV networks do – advertise their shows to get viewers to showcase more ads to, and nobody questions the practice.  The New York Times runs commercials to sell paper subscriptions, ultimately to boost sales and increase their value to whom?  Other advertisers. 
The online media world is a skittish to place, to be sure.  In some ways, it’s still the Wild West, with no clear, perfect means of measurement and ongoing difficulty determining value.  That can make marketers unsure of where to place their ads and spend their budgets.  Understood.  But by now, the growth in demand for online video among consumers is beyond question, and the number of quality video-based sites is on the rise.  Why begrudge them any legitimate efforts to promote their brands and attract an audience, simply because those efforts aren’t strictly social, viral or organic?  Online advertising to build viewership benefits everyone, and shouldn’t be demonized.

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