How advertising and promotion is – or isn’t – changing

I often get into discussions about where advertising and promotion is heading in the engineering and scientific sectors. I think someone from ten years ago beaming forward to today would be surprised at where things are – not because of how much things have moved on, but because of how similar they still are.

In 1996, everyone was predicting that trade shows and exhibitions were about to die, overtaken by online technology replacing face-to-face meetings. The number of company cars still on the road demonstrates how wrong that was. Our visitor ten years later would have had second thoughts about that earlier prediction, and today, trade shows and exhibitions are doing OK for themselves. They’re a bit more austere than they once were, but let’s just call that efficiency.

I was so convinced in 1999 that the trade magazine sector was breathing its last that I left to work exclusively online. I was wrong: there’s life left in this old dog too, even if things ain’t what they used to be. What the magazine publishers understand only too well is that their customers are the advertisers, not the readers. Accordingly, in many cases editorial and circulation investment has been cut back to unthinkably low levels. But no matter how far this goes, it would seem the advertisers find it acceptable. Even a generation of marketing managers which has grown up with measurable results can’t quite bring themselves to cut the link with the mystique of print.

Online display advertising (what we once called ‘banner ads’) has evolved through greed to a point where it’s disappearing up its own backside. Many web publishers are happy to own websites where ads literally cover over the screen and can’t be dismissed. A recent innovation seems to have been a ‘close’ button on adverts which doesn’t actually work, but takes you through to the advertiser’s website, even though you didn’t want to go there. I guess that the advertisers either don’t know, or don’t care.

Social media advertising is a better bet, if you’re in the right market, as at least the ads are carefully formatted and the users of the service find them acceptable. However, this still offers little to us in specialist technical sectors.

Email marketing, after 20 years, is still criminally underexploited in business. Back in 2006, many of us would have realised this was going to be the case, but might have held out hope that it still might improve. If you or your predecessor had really started to build a really good email marketing list (and informative mailings to serve it) some ten or fifteen years ago, you’d barely need to do any other advertising now. It remains the lost opportunity.

And all this brings us to search marketing, which is the one thing which has grown as predicted and which is working just as strongly. Performing well in the natural search engine results (‘SEO’) still gets a serious lack of attention from businesses outside the consumer sector, but you’re only up against your competitors, and if they’re not trying any harder, maybe it doesn’t matter.

Then there’s search advertising, which isn’t really advertising at all, at least not in the conventional sense of it offering a huge degree of risk. Search advertising sells you the results, rather than the advertising platform, and is really just buying visitors to your website. There’s so little glamour involved that it’s almost surprising it’s become a US$80,000,000,000 a year business for Google alone. But once you’ve tried buying results rather than gambling on them, the concept becomes quite addictive.

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