I’ve been asked on a number of occasions to define how industrial or business-to-business advertising has changed over the past few years. Thinking about it, I guess I’ve worked in each of its three big incarnations, so it ought to be clear. First there was the trade magazine, which held sway for 40 years or so, without much development past the increasing use of colour. Then there was, briefly, a challenge from online display advertising, although the limited “banner” formats this has been able to offer meant that it has never taken over, despite the advantage of its flexibility. Initially at least, one impact was to fragment the advertising market and give marketing managers too many options. Finally, more recently, we’ve seen the arrival of the more functional but highly effective search advertising, which really has offered something new, and which has begun to dominate spending at many companies.
But the major change here, I think, is in the nature of the medium. Magazines and websites carrying third-party advertisements do so reluctantly. They don’t want their readers to find the adverts more interesting and go away to investigate. The adverts are forever second-class citizens, usually barred from looking like anything which might be confused with the precious “editorial content” of the magazine or website. Pay for the party, by all means, but go and stand quietly in the corner. We certainly don’t want our guests to find you more interesting than us and leave when you do.
Search advertising is quite different. The whole idea of a search engine like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu or Yandex is to get people on and off their site at high speed – with any luck to the right destination first time. If they can earn money providing that link, so much the better. When the site user chooses an advertising link (and for some searches, there’s very little else available at first glance), then everyone wins: the user, the advertiser and the search engine. This, I think, is the biggest difference between search engine advertising and what’s gone before it. For the first time, publisher and advertiser are truly on the same side.