Filling the Marketing Void

“The more important the subject and the closer it cuts to the bone of our hopes and needs, the more we are likely to err in establishing a framework for analysis.” — Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Everybody is bemoaning the death of the banner. We all have read about it, and if you are a marketer, chances are you have experienced the march into the abyss.

We certainly did when we participated (suffered?) through 16 high-profile video marketing campaigns that increased our vocabulary relating to the term “futility.” Failure cuts extremely close to the bone, indeed.

We went through all of the normal stages of analysis: Were our horrid results the product of a wayward creative approach? Did our site require an engineering degree or the touch of a pre-pubescent surfer to place an order? Were the products we sold only interesting to an offline mentality? Or maybe the Internet was more hype than reality?

We almost trashed our mouses ( or is it mice?). Then we stumbled upon one daily newsletter that mailed, of all things, jokes. We placed a 50-word text ad selling an exercise video sandwiched in between a Monica Lewinsky joke and another chuckle concerning life after prostate surgery. What transpired is the stuff of dreams. Orders rolled in and we had a 500 percent return on our investment in 24 hours.

One little ad quickly became 15 ads in different daily newsletters. We found an answer to our landlord’s prayers.

Now the dilemma began. Should we keep the effectiveness we had stumbled upon a secret? If we let the cat out of the bag, media rates would no doubt escalate, as countless well-healed marketers would rush in and discover this Internet medium that actually delivered. Millions of email ad impressions later, we decided that any strategy that depended on the ignorance of others would ultimately fail.

We huddled in a marathon strategic session to plot how we could maintain an edge. We knew there was a marketing void, created by the declining effectiveness of the major ad medium on the Internet, namely banners. The result of that marathon session led to the creation of PENN, the Pulse E-Mail Newsletter Network.

We decided to create a business designed to “fill” the marketing void and utilize the knowledge we had “stumbled” upon. In other words, we would not even try to keep it a secret. In fact, we would soon begin to shout at the top of our virtual lungs by touting an ad network consisting of subscribers to various opt-in email newsletters.

Could we actually create a new network? We had purchased media for all our adult business lives and now, after one marathon management session, decided to cross over to the other side of the table and sell media? We devoted our lives to grinding media owners just to the point where they would curse our very existence. (Mind you, this management session was conducted without the benefit of spirits or mind-altering chemicals.)

But the void kept beckoning. A void is like a vacuum. The larger the void, the stronger the pull, the more intense the need for filling. So PENN took shape.

Within 45 days, we had recruited all of the newsletters with whom we had previously advertised. Within 90 days, we had 2 million subscribers under contract representing publications that delivered content like daily brain-teasers, quotes, jokes, and more. Every single day, these opt-in subscribers receive content they had requested with 50-word text ads dutifully sandwiched in between the content.

Having built a burgeoning network of 2 million eyeballs was not enough. First, in the aftermath of “Clintonspeak,” we had to clarify that these 2 million eyeballs were in reality 4 million literal eyeballs, because we were not marketing to a collection of one-eyed cyclopses. This illustrates in a not-too comical way that the language of ad sales is a bit different than the language used in purchasing it.

So we began to sell advertising. And we spoke with many august readers of this fine publication as well. You know what we found out?

This: “The more important the subject and the closer it cuts to the bone of our hopes and needs, the more we are likely to err in establishing a framework for analysis.”

Professor Gould’s proclamation proved insightful once again. We all hope for and need “traditional” banner advertising to work. This need has obscured the ability to develop a critical framework for analyzing its effectiveness beyond CTR, and for direct marketing people, order conversions.

Can an email newsletter network fill a void? The answer is no, but to mix a metaphor, it can make a dent. We only need to reexamine our hopes and fears.

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