Have you ever rushed through an inner-city train station and felt a wad of paper thrust into your hand? If you look back through the scrum of late commuters, you will probably see someone jabbing leaflets at people as they race by. More often than not, these leaflets will encourage you to log on to the Internet and visit a particular Web site.
In a strange twist of irony, one of the oldest forms of advertising is being used to advertise one of the newest.
During the 1990s, the newness and glamour of Internet advertising attracted billions of dollars in venture capital. Banners went up, buttons went on, and spam went everywhere - but failed to produce the desired response. And as far as marketers were concerned, the Internet continued to lack the all-important element that streams out of busy CBD train stations on Monday mornings - people.
Better marketing required
If IDC figures are anything to go by, online marketing in Australia will continue to grow despite copping some flack from last year's dot-com nose dive. While predicting Australia'a online marketing expenditure to grow from $US56 million in 2000 to more than $US271 million by 2004, IDC's senior Internet and e-commerce analyst Lisa Shishido believes marketers have yet to crack the code to effective online marketing.
The advertising methods which were all the rage last millennium are now passé and barely producing a response. With click-through rates dropping below half a per cent, passive marketing methods such as advertising banners and buttons are gradually being replaced by more proactive techniques.
Joe Sweeney, research director at IT analyst group Gartner, believes the key to this new style of Internet marketing lies in memetics (see box, page 24). "We live in an info-dense world, and people are smart enough to see when they are being sold to," he says. "Marketing managers have to shorten their messages and make them easy to consume and communicate."
If you have ever received the e-mail which portrays a fisherman and a bear coming to fisticuffs over a salmon, sniggered and sent it on to a list of friends, you will know what he means.
But while viral e-mails and guerrilla marketing tactics are becoming popular in Cyberspace, Sweeney cautions those likely to jump on the bandwagon. "Guerrilla campaigns have to be fun and simple - they need to produce some kind of emotional response or people will just hit delete," he says. "Essentially they are memes, and to be passed on they have to be short and they have to strike a chord."
Byron Gray of e-business development company Graycorp is concerned that guerrilla campaigns are in serious danger of becoming spam-like and causing problems for network administrators. "Guerrilla marketing is popular at the moment, but it will end up as tomorrow's spam," he says. "People don't have time to open these things, and we are getting to the point where companies simply won't let them because they clog up the network."
Traditional marketing rules
According to Gray, the key to online marketing lies in adapting traditional methods and strategies to the Internet as a medium. "You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Success in online marketing is all about doing the research on where your target market is and what sites they are visiting to achieve the best response," Gray says.
Yahoo sales manager Craig Galvin agrees, and believes online marketing is becoming more competitive as online marketers take over from the techies. "The approach to online marketing has changed over the last 12 months," he says. "People have started to understand more of the capabilities and limitations of the Internet. Online marketing is becoming more competitive now that the marketing is increasingly done by marketers who understand how to define brand attributes, design a marketing strategy and target a particular audience."
Rather than adopting more intrusive forms of advertising such as pop-up screens and spam mail, Yahoo has taken care to assure its users have a positive experience while logged on to the search engine.
Similarly, Justin Milne, managing director of Sydney-based ISP OzEmail is particularly conscious of the nature and extent of advertising and marketing on the company's Web sites. "Our key differentiator is the services we provide," he says. "We are the gateway to the Internet for thousands of Australians - marketing is an aside.
"We have to maintain the quality of our service or we will loose our edge in the market. We are first and foremost an ISP; we provide online content and there is an advertising component to that online content," says Milne.
Both Milne and Galvin realise that the key differentiator between their sites, and the millions of others floating through the ether, is their audience. Yahoo and OzEmail are the North Sydney and Roma Street stations of Australia's online map.
Deeper within the trenches, Jeremy Emms, digital opportunities director for the Sausage Group's online marketing spinoff Method + Madness, is thinking about traffic and consolidation. "We are going through a period of heavy consolidation on the client side. There is less money to spend, and fewer companies that believe in the wonder of the Internet," he says.
Emms believes the market is maturing, and companies are becoming more savvy about the costs associated with an online presence. But these companies still expect too much from online advertising. "It is partially the fault of the Internet marketing industry itself," he says. "Twelve months ago there were companies that blew their entire advertising budget on an Internet-based campaign; now they are more sensible. You need some offline activity as well. We are spending a lot more time on integrated awareness campaigns."
According to Emms, the role of the online marketer has become more focused around issues of logistics. The increasing tendency to integrate online marketing with other forms of media has led to the specialisation of online marketers. "The success stories of online marketing are those that realise the Internet is just another channel, and approach it in terms of what it can do," Emms says.
New ideas a necessity
For most, the crux of the problem of Internet marketing lies in how to attract people to a site - and keep them coming back for more.
To stay ahead of the pack, Gartner's Sweeney suggests online marketers pay more attention to the online adult industry. "The adult entertainment industry built the Internet as a commercial tool, they pioneered many of the business models the dot-coms are using today," he says. "At the moment they are perfecting referral techniques that haven't even surfaced in the wider industry."
Sweeney believes it beneficial to visit adult Web pages, searching for the latest online marketing techniques - and providing ardent marketers with an excuse to trawl through countless porn Net sites during work hours. Nonetheless, he is adamant that online marketing is mostly hard work.
"You have to be ahead all the time. If you find an idea that works, you can only do it once because your competitors will be using it within a quarter. You have to stay fresh," Sweeney says.
This is a point lost on the train station leafleteers. They will be there again tomorrow morning - but so will a lot of the same Web sites. Some things don't change, even in Cyberspace.
Blame the memes
The next time you send around a non-work-related e-mail and wonder how much attention the network guys are paying to your e-mail traffic, spare a thought for memetics.
Memetics is the study of the process of generation and regeneration of ideas, traditions and behaviours through human society. The term meme (rhymes with "beam") can be traced back to biologist and science personality Richard Dawkins and his still-controversial 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.
Memeticists argue that memes, like genes, are stored in human brains and passed on through observation and imitation. Like genes, memes contain a self-replicating element. The fittest are passed on from generation to generation, whereas others fall into disuse, or never catch on in the first place.
Whereas genes affect our physical and psychological make up, memes act upon our beliefs and behaviours. Genes play a major role in determining the characteristics which make us individuals, while memes play a similar role in the make-up of our culture and society.
According to Dawkins, memes run the gamut of cultural idiosyncrasies and include tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, art, architecture and even religion. So viral e-mails and Internet-based guerrilla marketing are designed to harness the power of memetic transfer.
In fact, society as we know it may depend on the memetic material contained in those pipe-clogging marketing MPEGs that our network administrators love to hate.
It's a long shot, but it's a better excuse than most for taking a much-maligned cyber-smoko. Why make a poor excuse when you can make an informed excuse? Read up on memes at www.memes.org.uk.
Photograph: Jeanne-Vida Douglas