In Advertising Now Online, Jan Leth of Ogilvy Interactive describes the value of the online space as the ability to create "opportunities for dialogue rather than a broadcast model".

Interactive advertising is exactly what it says: a two-way street. Unlike older media, the web allows for instant response; a user can input information and influence a result, and a system can output real-time, context-relevant content. As Leth says: "The sensibility has changed the end result from a monologue to a dialogue. There is a clear sense of a value exchange. Give me something of value, whether it's entertainment, information or utility, and I'll pay attention."

However, that doesn't rule out the offline world playing a part. For instance, www.mint.com, an online money-managing application, enables you oversee your account through SMS.

Continuous media

Cashdollar views all media as continuations of the same experience, not separate efforts. "Users are almost never actually detached from an opportunity to follow up a TV spot, billboard or magazine ad. Marketing folks must be where their users are: no-brainer, but what they need to realise is that the intended web-based destinations must match the user device.

"Windows Mobile, iPhone, WAP – the campaign or website must work and pay off appropriately without a glitch. Nothing can deter a user's confidence quicker than a broken experience." Still, to advertise an online product, offline advertising could – and sometimes should – be completely non-technical and more about personal connection.

Liz Danzico, the chair for the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, shares a valuable offline experience. "About six years ago, when Fresh Direct was new and still expanding, they sent fruit-, vegetable-, and meat-costumed individuals into neighbourhoods they weren't yet delivering to. They stationed these representatives at subway entries, and took zip codes and email addresses of locals who were interested in using their service. Not only was Fresh Direct already developing a notable reputation among my trusted network using the service, but they were creating deeper respect by making the trip – offline – to my own neighbourhood. Months later, when they started offering delivery service to my neighbourhood, I received a friendly email (with a coupon), and placed an order immediately."

Building relationships

That interchange is the nucleus of social networking. Entrepreneur Alex Hillman sees it as "a two-way megaphone. If all you're doing is using them to broadcast, you're missing out on at least half of the fun. Pumping your RSS feed into every social site you can find might bring you a few more eyeballs, but the odds of them 'sticking' is low. Instead, use social networks to listen and to interact. Be a real human being instead of a node of a network. People don't identify with a post on a blog they clicked on randomly, but they will remember an experience where you (or one of your fans) pointed them to a post personally when it helped them learn something."

User experience designer Whitney Hess takes it a step further. "Social networking isn't a marketing tool. Word of mouth is, and that's naturally what happens on social sites. When someone I trust on Twitter mentions a site and says to check it out, I won't hesitate to go there."

People can smell advertising from a mile away. Try to sell them something and you've already lost the battle, but make a friend and you've instantly created a user base.

Relevance

When does advertising not look like advertising? When it's relevant. By now, users can effortlessly block pop-up windows and ignore banner ads. Advertising is now more challenging because buying random ad space is worthless. However, a passive and applicable ad works wonders. It easily overcomes the mental barrier that's traditionally associated with online ad space.

Coudal Partners runs a service called The Deck. Each month, a series of subtle ads are featured on a list of partner sites. These sites address a very targeted audience that is in line with that of the advertisers. The benefits are mutual: advertisers reach an audience that may very well need or want their services, and viewers see products that have a good chance of being useful. If you're a product or service provider, do the research to get in front of users who will actually care about what you're offering.

The second half of that research is really finding out what your users are looking for. Analyse site statistics: packages like Mint or Google Analytics offer easy access to site data.

Look at which parts of the site cause people to stay the longest. See which search terms are the most frequent. That will give you a great overview of the strengths of your service or content as well as its gaps.

The direct approach also works. If you want to know something, ask for it. Constantly solicit feedback from users. Services like Get Satisfaction exist to empower customers. Don't know if a buggy feature is worth fixing? Send a quick email to your beta testers. Not sure what to write that next blog post about? Ask your readers what they'd rather have you write about. People love having a voice that can enact change. By giving that to them, you earn their trust because you trusted them first.

Foster a community (or don't)

Over the last few years, the idea of an online community has really blossomed. Recent community-driven websites such as Wikipedia and Digg have validated the power of an active online community, and its ability to promote relevance instead of deterring it.

Andrew Sullivan is a well-known political blogger who writes a column for The Atlantic. His column typically does not allow commentary, but one day, Sullivan posed an open question to his readership: should comments be enabled? Surprisingly, 60 per cent were against the idea. One noted, "Readers of your blog could opt to not read the comments section, but in truth we would rarely opt not to read them – on your blog or any other blog. Blog comments have the power to hammerlock one's attention. I think, humans being highway rubberneckers, we'd be impotent to resist looking over the rantings and counter-rantings that would make their way into your Comments Section".

Comments can be either a Pandora's box or a treasure chest. The fine balance between the two rests in the relationship between you and your users. Tread softly, and remember to hold the ideal of open communication in the highest regards.

That human touch

In his article Understanding Web Design, Jeffrey Zeldman describes web design as "the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity." Clean code and a beautiful design are important components of a successful site. Getting in front of the right users and offering them something useful gets you on the right track. But humanity is the hook, the true holy grail of attracting visitors. Strive to make personal connections. Take your users on an adventure, show them the time of their life, and you'll have done all you need.

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First published in .net, Issue 186

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