A misguided comparison: SEM vs. Rich Media Ads

Rich Media Is Rising Star of Online Ad: “A new report from eMarketer predicts that rich media will overtake search to become the dominant form of Web advertising by the end of the decade. ”

Ugh. Appearantly, those in our industry are still struggling to understand what SEM is… and isn’t.

So, here’s an (incomplete, but useful) framework for thinking about advertising and its future.

1) Platform

2) Mechanism

3) Format

The platform is where the advertisement is placed. Broad platforms include “electronic” and “print” (etc, etc). These can be refined to a fairly granular level, e.g., “print” could be divided into newspapers, magazines, directories, etc.

The mechanism is the means by which the ad is targeted for display to a given user. Examples of mechanisms include “placed” (everyone sees it), “intent based” (i.e., search), “contextual”, etc.

The format describes the nature of the creative unit. Examples of format include “text listing”, “banner”, “rich media”, etc.

The mistake, then, that eMarketer is making (IMO) is in confusing the mechanism of Search Engine Marketing with the format of Rich Media Ads.

To understand this, it’s important to realize that SEM does not mean text listings, it only implies text listings (because that’s what we’ve become accustomed to through the Overture model).

Need an example? Look at Google AdSense (a contextual mechanism). It started with text listings (format), but now also supports banner ads (format).

The same is true of SEM. Just because it uses text listings today, doesn’t meant that it can’t be used to return Rich Media ads in the future. And, if, as eMarketer predicts, Rich Media is what advertisers want, and what users will accept, you can bet that the Search mechanism will support it down the road.

P.S. There are a number of reasons why SEM started with text listings… one of the biggest being that most any advertiser can string together a couple of sentences, whereas it takes more time/money/skill to design and build graphics, sound and video. When you’re trying to scale to hundreds of thousands of customers (i.e., advertisers), you go with the lowest common denominator…

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