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What Offline Advertisers Can Teach Online Marketers

As online marketers, we often ignore the methods used by offline advertisers, especially print and outdoor advertisers. After all, print is the past and digital marketing is the future. What could we possibly learn from staring at a bunch of magazine ads or billboards?

The answer is: quite a bit. Offline advertising has a much longer history than online advertising and marketing, and has had a lot more research done over the years. There are proven techniques that have worked offline for decades that online marketers have barely tried. So why not try a few techniques that have proven effective for print, television, and other offline advertising campaigns, and see how you can translate them to the web?

Don’t Fix It If It’s Not Broken

There are a number of examples in the world of print advertising where companies have attempted to change or “improve” their products and promotional methods and have nearly ruined their successful businesses. Take the recent Gap logo fiasco. Gap attempted to update their logo to reflect a more modern style, and suffered such an enormous backlash from their customers that they changed it back to the old one within days.

gap logo fiasco

Another great example is the Tropicana repackaging disaster from 2009. PepsiCo (the makers of Tropicana) changed the packaging to a more modern, sleeker design. The result was that their sales dropped 20%. The issue was that the things that made the Tropicana brand so recognizable (the orange with the straw sticking out of it and the iconic font), were missing from the new package. Instead, there was a glass of juice and the name was vertical on the carton. The result looked much more generic than the previous packaging, and based on the sales figures, a lot of customers likely thought the same.

tropicana repackaging disaster

Facebook is one site that’s had some difficulty with various redesign efforts. Virtually every Facebook update or redesign has led to a number of complaints online, to one degree or another. Facebook has responded to the user complaints, though, by allowing users to choose when to update their profile designs, rather than doing a forced roll-out. This kind of strategy has been employed by other websites, too, often giving users the ability to try out the new design and layout prior to making the switch permanent (like Twitter did with their new layout).

Ease Into Change

The lesson to be learned from both of these examples is that extreme change can quickly alienate your loyal customer base. It’s better to ease into changes, or at least to give your current customers a heads-up that change is coming. If either of these companies had taken a more stepped approach to their rebranding efforts, they might have found more success.

Make Someone Famous

We’d all love to have someone famous endorsing our products. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the marketing budget to hire a big-name celebrity. So what do we do?

We create a celebrity.

There are a few well-known examples of celebrities being created by brands. Take The Most Interesting Man in the World, the spokesman for Dos Equis beer. The actor who portrays him wasn’t very well-known outside the Western film genre, but has now become an immediately-recognizable star. No one remembers the fact that prior to the Dos Equis commercials, he hadn’t done more than an occasional guest appearance in years.

create a celebrity

Another great example is Jared Fogle from the Subway commercials. Jared was just an average guy who lost a lot of weight eating sandwiches. In a very smart move, Subway turned him into their spokesperson, solidifying their position as the “healthy” alternative to regular fast food.

Microsoft is a great example of a company that regularly makes celebrities out of its employees. Microsoft, along with some other tech companies, creates evangelists for its products, and promotes these people to the point of making them celebrities. Robert Scoble is probably the best-known evangelist from Microsoft and became the first official “spokesblogger”.

microsoft spokesblogger

Tell Us a Story

An effective narrative can go a long way toward reinforcing your brand image. And everyone loves a good story. The best ads tell us a story, even when they only consist of a single image. Think about what your customers want from your product, what benefits they’ll gain from it, and then use your marketing efforts to create a narrative showcasing those benefits.

advertising that tells a story

Take this ad promoting London tourism. It immediately tells us that it’s likely been too long since we’ve been to London, and that it might be time for another visit. It’s a simple story, yes, but it’s still a story.

advertising print ad story

The Stihl chainsaw ad above is another great example of a print ad that creates a story. The proud parents look on as their lumberjack son unwraps a log; just what he wanted for Christmas to use his new Stihl chainsaw on. Images like this immediately build a story in our minds, which gives us a deeper connection to the product or idea being advertised.

Think of ways you can create a story, either in still images or as an actual story, video or animation, and go with it. Narrative helps us forget that we’re looking at advertising, and that someone is trying to sell us something. It blurs the line between marketing and entertainment.

The crafters on Etsy are some of the best online marketers out there telling a story with their brands. Because of the personal nature of hand-crafted goods, sellers do better when they create a narrative around their products and their business. A few great examples of shops that do this are sparkyjones, The Steel Fork, and JuliAni.

Give Us Someone to Root For

Everyone likes an underdog. We love to see someone with no chance of winning come out on top. It gives us all the sense that if we try hard enough, or if we’re lucky enough, we can accomplish anything. And we hate to see someone unfairly treated or taken advantage of. We root for these people.

Take the Geico Cavemen. They created a fictional disadvantaged minority and then showed them being discriminated against. It was a brilliant strategy, because they could show all of these potentially-offensive scenes without actually offending anyone. And people rooted for the cavemen, because they were the underdogs.

root for the underdogs

Another great example is the Trix rabbit. The rabbit is never able to get the Trix cereal from the kids in the commercials, and yet we keep watching in the hope that one day, he’ll actually manage to get it.

root for the rabbit

Create an underdog that your potential customers can get behind, and use it to your advantage. Humor goes well with this tactic, because without it you risk your marketing efforts becoming depressing.

In the 2008 U.S. Presidential elections, there were two underdog candidates—Barack Obama and Ron Paul—who used the Internet to reach out, increase awareness, recruit fans and supporters, and raise tons of money. Both of these candidates had very successful online campaigns, and both embraced their position as the anti-establishment “underdog” looking to shake things up in their respective primary races. Obama was obviously the more successful one in the long run, but both candidates changed the way political campaigns are done in the U.S.

political advertising

Online Marketers Hold the Advantage

Online marketers can learn a lot from offline advertisers, but there’s one area where online marketers hold a definite advantage: tracking. We have tools available to help us monitor and analyze the effectiveness of our marketing efforts that offline advertisers just don’t have access to. We know when someone clicks on our ad, or reaches a goal on our website, because we can easily monitor these things.

Kissmetrics offers some great tools for tracking conversions on your website, making it easier for you to see what’s working and what’s not, and to better-tailor your advertising efforts.

About Kissmetrics

Kissmetrics combines behavioral analytics with email automation. Our software tracks actions of your users across multiple devices allowing you to analyze, segment and engage your customers with automatic, behavior-based emails in one place. We call it Customer Engagement Automation. Get, keep and grow more customers with Kissmetrics.



About the Author: Cameron Chapman is a freelance designer, blogger, and the author of Internet Famous: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Online Celebrity.

  1. Sanket Nadhani Dec 30, 2010 at 10:16 am

    What I like most about offline marketing is that the creatives are always so much better than the online ones. They are always benefit-based compared to the feature-based online ones where a lot of them don’t really solve a pain point. The offline ones attract attention, bring up a pain point and answer that being very precise at the same time. I guess it’s also got to do with the fact that the offline media is costlier to buy than online and hence more thought goes into developing the creatives for them.

    • Online media is much easier and cheaper, but it requires a higher quantity of people to go after. Even though it’s obviously a better choice, just be selective on the offline areas.

  2. Very interesting article Cameron! There’s definitely a lot of things we can learn from offline advertisers. Essentially, the marketing principles remain the same, only the methods are different. Every time I talk to my clients, I’d always emphasize understanding the foundations (or principles) of marketing FIRST, before going into the strategies and tactics.

    I also agree that tracking/measuring is one of the most important advantages of online marketing. Direct response marketing has always been my favorite form of marketing. It allows you to focus on the 20% that actually matters, and prevents you from wasting time and money on some wishy-washy ideas that nobody cares about.

    Look forward to reading more of your stuff!

  3. Anthony Burke Dec 31, 2010 at 12:20 am

    Very good article and I agree that offline and online can learn a lot from each other and for most businesses a common sense blend of offline and online usually works best. Every business is different though and the ratio will vary depend on specific strategy, objectives etc

  4. Hi Cameron,
    Very nice article. I have graduated with a marketing degree and learned how real offline corporations and businesses market in the offline world. Going into internet marketing and building a business online, the fundamental psychology of consumers are similar the only difference being the technology we use, the internet, and understanding how much people know about the web. The web makes it a lot easier for smaller businesses to reach the globe but on the other hand it makes it easier for people to get scammed which makes the focus of Internet Marketers to really gain the trust of their customers.Business is business and the web is just a tool to market your business.

    Happy New Year!

    • Spamming becomes more and more popular which is really just natural now. It comes with the territory you know. Think of it as a way to keep you on your toes in finding more ways legitimately market.

  5. Reno Web Design Jan 03, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Cameron, great article. I love the Stihl ad. Gap changing their logo is hilarious… a new director of marketing trying to leave his/her mark I guess. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  6. Cameron, I see your point here and a rather valid one. Offline advertisers see the big picture and then draw out their strategy from a larger universe. However the mindset of a person perusing through magazines or watching TV is different from those using the Internet. Where offline ads can weave a story, online ads need to create an experience. How is the gap bridged between the two effectively – for a seamless communication?

  7. The early internet marketeers ignored everything that offline marketeers had learned and strangely their developers ignored everything that software developers had learned.

    It was an arrogant year-zero approach like petulant teenagers.

    We are slowly getting back into the fold and seeing that our parents weren’t so dumb :-)

    • Interesting thought you have there. I do agree with you on the arrogance factor, that does seem to be a pretty big trend.

  8. LOL. great ending with promotion.


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