Thursday, May 15, 2008

Is digital advertising recession-proof?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

News from the sharp end of the financial sector informs us that UK banking lunch budgets are slashed to £54 a head, whilst their German counterparts are barred from expensing trips to brothels. There are probably no more indicative measures for the climate in the city, so it’s safe to assume that it’s tough out there right now.

And whilst everybody’s assiduously avoiding mentioning the ‘R’ word, there’s no doubt that retailers are starting to worry as the credit crunch starts to bite. Share prices in many of the major high street retailers have halved over the last year as the city factors in expected consumer belt-tightening, and retail sales have only been propped up on the high street by deep discounting, with non-food prices falling at their fastest rate for 20 years.

Last time there was a recession, the internet took the full brunt of it. There was carnage as the dotcom bust ripped through the economy, taking hundreds of flaky web companies (and some good ones) with it.

So this time around, is the internet recession-proof, are stock market woes going to hit digital too?

Back in 2001, many internet businesses were still in the pre-profit stages of development. Their markets lacked scale, many of the management teams lacked the experience to weather a storm, and the online advertising market (a key revenue stream for many businesses today) that year was worth just £166m.

Online retail has been the key driver of growth in online advertising, and online retail is a capital intensive business, requiring heavy upfront investment to create a service. This means that scale is critical to businesses online, whether they’re selling airline tickets or insurance policies, because there’s a very low marginal cost of sales.

As the business scales, volume efficiencies develop much faster than in traditional retail where staff and premises are forced to grow in line with expansion.

The pre-profit phase of an online business is a scary place to be. You could be down a lot of money and still waiting for that tipping point to be hit. No wonder many investors pulled the plug back in 2001 – it looked then that the world had lost confidence in the web, and there were real concerns about whether that tipping point could ever be reached.

But this is 2008, and a lot has changed.

For a start, the audience is bigger. 32m people are now online compared to just 18m back in 2001. So any online business now has access to a potential customer base that’s 75% bigger – a crucial scale element that’s driving scale economies into web companies.

And those people now transact more online, 74% agreeing that credit card use is safe online (60% did in 2001). So they’re spending more – the average online shopper’s six monthly spend is now £628, up 37% on 2001.

So there’s a bigger, more economically active audience online now, and they’re spending much more time online than before, driven by broadband penetration that ranks the UK 11th in the world.

All this has created a vigorous online ad market that’s grown 1600% since 2001, reaching £2.8bn last year. For online businesses this is a double benefit. It’s a substantial revenue stream for many, but it’s also a key sales driver.

Advertising in traditional media is (wrongly) often regarded as a cost. But the accountability that comes with both display and search advertising online has caused it to be regarded differently. Whether this is formally reflected in their P&L or not, many enterprises now see online advertising as a cost of sale – which means they can directly gauge the impact on revenue that cutting ad budgets will have.

There’s no leap of faith here – spending less generates less. So whilst the rest of the economy may be in for a torrid time over the coming months, scale, accountability and attitudes are likely to mean digital’s unlikely to share the pain.