Yet another year has passed, and where has the online marketing industry gone? The truth is, not very far. Sure, there has been talk of ad standardization, legislation to control unsolicited e-mail, and selling online advertising in a manner more consistent with television and other traditional media, but the fact is that little progress was made on any of these fronts. The good news is that, even in the face of a weak economy, no ground was really lost. The industry, while not taking any great strides forward, has been able to weather the myriad economic challenges of 2002 with little loss of blood. Given this year of corporate mega-collapses, perhaps that is all that we can ask.Another good sign for the industry is that we saw far fewer companies involved in this arena failing in 2002 compared to 2001, indicating that the worst may be over. Interestingly, there were quite a few mergers and acquisitions throughout all areas of the industry, which is contrary to the significant slow down in consolidations seen across the broader economy. How this will affect the industry going into 2003 is anyone’s guess.

Progress was made in one key area – information. The quality, relevancy, consistency and materiality of user demographics, usage statistics, and campaign performance have seen improvement in the aggregate. It appears that we in the online marketing industry have finally realized it is pointless to generate reams of data if it does not convey any useful information to our clients. We are now providing clients with more relevant information upfront and eliminating extraneous data. By improving their understanding, clients are becoming more comfortable dedicating their limited advertising resources to the Internet, thus helping to level the playing field between new and traditional media.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the upcoming year will be dealing with unsolicited commercial e-mail – otherwise known as spam. Spam has been an issue for several years now, but so far, nothing concrete has been done to control it. Spam has become so prolific that several studies in 2002 showed a substantial drop off in e-mail response rates, as marketers struggled to differentiate themselves from the deluge of pitches arriving in users’ inboxes daily. Users are frustrated and marketers are on the ropes, and yet spam continues to proliferate. Will pending government regulation be able to curb this plight without jeopardizing the viability of e-mail as a direct marketing medium? Only time will tell.

The issue of standardization also continues to whither on the vine. As various companies and industry associations are vying with one another to become the standard setting body, “standards” seem to be becoming more diverse. The problem is that there is no one organization that maintains enough clout to convince everyone else in the industry that their standards are THE standards. At this point, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is in the best position to do this, but it progresses very slowly and some companies, especially certain rich media technology providers, are dead-set in their ways and are undermining the efforts of the IAB. That was the story in 2002 and there is no reason to believe that it will not continue in 2003.

As far as applying traditional media selling tools to the Internet, such as the use of GRPs, there was a copious amount of talk in 2002 – with little action. These discussions tended to lean in favor of adopting these methods, so it is very possible that they will finally begin to appear in the online advertising world sometime in 2003. Hopefully, the use of GRPs will help the Internet compete more directly with other forms of media.

In the end, 2002 was fundamentally not much more than the second coming of 2001. Although the online marketing scene was relatively unexciting, some important initiatives that emerged in 2002 will probably come to fruition in 2003. Just remember one thing – 2002 could have been much worse.