Brand marketers don’t spend much online. It’s been a long-time frustration for me, but it’s undeniably true: According to our most recent interactive marketing forecast, marketers in brand categories spend less than half as much of their marketing budgets online as marketers in direct response categories. Brand marketers also continue to spend a huge portion of their marketing budgets on TV.

I’ll be honest: Five or 10 years ago, this made sense. Although lot of us were shouting from the rooftops back in 2000 about the scale and power of the Internet, the truth is back then its scale and power were relatively limited. The majority of the population still wasn’t online, Internet usage averaged only a few hours per week, and the brand stories we could tell online were constrained by both tiny banner ads (anyone remember "half banners"?) and tiny bandwidth (broadband access, and with it online video and other rich creative, was years away from the mainstream).

In that environment, it made sense that TV was by far marketers’ most important channel for building brand. After all, it offered brand marketers by far the largest media opportunity (more total users, and way more total hours, than any other media channel) and by far the richest brand impact of any platform. Marketers would have had little choice even if they wanted it: 30-second TV spots were the be-all and end-all of how they explained the meaning of the brands, and all other channels — online, radio, print, outdoor, and everything else — were simply a chance to reinforce the messaging in the TV spots.

But the conditions that made TV the de facto heart of our brand messaging no longer exist. Today, interactive marketing is ready to lead your brand campaigns, for four key reasons:

  1. The Internet has the scale to match any other channel. Eighty-three percent of American adults are now online (compared with 96% who watch TV), and online users spend marginally more time online each week than they spend watching TV. In total, I estimate that for every hour the average American spent watching TV in 2010, they spent about .9 hours online. I expect that when we get our 2011 survey data back, the channels will be neck-and-neck.
  2. The Internet has the depth to beat any other channel. Marketers no longer have to limit themselves to the quick brand impressions made by TV spots or billboards; their websites offer them all the depth they need to convey complex brand attributes and engage users. And consumers actually want brands to offer them this depth online — it’s why so many users go straight to Google to learn more about the brands they see advertised offline, and why the Internet is consumers’ most trusted source of brand and product information.
  3. The Internet is more trusted than any other channel. What’s the marketing channel customers trust most? It’s not your TV ads, your print ads, your direct mail or even your Facebook page — it’s your own web site.
  4. The Internet is a richer storytelling medium than any other channel. I love TV’s ability to tell a story — it’s the reason we still remember classic ads and taglines, and the reason I’ve dedicated much of my career to developing online video ad formats. But online goes a step further than TV, adding interactivity to the picture and offering marketers their single most compelling creative channel.

With all this going for it, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Internet is proven to build brands. (Don’t believe that there’s proof? Just ask Rex Briggs, who’s spent a decade proving that online ads can build brand metrics across the scale — from awareness to consideration and all the way through to intent to purchase. Or check our surveys, which suggest that nearly as many people first heard about the last product they purchased online as heard about that product through traditional channels.)

So what do we do now — throw away our TV plans and shift all that budget online? Of course not. TV isn’t going anywhere; it’s still one of our most effective branding channels, and I expect it’ll remain by far the biggest part of brand marketers’ budgets for years to come.

But it’s time for marketers to start taking the brand-building power of interactive channels more seriously. Dragging interactive agencies into the same room as TV agencies doesn’t work very well if the TV agencies are still the only ones talking — especially since the TV folks only have 30 seconds to fill, while the online folks have the responsibility (and the capability) of creating far more detailed audience interactions. Your online content and experiences should be the first piece of the brand campaign you develop, and not the last piece. After all, the Internet is the deepest, richest, and most trusted branding channel you possess — and within a year or two it’ll probably be the biggest too. Your customers have entered an era of interactivity, and it’s time for your brand campaigns to do the same.

This week I’ll be publishing my new research report, The Interactive Brand Ecosystem: Put Interactive Marketing At The Heart Of Your Branding Campaigns, with advice for how to make this shift from TV-centered branding to interactive-focused branding. Look for more detail from the report on this blog in the coming days months. [Update: The report's now published here and there's a blog post on it here.]