Estimates put the current number of internet users in the UK at 37 million – or 60% of the population. But many food and drink brands have yet to embrace digital marketing, according to a new report by PR agency Richmond Towers Communications. They are missing a trick.

UK online advertising was worth more than £3bn last year, up 39.5% on 2006, says the report, which cites recent statistics published by the Advertising Association. It outperforms press advertising, which was down 1.6%, and TV advertising, which was up 2.6%, and its popularity as a medium is reflected in the findings of the agency’s OnePoll survey of 3,000 consumers.

Online advertising is just as ­effective a way of finding out about food and drink products as television advertising, say consumers, 21% of whom plumped for each as their preferred medium – second only to family and friends (27%).

The report adds that digital communications put out by food and drink companies are not only trusted, but often lead directly to purchase – by as many as 85% of the £50,000-£59,000 income group. And 29% can name a brand that has used the internet effectively, whether to flag up a special offer or a consumer-facing initiative. Texting also rates highly – 48% say they would use an SMS service for recipe ideas and information.

Yet many food and drink brands are hanging back from online. Outdated perceptions of the internet could be to blame, suggests Richmond’s editorial director, Simon Mowbray. “Some companies see their website as an important source of information, but not necessarily a revenue generator,” he says. “This potentially ignores not only the big strides that the web has made but also how importantly consumers view company websites. Internet usage is now widespread among all social and age groups, meaning the opportunities have never been greater.”

The report lists some of the brands that have made online marketing work for them by doing just this. Among them is Cadbury, which spotted an opportunity to boost sales by uploading its popular Gorilla commercial to YouTube, where it attracted 10 million hits, cost-free. US brewer Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, put its Budweiser TV ad on its website the week before the 2006 Superbowl, attracting 22 million visits.

The internet is also a source of entertainment and brands can score here, too, suggests the report. Burger King set up a website where visitors could command a chicken to do whatever they wanted – within a year it had received 400 million views, boosting sales of chicken sandwiches by 9% in a single week.

One of the most savvy companies is Innocent Drinks, which offers a network of websites for different interests. While its flagship site – – garners the most traffic, the company also offers a site for the young with interactive games and activities.

Another use of the internet is as a medium for collecting fresh and relevant prospect data. Consumers often baulk at handing over contact details, but may do so in return for information or incentives. But to make online advertising work for them, companies need to invest in long-term campaigns and maintain and update features frequently. “It can’t be a static medium. People won’t accept boring and inactive websites any more,” says Robert Sutton, marketing director of Pomegreat.

The downside is that online marketing is more labour-intensive than TV. “It’s not like running a TV campaign for six weeks or six months and then coming off air,” says Clare Wood, marketing manager for standard blends and heritage at Chivas Brothers. “You’ve created a community and people will be upset if you walk away.”

Which, as the report makes clear, is the last thing brands should be doing when it comes to online.