Three weeks ago, I was moderating a session at the Digital Hollywood Building Blocks conference in San Jose. I took the time to check out the exhibitors and I attended few sessions.
From a consumer's viewpoint, my assessment was that the online advertising industry seems to look good from far, but far from good.
On one hand, a lot of progress is being made with new platforms, new types of advertising networks, new metrics, new measuring tools, new standards, etc.
On the other hand, the industry remains highly wasteful with an extremely low ROI from ads. It also seems to be stuck to its old and ugly habit of assaulting and interrupting consumers with unwanted ads. Marketers, advertisers, advertising agencies, advertising networks, and publishers all seems to be catering to each other at the expense of the most important constituent - the consumer.
How so, should you ask? Well, despite the encouraging migration from the offline world to the online world, and aside some of few exceptions, generally speaking advertising continues to be interruptive, boring, repetitive, irrelevant, and thus extremely annoying. From that perspective, the conference was disappointing. I was hoping to encounter vendors and hear panelists talk about permission marketing advanced by Seth Godin few years ago. I was also hoping to discover tools, methods, processes, and standards which will encourage consumers to engage with a brand bypulling consumers under their terms with their permission rather than pushing and shoving ads through their throats at the most undesirable moment.
One of the sessions was about hypertargeting. Wait a minute! HYPERTARGETING??!!! To start with, the term "targeting" is offensive, and by the way, I've never agreed to be targeted let alone be hypertargetted. For your information advertisers, I am not a TARGET. This is not a war nor a hunt. I've got news for you: I don't want to be targeted - neither contextually nor behaviorally. Get off my back!!!
As a consumer, what I want is to be able to consummate content without being interrupted. It is my prerogative, and only mine, to decide if, when, and how I might look at your ads on occasions. You need my permission to discover my interest, to follow me where I go, and to record my surfing habits. If you abuse my trust, or if you breach my privacy, or if you compromise my security, or if you simply annoy me, I'll take this privilege away from you at any time without notice and I will black list you. Of course, I'll make sure that all my friends know about you too. That's what the social web has promised - empowering consumers - and we are still waiting for the delivery of that wonderful promise.
Permission supersedes relevancy or targeting. The fact that I have the right profile, or visited the right web pages, or took certain actions, does not necessarily make me a good prospect and does not give you the right to target me by interrupting me under the pretext that I might be a good prospect. How is that different from spamming?!!! Maybe I simply stumbled on your ad. Maybe I am a competitor spying on you. Maybe I was interest but not anymore. Maybe I am still interested but not now. Maybe I am interested but can't afford it. Maybe I already bought your product or a competing one. You can target, analyze, and measure all you want, but you can never discover my real intention until you ask me with my permission. I, and only I, decide whether I am a good prospect to anybody. In a lot of ways, advertising is like torture - almost all experts agree that information obtained through torture is unreliable. Similarly, information obtained through current advertising systems is misleading resulting into ridiculously low ROI. Yet, almost all players in that conference seem to be ecstatic about their new offerings.
Like religion, advertising sells hope, a lot of hope. Advertisers throw an insane amount of money in the hope that they will get buyers or in the hope that they will earn a certain mind share or awareness. Their prayer is worth no more than 1% to 5%. That means that 95% to 99% of their money is wasted. It's one thing if marketers want to throw their money away, but it's another if they do it at consumers' expense by polluting theirworld with unwanted ads.
While I do recognize and applaud the advancements and the innovations that are occurring in the online advertising industry, I can’t help but to notice how out of touch the players are. They are focusing on themselves by offering more analytics, more metrics, more standards, and more networks, while ignoring consumers’ needs. They are analyzing and measuring the wrong things to serve each other. The single most important constituent in this ecosystem is not the publisher, or the marketer, or the advertiser, or the advertising agency, or the advertising network, but the consumer who is truly the bloodstream of the advertising ecosystem. All those players haven’t really grasped the real benefit of the online world. While better targeting, relevancy, analytics, and metrics are good enhancements, they are indeed secondary. The primary benefit of the online world is not just to establish awareness, or generate prospects, or even to convert prospects into buyers, but to create loyal evangelists at the grassroots level who are highly motivated to engage with a brand willingly and enthusiastically. Interruption generates annoyance not loyalty.
In one of the sessions that I attended at the conference, one of the panelists was an executive from Adobe. He announced Adobe’s new media player based on Flash which comes embedded with ads. I can’t remember whether it was pre-roll, mid-roll, post-roll, or whatever roll type of ads, the point is that I got so annoyed by his demeanor that I popped the question: “assume that I am a super duper hacker who managed to block all ads from your brand new media player so that I, and all my friends if you care to know, can enjoy the videos without your ads, then what?” It was an intentionally provocative question. Not surprisingly, and disappointingly, his answer was: “we built a fortress in our new media player – you can’t hack it”. Yeah, right!!!! Obviously, he wasn’t an experienced panelist because he missed a golden opportunity to turn a rebellious consumer into an evangelist. Indeed, instead of trying to entice me to take interest in his ads, he decided to confront me. It’s us versus them. The war shall now begin! Of course, like every war, once the first shot is fired, conflicts can only escalate thereafter. Publishers build walls only for hackers to demolish them, and once they do, publishers build even higher walls only to be demolished again, and again, and again. Case in point is the music industry.
Here’s another example of the type of insensitivity towards consumers: in his recent interview with John Shinal from Vator, Russ Fradin from Adify said: “I don’t think that pre-roll ads are going to go away for as long as advertisers like them and consumers put up with them”. Put up with them?!! As if consumers had a choice!!! Give me a WebTivo, and I’ll show you if I will put up with your ads!! How patronizing!!! Mind you, in this same interview, Russ admitted that all surveys indicate that consumers hate ads, yet no constituent in the advertising ecosystem is attempting to change the current interruptive paradigm.
How can advertisers make consumers want to see their ads? Here’s a good example: even though I am not very fond of ads as you might have guessed by now, and like many millions of web users, I rarely if ever click on any ads, yet, the minute I learned about Paris Hilton firing back at John McCain, I rushed to see the ad. I don’t know what the main motivating factor was: it could have been my curiosity or her bikini, regardless, I was drawn and pulled, not pushed and interrupted. I wanted to see the ad. I searched for the ad. I saw the ad, not once but twice, and then I shared the ad with my friends. Admittedly, the second time I saw the ad, it was definitely for her bikini and no longer for my curiosity.
As a pragmatist and a business man, I do understand that a $70 billion dollar gorilla is not going to disappear tomorrow just because consumers are getting increasingly annoyed by ads. I also understand that there is no free lunch – somebody must pay for the content and the tools - it’s either the consumer or the advertiser. However, that’s not the point. The argument that I am making is how to avoid annoying consumers and polluting the web which seems to follow the television’s footsteps.
So let me take the initiative and introduce a new breed of advertisements based on permission marketing principles combined with social properties. I call this new breed of advertisements social ads which have the following main properties:
§ Social ads are not interruptive - they appear only if, when, and how a consumer wants them.
§ Social ads are beneficial to consumers and not just to advertisers by collecting, analyzing, and measuring consumers’ actions. Better analytics and metrics can only increase marginally the ROI on ads. The real and sustainable boost comes from the willful engagement of consumers. Hence, other than learning or buying the product, social ads offer additional to consumers. Those benefits can make consumers more informed, entertained, connected, rewarded, helpful to others, etc.
§ Social ads are interactive allowing a consumer to communicate with the advertisers and maybe other consumers.
§ Social ads are collaborative. They are based on wikis and are built, modified, and expanded not just by marketers but also by consumers which will change the dynamics of branding.
§ Social ads are measurable and provide comprehensive advertising analytics which is the area that the players are currently focusing on with CPM, CPC, CPA, CPE, etc.
§ Social ads include a very rich graphical user interface that offers very high usability that fosters engagement by consumers which I call the social advertising experience.
In the long term, and as the web gets increasingly more polluted with interruptive ads, consumers will rebel because unlike television, consumers do have the tools to control their online world.
From a novice consumer, I hope that the online advertising industry is listening.
(Note: This piece was first published on August 30, and was updated.)