The problem with internet advertising is the ads
Why does the most sophisticated communications technology suffer the most primitive forms of advertising? Except in a few cases internet advertising seems at best desperate and at worst antagonistic, writes Thomas Ordahl of strategic branding and internet consulting firm Siegel & Gale.
Internet banner ads are little more than billboards flashing at us with garish distracting messages. Pop-ups are like carnival callers trying to muscle you into their show. Spam is the door-to-door salesman that can only be gotten rid of with a shotgun.
What’s the problem? Here’s one explanation. Internet advertising hasn’t figured out how to adapt to the usage behaviors of the medium. Advertising in every other media fits with how people use the media. TV watching is passive. The couch potato wants to relax and be amused without having to think too hard. TV commercials suit that expectation with humor and pretty pictures. Print advertising varies to the nature of the publication. For a fashion magazine it’s all about great imagery while in a serious magazine the message is in the content—advertorials, for example that mimic magazine articles. Radio advertising relies on dialog and catchy jingles to hold our attention. In each medium the approach to advertising has adapted to the posture of the audience. For print we want to read, for radio we want to listen, and for TV we want to be amused. So what do we want online?
Control. We want to be in command of our experience. Search is the most common web activity because we go online with purpose. Usability is high art in web design because we are intolerant of anything that might confuse or disorient us. Researchers minutely observe online reading habits—noting how we scan the page and quickly disregard useless or unwanted information—because online merchants discovered (the hard way) that online we are a highly impatient bunch. One of the most unique benefits of the web is that it gives individuals tremendous autonomy and freedom. This undermines, fundamentally, traditional approaches to advertising.
Advertising has always been a blunt instrument. Audiences typically are broad and difficult to define. Media buyers use demographics, focus groups, tracking studies and the like to try to calibrate to whom they deliver their message but in the end it is still more art then science. In any particular TV audience, only a few will have an immediate need or interest in the product being advertised. This is why every television commercial is, to some degree, a mixture of substance and amusement. The television audience is willing to view irrelevant content as long as it’s entertaining enough.
But on the Web we are purposeful. Viewing irrelevant content—entertaining or otherwise—is antithetical to the reasons we are there. And yet internet advertising keeps resorting to the challenge in the way that worked in the past—it gets more creative. Banner ads deliver games. Pop-ups respond to blockers by becoming “floaters”. The industry prays for greater broadband adoption so television commercials can be streamed online. In traditional advertising, great creative could always come to the rescue.
Now think about the last time you went to Google. Do you remember advertising? Probably not. There are no banners, pop-ups, images, or animations. The advertising is totally unremarkable, uncreative and uninteresting and yet Google is very successful at selling advertising. Google strives for relevance. It serves an ad only when it knows something about your interests—that’s why there’s no advertising on the home page. Google met the essential challenge—how to advertise without bothering its customers—by adapting to (rather than fighting) the use of the medium. It accepted that audiences want to be in control of their experience while exploiting a new advantage—it knows what its customers are looking for and looking at. Another example is Industry Brains, an advertising network that is selling ad placement according to specific vertical content categories. By targeting messages to the context of the content (or search), advertising can be useful and meaningful in that moment.
While contextual placement is only one way of adapting to the medium it suggests a broader implication for the future of advertising on the web: if all advertising is a mixture of entertainment and relevance, than online the balance must shift to relevance. Online people demand control and control, after all, is really just about getting what you want—and only what you want.