We’ve entered an unprecedented age, one that is inextricably tied to the digital landscape. Choices abound as to the types of media available to engage consumers, and there’s more opportunity than ever for advertisers to deliver their messages. But data breaches, fraud, and the resulting regulatory changes (well intentioned, but with effectiveness unknown) have created an inflection point for us as an industry to again take stock of how we interact with audiences—and determine whether those interactions are meaningful, productive, and welcome.
Over the last several years, we’ve seen article after article detailing how consumers despise advertising and telling us why all of us should fear the evolution of subscription-based, ad-free content. The New York Times recently published an article called "The Advertising Industry Has a Problem: People Hate Ads," warning us of the approaching advertising Armageddon as well as the developing technology and strategies to promote audience engagement in a cookie-free world. But the problem isn't advertising itself; the problem is the quality, frequency, and relevancy of the content. Of course, audiences are going to hate ads that are irrelevant, over-served, offensive, annoying, and stupid—some of the terms used to describe them in their current form.
People love ads when they’re entertaining, unique, and memorable. For evidence, look no further than the Super Bowl. This event is considered a prime showcase for advertising’s highest-quality and most engaging ads. And even though NFL viewership has been in a steady decline for several years, the price of advertising during the game has increased by 60% over the last 10 years. That’s because social media has added a viral quality to the creative—so much so that ads that aired during the Super Bowl had already been watched more than 105 million times online in 2019, over 24 social and video platforms, before the game even aired. This phenomenon demonstrates that the advent of Over-the-Top (OTT) and Connected TV (CTV) has given content the potential to be more creative and engaging than it’s ever been, and has not demonstrated audience loss for the ads themselves. These advancements also provide us with exponentially more meaningful insights to ascertain whether or not consumers are connecting with that creativity.
This is good news. And it begs the question: How do we use this knowledge to give consumers more of what they love and less of what they hate? First, we need to create a better advertising experience for them as a whole. That means going beyond fantastic creative execution and addressing issues such as over-serving the ad, as well as ensuring that the environment in which it is served is relevant and appropriate. This will demonstrate that advertisers are aware of the consumer experience they’re trying to create.
For example, is the consumer in the right frame of mind to receive the message an advertiser is trying to deliver? If a consumer is researching thyroid cancer on a health website, that may not be the best time to serve that person an ad for a car. Conversely, brand-suitable, prime environments are easy to locate with the right technology. Also, consider virility, especially where it relates to video—is there a trend, opportunity, or digital moment that brands should capitalize on or avoid? Showing that a brand is attentive to these moments will prove that it is savvy and self-aware.
The second way to improve digital advertising is to respect the right to opt out. There will always be people who don’t want to participate, who don’t understand the transactional bargain of free internet content, or who don’t like consumerism. Let’s make it easy for those individuals to disengage instead of kicking and screaming. Be transparent, and let consumers quickly and effortlessly opt out—that is, let’s avoid the vitriol that comes from a consumer who wants to opt out but can’t find the resources to do so.
For those who think this will hurt scale, maybe it will, but what is the quality of the audience we're sacrificing if we’re messaging to people who don’t want to be reached? It’s actually a benefit to advertisers to be able to focus on those audiences who are genuinely receptive to their brands’ messages, and it allows the industry to claw back some of the respect and trust we’ve lost over the years.
Third, let’s look deeper into the consumer journey to identify meaningful data. We’ve evolved past the old, flat metrics we used to rely on to give us insight into consumer behavior, such as clicks. We’ve entered a phase where adtech and martech are converging, giving us the means to combine datasets, information, and technology in more thoughtful, consumer-centric ways. And since we know that cookie-based activity will become a thing of the past very soon, our default needs to become more sophisticated.
For example, it’s great if you know that someone visited your site to look at or buy a product, but what else is going on adjacent to that purchase or browsing behavior? Were there additional product considerations or purchases? What content was consumed alongside or around the purchase? How long was the individual viewing that content? Was the consumption of that content intentional or accidental? Knowing the answers to such questions will create a more dynamic profile, revealing what your customer actually wants versus what they might want.
Public outcry and responsive data regulation is a signal to us that the public wants more control of their digital lives. That doesn’t mean the death of advertising; it just means we need to deliver on the goal we’re all trying to achieve to create a more thoughtful, safe, and engaging customer journey.