Digital advertising is in a state of emergency, and there’s no easy fix

“When last did you click on a banner?”

I am yet to get an answer to this question that doesn’t begin with a panicked expression, a hurried attempt to remember or make something up, and eventually the response: “yes but I am in the industry, so I am desensitized/uninterested/jaded etc.”. Think about that for a second, “in the industry”. I would assume that presupposed interest/caring/curiosity, yet even industry natives are ‘over it’. Digital advertising promised to be the answer to the need for measurement, the transparent visionary. But, somewhere along the line, it got lost. It got wasteful. And it got annoying.

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Ad Blocking

There is a reason that ad blockers are on the rise. And I can almost guarantee you that it is not because ‘the internet at large’ has conspired to ensure that publishers, smaller ones in particular, cannot afford to eat.

According to Pagefair, ad blocking grew by 41% worldwide, 48% in the states (12 months leading up to June 2015) and a whopping 82% in the UK for the same period. These are not numbers to chuck aside; they have very real implications. This could be costing publishers about 22 BILLION US dollars a year. There is no doubt in my mind that this number is a little inflated. Publishers tend to find angles and have probably included all unsold revenue at standard or even premium rates. However, even a fraction of 22 billion is enough to get attention.

Perspective: publisher versus internet user

“Advertising funds the internet, it is a necessary evil.”

The recycled and recited rhetoric from publishers. And it’s easy to see where it came from; pay walls don’t work unless your publication is super niche like “Fashion Doll Weekly” (yes that exists), there are an infinite amount of alternatives to your content, and billionaire philanthropists can’t continue to be happy with yearly losses anymore. What is the alternative? Is there an alternative? And why is the internet community so critical of advertising, if they know that the content won’t exist without it?

Do they know?

I am not suggesting that everyone online is an idiot (although, a look at any forum and doubt arises) but rather, apathetic. The general user doesn’t see advertising and think “oh, here is a publisher trying to keep from selling his prize-winning tilapia collection”, they simply don’t care to think that far. They just see an annoyance, a distraction, an interruption. An abstract villain fighting for the attention of internet users, steering it away from whatever they are trying to do online.

And that, ladies and gentleman of the internet, is the point. Online display advertising is aimed at getting your attention.

Show me someone who has given explicit permission to be advertised to. One could argue that by using an internet that they know is littered with ads, they are agreeing implicitly; but this is a weak argument at best.

The real question is: “what is the user getting in return [for their attention]?” Advertisers will argue product opportunities, specials, services that they might not know existed etc. But this is almost solely dependent on relevance.


Relevance is the big draw card of advertisers. Yet so few advertisers are getting it right. Their strategies for relevance are based (very largely) on assumption. So and so visited a car blog which means they are interested in buying a car. Or, so and so is on a fashion site, so they must be interested in buying some new shoes. It may be right some of the time, but when the global CTR is 0.06% on desktop and 0.63% on mobile (some stats suggest 40% of these clicks are accidental) then it is more not than often.

Percentages like that indicate a broken model.

Vanity metrics
We, as an industry, are often delusional when it comes to campaign results. A campaign that delivers an engagement rate of one percent is considered a massive success, but one percent outside of the relativity of the super low benchmarks is a horrid result.

Campaign benchmarks are often measured by metrics that do not speak to the campaign objective. A bazillion clicks on a banner is not going to matter if none of them convert. Standardizing metrics in a world filled with variables seems very short-sighted.

Being re-targeted for the hard drive I actually purchased last week is enough to drive me insane. Maybe if relevance improves, the results will follow suit? Maybe programmatic is the answer? Using big data to create audience buckets to sharpen targeting. However, I am uncomfortable with a machine (or an estranged media planner) deciding what is relevant for me.

I think the solution is participation.

If we allow the user to choose what is relevant, the perception around online advertising could better which would improve its effectiveness. Both Facebook and Google have recently released preference panels that allow you to decide which verticals are not relevant.

The point of marketing

The basis of marketing is actually pretty simple. So simple, that it often gets overlooked.

Communicate value.
That is it. That is all. There is nothing more to it.

Convincing someone to buy your product through false associations is not strictly ethical; subliminal advertising was banned with reason. Ads that imply that their product will give you an all-access pass to a yacht and beautiful people, or that drinking their whiskey will ad +10 to entrepreneurship skills, need to go. Advertising has to communicate a message, that is, “this product solves this problem in this way”.

Communicate value. Show me how you’re adding value to my life. If you can’t do that, rethink your product.

The marketing message

Organisational culture will determine the values of a company. Typically, a company is either market or a product orientated. Product orientation focuses on product excellence and, usually, innovation. Market orientation focuses on the needs of their market. Marketing teams should be communicating the value, the strengths, of the product or service. The “how this product will make your life better” message. Trouble is, many companies tend to communicate the “how this product could make your life better” message, and usually with an incredibly unrealistic result.

Content marketing

One digital trend I see playing a big part in the future is content advertising. Provided it is done well. I am not talking about the “This is how this person got rich in negative time” kind of content, but rather content that aims to provide value to the reader. GoPro does this exceptionally well. They create/look for content that is aligned with their core values (in this case: doing extremely cool shit) and put their brand in it. They aren’t trying to sell you their products, they are showing you how their products can add value; and that difference is paramount.

Some points here:

  • This is an ad.
  • This is a five minute ad.
  • A five minute ad that was viewed over 40 million times.
  • And the kicker? By choice.
? Users were not required to watch this to download a game, or to get to the content they really wanted. They chose to watch it. And this is not an anomaly. I have seen five of these GoPro videos, and none of them with less than 17 million views. The results speak for themselves:

Image credit: Statista

Obviously this can’t all be attributed to branded content, but I will say, with conviction, “case in point”.

Value exchange

Recapping on earlier, display advertising can be problematic because it takes attention without permission. Native content, and advertising that is based on similar principles, is different.

There is consent, and almost more importantly, there is a value exchange. You are getting entertainment or information, or something in return for your attention. Brands need to really consider this. If they want the attention of their target audience, they need to give them something in return.

Bigger display formats, more impression volumes, stronger call to actions are all tackling semantics. Increasing the size of the loud-hailer does not improve the quality of the message.

Essentially, it comes down to solving problems. The whole reason that products exist in the first place is to solve problems, to make lives easier. Often, to save time so that it can be spent on more substantial things. Products are meant to progress humanity. Surely, that is the goal?

I used to say that I was fundamentally against advertising. But I have realised that if brands comes up with things to make my life easier, I want to know about it. Advertising has its place, but the model is broken. And until we fix that, publishers are not out of the woods yet.

This article originally appeared on Some Reveries and is republished with the author’s permission.

Image: Jason Kuffer via Flickr.

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