A New Balance of Power

With new technological possibilities and new habits of media engagement entering consumers’ lives, we are seeing no shortage of new ways for media and marketers to insult, annoy or impose on an audience. From the blaring gas-pump video to the popover ad, they grate and frustrate with seeming impunity.

The fact that nearly all forms of content now have brand messages attached or integrated in some way may not seem to bode well for audiences to expect respectful treatment to be part of the bargain, whether formal or implied. But will future consumers really have no choice but to accept whatever hassles they are put through in the delivery of content or brand messages?

Should we resign ourselves to a dystopia where marketers and media need show no consideration for audiences and customers?

I submit that the time is coming when marketers and media will no longer have the luxury of denial about all the ways the communication process irritates people. They will not be able to ignore the need for user-friendliness or redefine it to reflect their own convenience.

In evaluating the balance of power, remember that despite transient effects thrown off by the pace of innovation, there remain certain perennial forces which will eventually be felt.

A new magic box can get away with some impolite behavior, if it has that “wow” factor and delivers content free of charge. In the early days of TV, people obeyed it and bent their lives around it, but to them it was a true medium: It carried content, it carried ads, but praise or blame for the inherent irritations didn’t attach to any specific entity. Yet, over time, people aided by
technology found ways to assert control, accommodate their convenience and avoid content or messages they don’t enjoy. They demanded more, and got it.

Newer and shinier boxes may experience initial protection from the consequences of taking users for granted, but fascination with novelty will not balance the equation beyond the short run. People wise up; there arise competitors willing to give higher priority to providing a better experience.

In more interactive channels, being allowed to participate in content generation or the brand conversation won’t be enough to compensate for lack of courtesy. Active audiences aren’t less sensitive to unfriendly design, they’re more aware—and more likely to perceive it as intentional.

For brands seeking to create an owned media space, they will find that the experience tends to stick to the brand, as it won’t be attributable to someone else. They will have to take ownership of every interaction and recognize how it helps or hurts their relationship with the audience members—their potential or actual customers.

In the end, attention will have to be paid to keeping the process of consuming media attractive and friendly in every way. It will become the responsibility of the brand marketer, who knows (or should know) their customers best.

Cece Forrester is a media planning veteran and occasional pundit.

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