Show the Audience a Little Respect

by , Apr 19, 2005, 7:30 AM
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When the online ad industry clocked a 30 percent gain in 2004 and the predictions for 2005 were nearly as cheerful, people all around me were smiling, walking upright with a renewed confidence that the "post-bubble" days were a thing of the past and that the road to the future was paved with yellow bricks of gold.

Now, with all of the on and offline conversations about deleted cookies and spyware and adware and ad blockers, it seems we have hit a little speed bump. What to do? Ignore it and speed ahead (and hope that it won't wipe out the suspension of our revenue engine)? Or slow down and take the bump into consideration? Since the speed bump is our audience, I suggest we at least take a measure of their concerns before barreling ahead. Here is the issue: We have not maintained trust with our audience. We have taught them that for every legitimate e-mail they get or ad they see or download they make, there are a half dozen more that seek to somehow rip them off or do harm to their online experience.

The result is they can't buy programs fast enough that promise to block spyware, adware, ads, or filter spam. There is little understanding of the value of cookies. One study found that nearly half of U.S. consumers think Internet ads should be legally banned or limited by law. It matters not to them that along with blocking out the bad guys, they would slow and undermine the good guys.

The good guys are the ones who are underwriting what is essentially free content with ad revenue. The good guys provide transparency in their dealings with consumers, with real phone numbers answered by real people to take real action if our audiences have a problem. They provide opt-outs. They work with reputable advertisers and reputable sites. Clicking on their ads doesn't set in motion some nefarious background download that later takes the consumer by surprise. We all know who the bad guys are. Unfortunately, consumers perceive us all as one big "they."

The silver lining to all this is that consumers are so passionate about their Internet experience, they care enough to take whatever action they think will keep it from deteriorating. We need to exploit that passion in order to educate and help consumers distinguish between the black hats and the white hats. No one likes to pay taxes, but if they stopped, how would roads and schools and libraries get built? We must explain the same value relationship between ads and content and think of new ways to involve our audiences.

One way to do that is to give them a taste before we serve the whole meal, as Tessa Wegert suggested in a recent column. Another way is to add value when they see ads. For example, United Virtualities in their rich media units often provide tools that users might not otherwise have, such as language or currency translators, or the ability to record a VoIP phone call. Other companies more directly reward consumers for clicking on ads. Scripps Networks puts cue points on some of its video ad players that provide fast links to more consumer information.

Over the years we have become complacent, thinking that the advertiser information within a message was sufficient reward and a fair exchange for seeing the content on either side of the ad. But we killed that golden goose by doing stupid things like increasing ad time on TV to more than 25 percent every hour. And sneaking promotional messages onto the screen while the content played, as if the consumers wouldn't "count" them as ads. Audiences are in the process of voting on that with their personal video recorder dollars and remote controls. I assure you if someone offered ad-blocking software that worked on TVs, they'd be richer than the founders of Google (if anyone can even count that high.)

We are in a unique position to offer consumers a better marketing relationship with advertisers than they get with any other medium. We can serve them ads based on their real interests; we can give them more information in a click than they can get anywhere else; we can provide immediate, nearly painless e-commerce opportunities; we can ask their opinion and factor it into our next pitch. In other words, we can become the place consumers go first, before they buy almost anything. We will earn that privilege by treating our online audiences with respect, not by abusing them in pursuit of the quick buck.

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