Keeping It Simple Isn't Stupid

Digital advertising is, by nature, a science. It involves data, analysis, constant decision-making based on the quantitative. Ads work or don't work because the numbers tell us they do or don't. And for the most part, this is what we've been waiting for: a medium that allows for a scientific approach, a black-and-white view of how ad dollars are spent.

We've pushed for transparency. We've demanded the numbers, the tangible proof of ROI. We want advertising that you can track down to the timestamp and IP address. We want platforms and exchanges that allow us to engage in real time bidding and aggregate the lines of code that somehow make up an "audience."

But in the flurry of statistics, and in the frenzy of hype over every new way to purchase a fragment of data, it is also important to remember that advertising is actually really simple. It's about one entity (usually a company trying to sell something) communicating with another entity (usually a person or group of people interested in buying said something).



This brings me back to one of the first things I learned in college: Saussure's "speech circuit." Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist whose most influential work was posthumously published in 1916. His model of communication was a circular one that involved both participants -- the speaker and the listener (an idea that was forward-looking for its time because it wasn't just about person A talking at person B). The notion that both the speaker and the listener are simultaneously active is what we call, in both advertising and regular life, a dialogue.

That's basically what our industry has agreed that advertising is. We've moved from broadcast to engagement, from blasting one way messages to having dialogues. Linguists everywhere should be proud. It only took us about 100 years to get the message.

So why is it that we insist on making things so complicated? Take the recent announcement in the Wall Street Journal about the partnership between eXelate, a behavioral targeting company that collects and sells consumer information via cookies, and Nielsen, the consumer research company. The deal will enable advertisers to buy Nielsen data (in the form of cookies) directly from eXelate to create audience segments and then target specific ads to certain groups of consumers.

The more precise advertisers can be, the better. I won't argue with that. But what I do wonder is whether this could all be made just a little bit simpler by asking consumers -- "Hey, what advertising do you want?"

Does this sound overly reductive? If so, is it because we believe that because digital advertising is data-based, it must be alienating and complex? Simplicity and science are not mutually exclusive.

According to a 2009 Harris Interactive Survey, 96% of adults are willing to share their email addresses with advertisers to receive information or offers. It can't get any more straightforward than that. As online marketers, we absolutely need to be supported by intense science.

How to acquire email addresses at scale, how transfer massive amounts of data safely and securely from publishers to advertisers, how to make sure that when people are signing up to receive advertising, they are doing so in a completely transparent way -- all of these capabilities are technologically complex and data-driven. But getting people to sign up to hear from you and then responding with relevant and meaningful content doesn't take a room full of behavioral scientists.

Let's look at a real world example from a major brand. In order to build an audience for Huggies, Kimberly-Clark provides offers to new and expectant moms on contextually relevant sites. If they're interested in the offers, moms and moms-to-be provide their email addresses.

Through its newsletter program, Huggies features a downloadable pregnancy widget that expectant parents can display on their social networking profiles. It's a brand marketer's dream: a measureable way to connect with consumers from first touch point to social engagement.

It's not inaccurate to say that through this very simple approach, a Fortune 500 marketer is building loyalty one excited parent at a time. It really is that obvious. Consumer information is indeed being sold, but the consumer not only knows about it, s/he explicitly requested that it happen.

What happens on the backend, however, is a different story. While the advertiser and the consumer are dialoging one-to-one, data centers are processing the millions of parents that sign up for Huggies offers to build a massive, brand-specific audience made of real people, not lines of code.

Data are encrypted to protect consumer privacy. Duplicate and invalid email addresses are being filtered out. Publishers that do not adhere to standards of transparency and forthrightness are being removed from plans. Sites that perform well for the target audience are optimized. These steps are happening in real-time and are automated across thousands of individual campaigns.

From a technology standpoint, it is the opposite of simple. But to both the advertiser and the consumer, it's nothing more than asking a direct question, listening to the answer, and starting a relationship from there. Saussure would agree.

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