Lions and Antelopes in the Advertising Ecosystem

Viewing Seattle from the sky, you can see the mountains, lakes, and Puget Sound all at once. It makes me realize that if the weather was this perfect all year long, we would never be able to maintain such an ecosystem. The population would swell, the easy access to clean beaches would evaporate, and the traffic would become unbearable. Just as the right balance is key for Seattle, it is key in our advertising-subsidized publishing ecosystem.

I once heard another analogy comparing the advertising ecosystem to lions (advertisers) and antelopes (consumers), where you need enough antelopes to attract the lions but not enough lions that you scare away the antelopes. However, a lot of the discussion about balance in the advertising ecosystem focuses on the balance of power between publishers and advertisers, sometimes overlooking the consumer. With this in mind, I thought it might be a good time to take a step back and take a look at how behavioral targeting affects the ecosystem from the consumer's point of view.



Ask most consumers what they think about advertising on the Internet-or just advertising in general-and you'll get a knee-jerk response: "There's too much of it!" Some days even those of us in the industry would agree. However, if you followed up that question with: "How much will you be willing to pay ABC, NBC, ESPN, the Wall Street Journal and every other media company you enjoy across print, television, radio and the Internet?," responses would change pretty quickly.

As much as consumers may claim to hate ads, they've grown extremely comfortable with the subsidized model and wouldn't want to see it disappear anytime soon. So, once you accept that we will have advertising, the next questions are, "If I HAVE to look at advertising, what kind of advertising do I want to see?" and "How can I get interesting advertising that doesn't get in the way of my enjoyment of the media being subsidized?"

Unfortunately, we are stuck in a mass media advertising model that is at cross-purposes with the consumer because it is interruption-based. It creates a vicious cycle that in a worst case plays out as follows: Mass marketers want their message viewed by as many people as possible regardless of who they are. This means consumers are exposed to many different messages, from many marketers competing for their attention. Since people are really good at processing patterns, they learn pretty quickly to view irrelevant ads as noise to be filtered out (studies of peoples' eye movements while consuming media have borne this out). That means advertisers have to be more and more interruptive and have to reach more and more people with those interruptions to get the numbers they seek.

This, in turn, trains consumers to view ads as not only noise to be ignored - but also annoying. Nowhere has this model been as evident as on the Internet, with everything from pop-ups to flashing, noise-making banners to rich media that, while entertaining, take over your screen in an attempt to grab your attention. This is what consumers seem to hate most about advertising.

So how do we break the vicious cycle? How do we deliver ads that aren't considered noisy and are related to something you have expressed interest in? Contextual ads have addressed this to a certain degree- placing advertising adjacent to editorial content-but how accurate is it really? Basing ad placement on a single piece of data (that I'm reading a story one time) doesn't always track to my interests. Just because I'm reading one story about a vintage Mustang doesn't mean I'm about to drop $100,000 on one myself. I like to call this the accidental context-it is better than no context but still noisy.

To meet consumers' needs and regain their attention, we must break out of the interruption model and focus on connecting with consumers-giving them what they want, how they want it and NOT by interrupting them. Behavioral targeting balances the ecosystem by delivering ads that are relevant to individuals.

No matter how loudly and how often you yell at me, I'm not going to buy that time-share condo in Boca Raton because I don't care. But I am a technology buff, so if you're selling the latest, greatest tablet PC, you can place a simple ad on the page without disrupting the content I'm enjoying, and chances are I'm going to pay attention. Moreover, I have a better opinion of you as an advertiser.

Second, behavioral targeting solves the relevance problem because the ads consumers see are based on their actions over time. You can run an ad based on the fact that I read that Mustang story once, but if you knew that I've read every article about Ford minivans that ran in the past year, sending me the minivan ad is an obviously better bet, and I might even be happy it was sent to me.

This all brings me back to the lions and antelopes analogy. The problem with that view of our ecosystem is that it assumes that consumers (the antelopes) get no value from advertising and they are only there for the benefit of the lions. It is precisely this adversarial view that gets us into trouble. Behavioral targeting, on the other hand, aligns the interests of advertisers with consumers' interests, keeping plenty of antelopes around the watering hole. This creates a more harmonious ecosystem for all.

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