After all these years of technological prowess and hyper-targeting bravado, most digital ad campaigns still can’t replicate one of the simplest and most irresistible forms of early 20th century outdoor advertising: the classic Burma Shave roadside signage. Between 1927 and 1963, the “brushless shaving cream” maker put sequenced signs staked into the right side of the road. Each miniature billboard had another line in a humorous ditty, such as "Proper/Distance/To Him Was Bunk/Pulled Him Out/Of Some Guy’s Trunk/Burma Shave" or "Past School Houses/Take It Slow/Let The Little/Shavers Grow/Burma Shave." These roadside verses should remind any modern marketer of the simple engagement that comes with timing, contextual awareness, creative pauses and narrative.
The idea of sequencing online advertising to build an ongoing story or pull people through stages of consideration has gotten some lip service over the years. A NYTimes.com program many years ago touted “surround sessions” where a single advertiser would own the customer during a given session at the news site. One scenario for a surround session would be sequencing ads across a session experience in Burma Shave fashion. My recollection is that most of these sessions just reiterated the same messaging. And so it goes with most online advertising, including retargeting. Blast them with the same creative until they respond, damn it. They will cave at some point.
But a new study from Adaptly, Facebook and Refinery29, a lifestyle site, reminds us of the obvious: People respond to stories better than relentless pitches. The aim was to drive registrations at the Refinery29 site, so the company used the current email list of the site’s best subscribers to build a Facebook Custom Audience. Adaptly extended that Custom Audience with a lookalike set of over 2 million that were then divided into three groups for testing.
Six creative in all were designed. One set of standard call-to-action units aimed at driving people immediately to Refinery29 for a sign-up. This set was deployed in a typical blast campaign that ran across four days. The other set aimed at three different spots: top-of-funnel branding, mid-point consideration with a sample of site content, and bottom funnel call to action. This set was sequenced over 12 days. The two campaigns used similar bidding strategies, and the final unadvertised group served as a control.
The results of the test show that while calls to action do work, storytelling works better. When comparing performance individually across the six units, it was the “consideration” unit that sampled the site that drove the most view-throughs from the ad, as well as involvement on the landing page. The calls-to-action ads in the sustained CTA campaign and in the sequenced campaigns followed in performance.
But the most compelling result came from the group that had been exposed to all three of the sequenced ads. While the responsiveness of both groups increased exposure to two and three units, the group exposed to the sequencing indexed twice as high in view-throughs as the group viewing sustained CTA units. Conversions to registered Refinery29 subscribers were also considerably higher among those seeing the sequenced ads.
The test suggests that story matters -- and not just because we like stories. The longer sell in a sequenced fashion recognizes the process consumers themselves go through and maps creative against the likely stages of consideration.
Much of this should be obvious. But I have to admit being befuddled by fact that the massive data targeting apparatus is still aimed at the crude goal of finding people rather than targeting states of mind and contexts. But even more to the point, there doesn’t seem to be much conversation between data and creative. The creative potential in digital, especially with mobility, goes way beyond digital formats and interactivity. It opens up new ways of talking to consumers -- not just in time, but over time. Marketing professionals love to talk about having “conversations” with customers. But do they really have much to say? Are they really listening?