One of the biggest problems clients’ have today is reaching their audience. We’ve talked endlessly about media fragmentation and the era of distractions, but the real problem seems to be that people are migrating to places where it’s harder to reach them.
We’ve gone to ever-smaller screens, from cinema to TV, desktop to mobile. Worst of all, we spend ever more times in apps, the cookie-free environment with the smallest possible real estate to work with.
While we see the explosive growth in online and mobile budgets, we’ve an extreme tension between investment and excitement of online advertising and the day-to-day frustration with ads that don’t work, click-through rates that border on negligible and ad unit innovation that moves dials for ever shorter periods of time.
The money may be flooding in, but digital display remains oddly subdued; it’s not working for many people. Media owners sell inventory far beneath what they feel is right, brands fail to connect meaningfully with people, and the consumer experience of the modern Internet is lousy: a world of interruptions, distractions and deliberate slight of hands, while your attention is stolen for pennies on the dollar.
It shouldn’t be like this. If marketers were told in 1980 that one day people would be spending time on a device that you can target with incredible data, show rich media in, measure every aspect of, update in real time at the point of purchase, it would be the most exciting canvas their imagination could imagine.
Yet with remarkably few exceptions, you can feel more exasperation than excitement.
The problem we have with online media is that it’s always been cheap, and it’s hard to value something that doesn’t cost much. It started as the place where you placed the leftover cash after the real advertising was planned or where smaller brands that couldn’t afford proper advertising went while money continues to shift from TV to online. Somehow, online remains like the misshapen offcuts of advertising; it has created a vicious circle of decline that hurts everyone.
Cheap media has meant that media owners needed to offer more inventory to try to maximize yields from eyeballs on site. We see pages designed to maximize screen space for ads, cramming ads into every corner and reducing the quality of the browsing experience. The failure to recover lost money leads to media owners creating more stackable content that’s cheaper to produce, more viral and topped with click bait in order to create more inventory to sell.
The ambition and quality of content online goes down, all in the act of making more ad space.
The growing abundance of ad space means that even in a world of rapidly increasing digital investment, CPM’s remain stubbornly low. Even the most successful sites like Facebook, still make one-quarter the ad revenue per unit time than more primitive media like print.
When media cost are low, expectations are low, attitudes are crappy and production budgets stay low. All online ads become rudimentary, cheap desperate ploys designed to attract attention, based on the assumption nobody is watching anyway. It’s a land of sporadic targeting, hit and hopes. We’ve so much attention on ad targeting, we end up with Google magazine-style ads, where even adding a background stock image is too much hassle for the little it’s worth.
And the circle continues ever downwards.
Advertising’s inherent value lies in it being expensive — expensive ads are like well-built banks, they are outward signs of stability, confidence and an intention to last. Cheap ads mean nothing, the subtle message from the medium is not that you have a big ad budget, but you have a keen intern.
But imagine if we turned it around. Could the spiral of decline reverse into a virtuous circle? Imagine a time where each Web site offered one advertiser run of page, much larger ad units, with rich video content, but for far more money.
We’d then see production budgets rise, creatives would see this as a new valuable medium to work their magic, awards for online would become more meaningful.
We’d see audiences relieved from the lack of distraction do something they’ve not done since 1998: They’d notice the ad, they may read them, play with them, even click on them.
Online advertising has chased precision targeting as a core attribute, but traditional advertising didn’t need that. What if broader targeting and broadcasting were an opportunity? Why couldn’t online ads move away from lower funnel and up to glossier upper funnel activities?
What about better calls to action -- why do we rely on the clicks to visit microsites? What if an impression was enough, or what if we moved to click to add to basket, click to add to Google maps, to send to friends, to add to bookmarks to get mobile coupons?
Online advertising needs to wake up to its potential. It’s got money flowing, but its ambition remains muted. It’s going after better targeting, faster buying, more advanced trading desks, yet it somehow lacks the true belief it can be something that people notice and care about. It needs to reverse course; it needs to get bigger, bolder, more expensive, more rare, more beautiful.
It deserves to seek to be noticed, not to seek to be cost-effective.