Are You Ready For An Ad-Free World?

Are you ready for ad-free world? That was the very provocative and thought-provoking question that came out of a recent conversation with Vice co-founder Shane Smith that Marketing Week ran yesterday. Now, I don't think for one moment that an ad-free world will ever exist, but of course it's a great segue for someone running a site that is well-known for its native content to get the message across that brands need to work closer with publishers to reach their audiences.

Even if we take it for granted that there will always be digital display, asking yourself if you are ready for a world where it doesn't exist is a fascinating question because it pushes brands to the inescapable conclusion that they need to be in the flow of content -- not screaming out to readers and viewers from the largely ignored margins.

This is clearly becoming more of an issue for brands because of the multiple woes that digital display is enduring right now. There's the despicable problem of ad fraud, where criminals set up fake pages to which they send robotic traffic to chalk up millions of impressions. There's also the problem of viewability. It really depends on the media and who's doing the the measuring, but I've seen research that suggests anything between 5% and 40% of display isn't viewable -- meaning that half the pixels of an ad are viewable for one second. Figures are further complicated by some including fraud in viewability, to mean viewable by a human. 

So we're never quite sure how much is wasted, but it's a significant proportion. Some brands will ask for a refund but, even so, a cheque a month or two down the line doesn't get around the problem of their time-limited campaign not getting the exposure they expected when they committed a certain budget to raise awareness among an audience. 

Then, of course, we have ad blocking. Estimates vary but a consensus is that around one in seven block ads and that this can rise to as many as one in three male Millennials. If you're trying to reach this key audience, then you can imagine that a proportion will not be viewable to a human and that one in three of those humans isn't even in the ad-receiving game.

So display will carry on, but its woes clearly underscore how brands need to imagine a world they can't just buy attention from the sidelines and have to actually limber up and get out there on the field of play.

I have to say that in my twenty-five years of being a journalist, the last couple have seen the biggest change. You might think the shift to digital was the major revolution, and you'd be partly right. The real change is that now nationals and trade titles are actively seeking brand partners to develop content hubs. There's a hardcore news team still at each paper generating stories and utilising stringers all over the world but, for the rest of the industry, when a paper commissions an article today it's as likely to be for a sponsored hub or zone as it is the main site.

There has been a fundamental shift in who is paying for the article. If readers don't pay directly for the content, they pay for it with their attention, and the cheques are now being written by companies that would previously not have expected to be front and centre, but rather at the top or to the right in a banner or a skyscraper.

Media has fundamentally changed. Moving from paper to digital was the trigger -- the revolution was brands' involvement in content, not just the advertising.

What Shane Smith says in the interview is spot on. Brands have to get involved from the inception of an individual piece of content to the strategy behind any zone or hub it may appear in. I'd add that they need to avoid pushing themselves too hard in articles and point out that the best hubs and zones I have been involved with never interview the sponsoring brand. They might get name-checked here and there and their rivals will most certainly not appear, but the overall content is editorially driven because it suits the publisher and the brand to have articles and videos the public wants to consume. If there's a suspicion that content is pr puff, it serves nobody's interest.

So if you haven't thought about what kind of editorial zone your brand could fit into, what the talking points are, or the issues it could oversee in an editorial discussion with consumers, the long weekend ahead might be a good time to think about these questions while those egg hunts are undertaken and the chocolate bounty is devoured.

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