One could argue that the root of this problem is the fundamentally flawed assumption that reader and consumer are interchangeable terms. Unless you happen to be Amazon or Angie’s List, when I visit a website there is a high probability that the only thing I plan to “consume” is information. I am there because I want to read. I am there because I want to learn. I am not there to buy products, or even to learn about them.
I want to emphasize that this problem and the responsibility for its consequences, in my opinion, rest squarely with online publishers. Advertisers are doing what they should: selling their offerings. They are not in the business of entertaining or providing information–though many savvy marketers have figured out that doing so can generate interest and create loyalty. Marketers have also labored to understand everything they can about their target audience: where they go, what they like, who they follow, when they are most likely to pay attention.
Has any publisher given a fraction of this level of attention to understanding their readers? In my experience, many publishers do place significant effort in understanding their readers, but almost exclusively to the extent that it helps them figure out how to treat their readers as consumers. Do these publishers do A/B testing to see which ad placement is least annoying? Have these publisher ever asked their readers if there are any parts of the site or any time during the visit when readers would be less annoyed by ads? When evaluating the latest and greatest rich media ad format, have these publishers done focus groups to see how readers reacted to it? Are there any publishers who value net promoter scores above click-through rates?
Google deserves a bit of credit for promoting the idea of micro moments, finding the moments in our daily lives when we are most likely to be receptive to information about products.
As far as I know, they have not started talking about the micro no-no moments, when you should really leave people alone. Asking Google to guide publishers on best practices for when to present ads to their readers would be like asking the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse. And yet, as I have written previously, Google clearly does understand the value of not pissing off visitors, and has experimented with ways of making advertising less annoying on its own properties.
Another aspect of this situation that I find mind-boggling is that ultimately every publisher is a human being. I’m sure that even the most callous revenue manager gets annoyed if a telemarketer calls at 8 a.m. on Saturday or during dinner time. Have they not heard the concept of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?
If these people were able to run advertising in the real world, I am confident they could come up with some genius ideas to find the moments when we are most likely to pay attention: billboards would be allowed to jump into the middle of highways as we are driving by; toilet seats would come with built-in LCD panels that only unlock after we watch a 30-second spot; and condom manufacturers... well, you get the point.
Not tonight, honey, this thing just gave me a headache.