I recently came across two articles that really got me jazzed. First, the stunning (and gutsy), "What's Next in Marketing + Advertising," by Paul Isakson. His presentation called the media companies to task on their inability to get with what we advertisers want out of them. And if that wasn't good enough, on AdWeek's site I found David Armano's "Application Economics" piece that asked the question: "Why aren't interactive agencies making more useful stuff" in their quest to build their clients' brands?
I got excited reading these because they both outlined a strategy I've adhered to for years now: we should be creating apps, not ads. Apps are useful, they engage customers, draw them in to your brand universe, and (most importantly) add value to their lives. They represent what the Web's good at and break from the hackneyed (and much hated paradigm of intrusive advertising that detracts -- rather than adds -- to our media consumption experiences.
It's bizarre that banner (and other "click-away") advertising has lasted this long considering it's the only form of advertising out there that says, "Hey! Stop what you're doing and go somewhere else!" CTRs (define) have always reflected consumers' distaste for this paradigm, but when ad social networking (and all that goes on in the form of our individual profiles/"social dashboards") and advertising mix, it's no surprise that sites like Facebook are some of the worst performing sites for "traditional" online advertising. People have stuff to do, people to see, friends to make -- they don't have time for your ads.
However, what they do have time for is applications that add value to those relationships they're working so hard to maintain on Facebook. A quick glance at the Leaderboard of Facebook apps maintained by Adonomics shows just how much people want these things. Many apps have millions of installs and active users and (here's the important part!) most of them are branded apps that subtly and consistently promote the brands that created them.
Rather than avoid these ads disguised as apps, people seek them out and happily install them in their own personal spaces -- those same personal spaces where people fought like crazy (both on Facebook and MySpace) to keep them from getting plastered with ads they didn't want. Heck, some users are even suing Facebook over their ad practices!
So why do people reject "traditional" ads and flock to branded apps and pass around viral media? Because these apps add value to their day-to-day lives! The apps allow people to interact and have fun with their friends, they entertain, and they help get things done.
Some online apps work synergistically with the products they promote and support: Nike+ suite of support tools and online running statistics both continues to promote usage of the product and helps people get more out of their running. Once someone gets someone gets a "SportBand" and starts keeping running stats on Nike's site, you can bet that it's going to be pretty tough for that person to switch to something else -- and they're not going to want to.
This idea of providing free value-added apps as both promotion and brand extension isn't all that new -- Apple's marriage of the iPod with the freely-available iTunes and iTunes store is perhaps one of the best examples around. But the concept has been slow to worm its way into the minds of ad folks who still want to think of advertisements as intrusive messages embedded in media properties.
Branded apps break free of this paradigm. With the addition of code that lets people embed the apps in their own blogs and social networking pages, messages are spread organically, helped along by "fan-sumers" who actually want to hitch their own personal "brand identities" with the identities of the brands that define them.
Yes, branded apps are "content" in the broadest sense, but they're more than that: they're tools to make people's lives easier, better, and more fun. So with all due respect to Paul Isakson who states that "content is the new currency" in his excellent presentation, I'd like to take it one step further: in the new world of social networking, always-on consumers, short attention spans, and the blurring of boundaries between media, content isn't really the new currency, value is.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.