When Yahoo announced this week that it would be buying Tumblr, consumers everywhere gave a collective groan. They'd seen these kinds of startup acquisitions before, and knew what they meant: ads. Even Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer seemed to anticipate how users would react; on her own Tumblr page she led the announcement by pledging "not to screw it up."
Meanwhile on Twitter, tweets ranged from alarmist ("Yahoo will find a way to ruin Tumblr") to unnervingly angry ("I hate you yahoo! Your website ALWAYS FULL of ADS! Now you gonna bring ur commercial to tumbler? Hell no!"). We can guess what these people were imagining. In their mind's eye they were seeing banners everywhere, flashing block copy that shouted "Lose weight now!" and pop-ups promising salvation from Mac viruses. In essence, they were picturing the web as we knew it back in 2003. Because that certainly isn't what it looks like today.
This is a bit of a blanket statement, and there are many site categories that haven't evolved as effectually as others (in part because they simply don't attract the brands with the bucks to produce quality ads), but look at the major sites, newspapers, and portals, the ones with the greatest influence and reach, and you'll find that things have changed. You'll see sponsored articles and native ads, user-initiated web-exclusive videos, skinned site sections, and infographics incorporated into the page. It used to be that brands wanted to generate as many impressions and clicks as possible, which required endless user interruptions and bold calls-to-action. Now digital advertising is about something else entirely: being polite.
We're seeing this in the way that brands have embraced all manner of branded content. According to global newspaper site MailOnline, 70 percent of marketers and 77 percent of agencies have used branded content in the past year. Sixty-six percent say it's a "very important" part of their marketing efforts. There's a reason for this usage increase, and it's that branded content works. It's a workaround for managing a fracturing audience that channel-hops and simu-surfs without a second thought. But it's also quiet and considerate of the user experience. It doesn't shout, "Look at me!" but instead says, "Someone paid to put me here, but I have something useful to tell you. Listen if you like." And people - a lot of people - do.
So much so, in fact, that publishers are creating more opportunities for brands to engage with this breed of well-mannered ads. In February, The Huffington Post launched a site section called Impact X that it will be custom-redesigning on an ongoing basis for its ad partners. Cisco is currently sponsoring the section, so Huffington Post editors are finding and reposting current content relating to Cisco's brand image and corporate cause, which centers on corporate social responsibility and touches on topics like tech innovation and youth mentorship.
The curated content is balanced with a few articles by Cisco employees, and Cisco is left with an entire corner of Huffington Post that's an ideal representation of its brand. Its presence on the page is rooted in subtlety, as the focus is on real-time content. It's doubtful that users would feel overwhelmed by ads here, because they're limited to a few Cisco logos, a small static banner or two, and a user-launched video unit that offers multiple clips to choose from. The video clips aren't even traditional ads, but branded stories of Cisco clients.
Do site visitors have to be aware of their surroundings in order to realize that a site section like this one is sponsored? Yes - the advertising is so polite that some may not realize it's there. While this could potentially cause consumer angst and raise issues of transparency (and let's be clear: transparency is enormously important), which would you, as a consumer, prefer: informative, often highly entertaining content that happens to be paid for by a brand instead of the publisher itself, or gratuitous and irrelevant banners on top of banners, flashing away?
Most consumers are never going to love the idea of ads - but then, they don't love the idea of site subscriptions and paywalls, either. Maybe the answer is advertising that's less aggressive, more ingrained, and above all else, useful. Isn't it worth a shot?
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.