Breaking the Sound Barrier

We live in an increasingly fractured media landscape where competing ad formats that appear nearly everywhere seem to create a wall of sound. It becomes pretty tough for the average consumer to pay attention to anything. Advertisers increasingly turn to wacky stunts to garner attention (e.g., Snapple ill-fated, ill-conceived sticky stunt). Logistical popsicle-engineering issues aside, it’s getting trickier to get anyone to notice anything.

Yet search engines and email continue to deliver well (possible technical glitches aside). According to a new study by Harris Interactive, over half of Internet users turn to search engines to shop. And according to a Pew Interactive & American Life study, more than half of users also research their hobbies and look for DIY information. New research on how moms use the Net finds targeted newsletters that deliver coupons or special discounts are popular with the majority of busy moms surveyed, a finding that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows a mom with a strapped schedule.

There is, of course, a fair amount of resistance to other advertising methods. Users, especially the wealthier, more knowledgeable ones most of us are after, are more likely to delete cookies to keep their info hidden from us advertisers. Anti-spam and anti-spyware legislation is becoming a popular way for congress critters to pander to constituents. The groundswell of revulsion is so strong, many popular shareware sites (such as Jumbo!) now ban ad-supported/adware-riddled software from their sites. People hate the stuff.

Search engines are different. Though people still tend to skip around to different search engines while hunting info that interests them, they really don’t seem to be aware of (or care that much about) ads inserted in search results. Other studies show there’s some consumer trepidation about the tactic. But in general, people continue to use search engines as their primary means of accessing information. In fact, Harris Interactive survey finds most users know what’s paid and what’s not. A big chunk don’t mind these ads at all.

So why this disparity? Why do folks invest in anti-spyware software, delete cookies, and generally resist so many of the ways we try to reach them yet don’t really seem to mind the ads that smack them in the face when they use search engines?

The answer may lie in a closer examination of what people do online. The Pew study finds people seem to spend most of their time (78 percent) researching products and services; reading news (72 percent); looking up DIY information (55 percent); shopping online auctions (24 percent); and visiting chat rooms (17 percent). Meanwhile, the global Yellow Pages business is growing to $100 billion, with most of the growth coming from digital formats.

If you look at these stats (and plenty of others out there), you’ll see people use the Internet to do stuff. They’re goal-directed, heading online to accomplish something, look something up, find an answer to a problem, or learn something new.

There’s no question people use the Net for entertainment as well, but entertainment seems secondary to getting stuff done. The Internet has gone from being a place we visit for entertainment and novelty to a database we query when we need answers. In many respects, most of us treat the Web as a personal assistant. It patiently waits until we need something, then fetches it for us when we do.

If you consider advertising within this mindset, it’s easy to see why intrusive, obnoxious ad formats are resisted and helpful ones that actually provide value (e.g., search engine marketing) are accepted. It’s opposite of what goes on in the TV and print worlds: jumping into the consumer’s entertainment stream and screaming to get noticed. Online, you respect the Web’s role as a database and an assistant.

Imagine you must make reservations to take a client to lunch. You call your assistant and ask for a restaurant recommendation. If your assistant knows your (and your client’s) preferences and comes back with a recommendation that works, he’ll probably be rewarded. On the other hand, if he’s been paid off by the House O Tripe and rushes into your office with a handful of flyers while singing the House O Tripe theme song, you’ll probably be annoyed.

Inserting your brand into consumers mindset and adding value by assisting their activities are proven to be much more successful than yelling, screaming, or singing. When considering how you’re going to break through the wall of noise surrounding today’s consumers, think about how you can help them with what they’re trying to do rather than standing in their way.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.