The Internet has killed advertising — now it’s all about noise and trust.
If I could write one golden rule of advertising, it would be: Consumers hate advertising. For every rule, of course, there are exceptions. Every once in a while, advertising crosses into entertainment (e.g., Budweiser’s Whassup?! on the Web and TV, or various Super Bowl flashes in the pan). But no one really knows why some commercials are considered funny and become popular, and the other 99.9 percent are simply irritating. Certainly, if you try too hard to become a phenomenon, you come off looking like a doofus.
TV commercials seem to have a corner on “ads as entertainment.” Magazine or radio ads might have a very slim chance of being memorable; banner ads have no chance. So, for the most part, it seems consumers don’t hate TV ads. This is based on scientific water-cooler-conversation focus groups. When is the last time you heard someone quoting a banner ad as funny or controversial? I thought so!
We are all consumers, even we marketers. So surely we have noticed how much we hate advertising? Oddly, no one seems to say this out loud. Marketers plan advertising obsessively: They craft the message based on expensive focus groups, tweak the creative for weeks at a stretch, write and rewrite copy, and scientifically plan the media buys. But at the end of the day, they still hate it when “Law & Order” is interrupted by long-distance-telephone commercials. They hate getting their mailbox stuffed with daily offers for the “conference of the week.” They hate telemarketers. They hate flipping through 20 pages of print ads to get to the story they want. And they hate banner ads.
For marketers, there is an odd dualism to this. Part of you admires the craft of each message, the font and colors, perhaps even the targeting. The other part of you wants to be left alone. Now imagine you are a regular consumer: There is no dualism; you just want to be left alone.
Advertising Cynicism, the Internet Way
I believe that the Internet has finally brought advertising cynicism to a head. The Internet is accountable and trackable to an unprecedented degree. You can track response rates as a factor of different messages, creative, placement, demographics, even time of day.
Accountability was originally hailed as the Internet’s greatest advertising advantage. Alas, it has instead been its downfall. Marketers have always said, “I know half of my advertising dollars are wasted; I just don’t know which half.” Sophisticated tracking combined with the dismal 0.5 percent click-through rates for banner ads would edit that clichi to “I know that 99.5 percent of my advertising dollars are wasted, and I know which 99.5 percent.” How would that change your advertising spending?
Consumers are simply tired of all the noise being thrown at them. On buses, billboards, coffee cups, grocery carts, every single page of content on every single Web site, every page of the newspaper, every 10 minutes on TV… there are ads. Consumers have adjusted to this constant barrage: They tune out.
But worse than that, they resent it, they distrust it, and they don’t buy it. I would suggest that the 99.5 percent nonresponse rate of banner ads is not exclusively a Web problem; it is indicative of consumer ambivalence across all kinds of advertising. The Web just has the misfortune of being uniquely trackable, compared to TV, radio, or print.
Filter Noise, Cherish Trust
The constant barrage of advertising in all media can be blamed for the general noise level, but the Internet can be specifically blamed for teaching consumers how easy it is to tune out ads and how to do it efficiently. Banner ads can be blocked entirely with freely available software. Or they can simply be scrolled out of sight. Commercial email can be filtered directly into your trash. You can surf for days anonymously, without giving out any personal info, without encountering any irritating salespeople.
Consumers appreciate this almost instantly when they’re on the Internet. In a focus group, one newcomer to the Internet ranted about how much he hated spam. I was surprised at his vehemence, since he was obviously new but had so quickly learned to hate it. I said, “You accept direct mail and telemarketing. Why do you view spam so differently?” His eyes lit up, and he said, “Oh, I hate direct mail and telemarketing just as much. I wish I could block them or flame them the same way!” (As if I had just given him an idea.)
So, we’ve made the noise level high in just about every medium, venue, and flat surface to which we can adhere a sticker. Now consumers won’t listen to anything. But it’s not enough to whine about the death of advertising; we need to talk about solutions.
Marketing has now become a trust game. Consumers will listen to sources that they trust: media, friends, and brands they trust. Because these are entities that won’t yell at them, slick them, or spin them, they will simply pass on relevant, accurate information (at least, that’s the perception).
Media. One recent survey showed that information buyers within companies base 80 percent of their buying decisions on product reviews and industry rags: That’s a significant influence. By contrast, most information services managers would rarely base a buying decision on an ad. The next largest purchasing influence on the list: recommendations from colleagues. That is, word of mouth.
Friends. The friend phenomenon is even stronger in consumer markets. I did a survey approximately six years ago asking people how they found new sites. The largest response was “Word of mouth.” Advertising was about No. 4 on the list, below searching and news stories. I would guess that nowadays, even with the market being dramatically different, the list would look similar. Behold the power of viral marketing: It’s a trust tool, where you get a personal recommendation to a perfectly targeted customer via his or her own trusted friends.
Branding. The trust game is also a huge part of the branding renaissance we’re seeing on the Internet. It used to be assumed that the Internet would be the death of big brands. But now that the noise level has reached a fevered pitch on the Internet, consumers are relying on the brands they know and trust. In a world full of unknown return policies, credit card fraud, eBay forgeries, and hacked databases, buyers return in droves to the comfort zone of big brands. Sure, you can buy jeans cheaper from some dot-com based in Russia. But isn’t it more reassuring to go to Levis.com, where you know the size, quality, price, and source?
New Attitude: Trust-Based Marketing
Advertising will never go away, it seems. Advertisers are simply in the habit of advertising. And publications and broadcasters in all media simply cannot monetize trust-based marketing, so they will continue to push advertising.
Most consumers intuitively understand that advertising is some kind of necessary evil; they will occasionally listen to it and even enjoy it now and then. But marketers should begin to examine the real, human reasons that click-through rates have plummeted and reflect on what that might say about advertising and consumer attitudes in general. Perhaps then they would refocus their spending toward creative marketing: servicing and upselling customers that you already have? Guerrilla marketing? Viral marketing? Media relations?
The answer may be different for each marketer and newly challenging for each campaign. But it would also have the effect of bringing the advertising noise level down, and back into balance with consumer interest. Then perhaps all media would benefit and consumers wouldn’t hate us marketers so much.
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