The Future Is Not Display Ads – It’s Display Ads and Branded Content

Is display advertising doomed?

It’s a question that has no doubt come up within your agency’s walls…walls that were probably largely built on revenue made from display ads. In the same way that consumers worry about the personal computers they so heavily rely upon becoming obsolete, marketers are burdened with a niggling sense of disquiet about the future of web banners. New – some say better – technology has been known to upset the balance we’ve come to accept as our norm. And right now, this is exactly what’s happening online.

I recently read an interesting article that endeavored to articulate the reasons why “the future is not display ads.” At its forefront were social networks and their astronomical audience growth. Facebook aside, these online sharing services don’t comply with the standard ad program media buyers know so well. In fact their advertising often doesn’t take the form of an ad at all. Twitter has its brand-generated tweets. Pinterest has its branded pinboards. Tumblr has its branded Tumblr blogs. YouTube has its branded video channels.

What media buyers must keep in mind is that social media marketing and the editorial-based properties on which we’ve always advertised are two completely different beasts. For that reason, they can’t easily be inserted into the same management platform. Agencies don’t use traditional online media buyers to market their clients on social sites – we have specialized social media managers for that. Why then should we assume that we can view it in the same way that we do display ads? Audiences are flocking to social sites, and for that reason so should we. That doesn’t mean that we should – or will – abandon display advertising (which, mind you, continues to thrive in the search, rich media, classifieds, and mobile categories).

One point to this effect is that the display ad market is so deeply entrenched in the online publishing business that plenty of social sites have come to accept it in spite of previous reservations. Back in 2010 David Karp, founder and CEO of Tumblr, was quoted as saying “We’re pretty opposed to advertising. It really turns our stomachs.” Recently, however, he announced that Tumblr will start selling ad space adjacent to its top posts starting this week. While it isn’t being touted as a traditional ad unit, the space is estimated to receive 120 million impressions a day and has enough measurable substance to be included in a standard campaign management platform.

This isn’t the case with other attempts at marketing through social sites. While media buyers can measure “likes” and shares, much of what consumers do with the user-generated or republished content is more difficult to track. Brands might never know if it was a Facebook post that led a consumer to navigate to its online store rather than a Facebook ad that left a lasting impression. Actions, as we well know, aren’t always urgent and immediate.

What this media shift calls for is a bit of a tactical recalibration. Instead of trying to lump social site advertising like branded content in with display advertising of the more traditional sort, why not accept them for the unique channels that they are? Since we don’t expect the same kind of performance from both, they should be treated individually as one might treat search ads and billboard space: while the message and tone remain consistent, the way in which the ads are placed, managed, and gauged for success are as different as night and day. The existence of one doesn’t undervalue the other, nor does it require an alarmist outlook. These are simply two distinctive marketing opportunities that, when treated correctly, can be made to benefit your brand.

Few industries are as fluid as ours is. We’re both at the mercy of and in favor of technology that completely changes the web-based world we know while also promising to make it even better. Our job as digital marketers and media buyers is to roll with the punches and find ways to make it work. No, the future is not display ads. The future is display ads and so much more.

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