Digital Advertising Is at a Crossroads – And the Choice is Retreat or Rethink

A guest post by Tim Walters, Co-founder, Digital Clarity Group

It is no secret that digital B2C and B2B advertising is at a crossroads as we enter 2016. Or perhaps better, in a state of crisis – and I mean that in the medical sense. The critical condition is the decisive stage when it is not known whether the patient will improve and recover . . . or deteriorate further and struggle to survive.

The State of the Dis-union

Digital was supposed to be nirvana for advertisers. It offered non-physical formats, unlimited distribution, unprecedented – indeed, unthinkable – precision targeting, and undreamed of insights into the consumers’ profile and desires.

But the nirvana has turned into a nightmare. Once they got a taste of digital’s advantages, advertisers and adtech firms too often fell prey to the crack cocaine of unrestrained inventory, reach, and tracking.

The evidence of the resulting excesses is inescapable and compelling, but conveniently, the prime suspect has confessed.

In October 2015, only four weeks after denouncing ad blockers as “highway robbery” equivalent to the content theft of the early Napster, Scott Cunningham of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) announced “We messed up. . . .Tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience. . . . [We] steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience.”

That’s an amazing mea culpa, but let’s boil it down to the essence: In the so-called era of the empowered customer, first generation digital advertising was customer-hostile, and pursued ends that were not only unaligned with, but directly antithetical to those of the consumers of the ads.

A New Start: Retreat or Rethink?

After a period of excess – whether social, political, or technological – there are typically two responses: Retreat and Rethink.

Retreat means returning to a familiar and comfortable past, where the rules and the outcomes are known (or seem to be). Thus some have suggested that we should surrender the advantages of digital advertising and return to “dumb ads,” on the model of those in printed newspapers or magazines.

Despite the appeal of the familiar, this kind of retreat always stifles innovation and progress. The alternative is to study what caused the excesses and to rethink and design an approach that can avoid these excesses while retaining – or expanding upon – the benefits.

Fundamentally, what was wrong with first gen digital advertising? Consumers often say they find ads “intrusive and inappropriate.” In an eMarketer survey of US millennial consumers in 2015, for example, nearly 40% said they resist or ignore ads because they are “not relevant enough” or “feel intrusive” (which I take to be closely related, since a relevant ad shouldn’t be experienced as intrusive).

Conversely, relevant ads would be markedly more welcome, attract more attention, and be more valuable for both the consumer and the advertiser.

Relevance Puts You On the Side of the Consumer

The words relevant and relevance mean “pertinent to the matter at hand.” They are derived from a word in old French that could mean “helpful,” and are traced back to the Latin expression for “to lighten or lessen” (the load).

That’s the perfect picture – helpful, pertinent, lightening the load: If I’m helping you build a barn and give you a 2×4 when what you need at that moment is a nail, my assistance is not relevant.

Providing relevance in the context of a customer journey requires collecting, understanding, and acting upon the customer’s inputs from every stage and interface of the journey.

In other words, instead of the retreat to dumb advertising, rethinking leads to far more intelligent advertising – which can potentially solve or at least begin to dissolve the consumer resistance to digital advertising.

In fact, I think that intelligent (relevant, helpful) second-generation digital advertising harbors the potential to turn the myth of informed consent into a reality. With the right kind and the right measure of insight, advertisers, publishers, and brands can move beyond the vague – and usually meaningless – promise that personal information will result in “a better experience for the consumer” and instead begin to deliver genuine and obvious benefits.

Learn more from Tim Walters by watching the exclusive webinar “How (Real) Relevance Can Save Digital Advertising” below.

Originally published April 01, 2016

Tim Walters, Ph.D.

Tim is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst at Digital Clarity Group. His areas of expertise include digital disruption, customer experience management, social collaboration and the future of work, as well as translation and globalization.

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