September 05, 2012

Invisible Advertising

As media options for advertisers have become radically more complex, our ideas about the value of various media types have become concomitantly more esoteric.

We analyze media efficiencies based on very advanced ideas of consumer behavior. We try to understand how and why consumers use certain types of media and we optimize our media efficiencies by following those behaviors. We use highly muscular targeting models to find exactly the right audience and exactly the right environment for our messages.

And yet, as our ability to target has gotten dramatically more precise  -- particularly for online  advertising -- our results have gotten progressively more dismal. So what the hell is going on?

The answer is that we have grossly exaggerated the usefulness of media science. We have also overlooked something far simpler and more consequential. There is one characteristic of advertising that we never seem to discuss, that never enters into the evaluation process, and that, in the end, may trump all the arcane media analyses and targeting models.

In addition to having strategic and executional properties, advertising also has physical properties. These physical properties may, in the end, have a greater effect on success than media science. The simple physical nature of an ad may be far more relevant in predicting its power than any of the mysterious media calculations.

The fact that an ad occupies a whole page, or a whole screen, may be a lot more germane to its effectiveness than how well it is targeted. A big old billboard that targets no one in particular may be, dollar-for-dollar, a more efficient media buy than a display ad that precisely targets left-handed Mennonite yogurt eaters, but is so physically insignificant as to be unobservable.

To state it another way, it doesn't really matter how well-targeted a Facebook ad is if its physical properties make it invisible. The fact that it is a tiny little thing sitting in an area of a page we have all learned to ignore is critical to understanding why Facebook ads are so alarmingly ineffective. The fact that it may be targeted with absolute precision is meaningless if it is essentially invisible.

Which leads me to a piece written recently by Seth Godin. The piece is called "Advertising's bumpy transition (and why it matters to you)." It is basically an apologia for online advertising.

Seth is a very bright guy and he makes some interesting points about media choices. He is particularly astute in his criticism of print advertising. But there is also a lot to argue with.

If I understand Seth's main thesis correctly (and frankly, I'm not sure I do) I think he is saying that advertisers undervalue digital advertising because they don't understand the power that is represented by "focus." By "focus" I think he means a digital environment that is specific and uncluttered and conducive to the particular interests of a distinct type of consumer.

He is correct that placing display ads in focused environments is probably a lot more judicious than throwing them willy-nilly all over the web. But they are still famously ineffective.

Seth believes that once advertisers understand "focus" they will have a deeper appreciation for the power of online display advertising. I don't think so. I think advertisers already have seen that while "focus" may be preferable to absence of focus, it has not led to terribly effective advertising.

The problem is not one of targeting or focus. The problem is that the physical properties of display ads render them essentially invisible. Until this problem is somehow addressed, display ads will continue to under-perform and their value will continue to deteriorate regardless of how brilliantly they are placed.

Categorizing ad types as "old media" versus "new media," or "traditional media" versus "digital media," or "online media" versus "offline media" is not an intelligent way to think about advertising. In fact, because of its physical properties an online display ad has much more in common with a small space newspaper ad than it does with a YouTube video or a website.

Media science notwithstanding, there are only two types of advertising in the world: visible advertising and invisible advertising. The farther away from understanding this you get, the more confused you become.

No comments: