"It’s a known fact in advertising circles that only idiots click on ads — and yet advertisers still think that click-through rates mean something, and that a higher click-through rate means a better ad."
- Wired’s Felix Salmon, "The Future of Online Advertising"
That picture above is how I’ve trained myself to see Google search results over the years, and I know I’m not alone. My selective visual filter carries over to most websites, too. The upper edges and right-side columns of content-heavy sites are almost always just piles of useless ads, moving or dancing or automatically playing audio meant to distract me from the real reason I’m on the site in the first place.
Classic paid online ads are at best unengaging and easily-ignored. They are at worst severely irritating and intrusive on my reading experience (you know those ones that start out normal sized then unexpectedly grow to engulf the entire page? Great strategy, guys). But as Felix Salmon’s excellent article above points out, they’re still the most-frequently used gadget in the online advertising toolbox. Why?
Okay, it’s true. They’re fast, easy, relatively cheap, and easily measured. Paid online ads are a great way for a brand to feel like its doing “something” online, without having to commit too much time or too many resources to the endeavor. But you reap what you sow. Like I mentioned before, consumers have trained their online eyes to ignore what they know to be of no use to them, and they’ve gotten really good at it. So what do brands do online now that paid ads are losing their luster? Simple.
Social media. Yes, the go-to. But there’s a reason for that. It’s not costly, it’s a direct pipeline to consumer feedback, and it’s still new enough that it can provide a real edge when done right. For more information on the uses of social media in marketing, see every blog online anywhere.
Third party content. In his article, Salmon mentions the ad he places for his site Counterparties. It’s not a moving picture, antiquated call to action, or dancing alien. It’s a simple widget that provides links to related content on other sites. He provides a useful service to the reader, manages to not annoy him or her, and still gets to make a good impression and track click-throughs for measurement. Example: You’re reading an article about some new feature in Photoshop. There’s a box with a Counterparties logo in the column, but it’s just displaying links to relevant creativity/software/photo-editing content elsewhere online.
Micropayments. Early in the internet’s existence, it was determined that most content would be free to access, but revenues would be derived from ads where possible. Hence the rise of the paid online ad. But we’ve since seen a different system of content support that could work: paying for good stuff in small, bite-size chunks. Look at the relatively new world off apps. It’s been proven that people are willing to pay a few dollars for something useful or fun, or download something for free and then pay to improve it (just ask Zynga). This method is beginning to leak onto the internet as a whole, with Hulu Plus and Netflix and periodical paywalls like that of the New York Times’. I think we’ll be seeing more of this in the future, as traditional online ads continue to lose effectiveness.
Online is still fairly new as an advertising medium, especially when compared to TV or print. But just as those channels have changed and evolved significantly over the years, the internet will evolve and grow and require new approaches. There’s no permanent, silver bullet, eternal solution to effective advertising. This is why branders and marketers need to constantly be driving, experimenting with, and exploring the latest innovations.
Wait, I remembered one silver bullet marketing solution: be damn good, all the time.