Thursday, February 26, 2009

Digital Conventions

When the majority of people think digital advertising, they usually imagine sketchy banner ads, cheesy games, spam e-mails…a bunch of untrustworthy, false promises. Unfortunately, this makes is the same way that a lot of people look at all advertising. They see adverts use jargon buzzwords, sigh, and press fast-forward on their DVRs. I cannot remember the last time I clicked on a banner ad for fear I would unwittingly download some form of spyware. The reason digital advertising is currently failing is because too many companies insist on applying conventional thinking to an unconventional landscape.

The worst part is that the digital world welcomes fresh, forward thinking. Somehow, businesses don’t see this often enough. Mark Zuckerberg is likely the best success story of the web today. Facebook was simply the combination of many contemporary pieces of the digital world, but put together in an innovative way. It has now moved from a fringe college networking tool to a mainstream, “You’re-not-cool-if-you-don’t-use-it” mass communication outlet. And yet, advertisers have been achieving Click-Through-Rates (CTRs) of below .1%!

While some of this may have to do with the limitations placed on adverts by Facebook developers, much of it simply has to do with a lack of creativity on the part of advertisers. If a company came to Facebook/Microsoft (Microsoft has guaranteed Facebook revenues through 2009 in order to get its text ad system on the site) and said “Here’s a swell idea for a new style of marketing that we think will actually work,” the developers would likely figure out how to implement it.

The closest thing a company has done to effectively use Facebook was Burger King’s “Whopper Sacrifice.” Facebook users installed an on-site application that would deliver a free Whopper coupon after the user deleted ten of their friends. This campaign was wildly successful, with over 82,000 users installing the app to delete over 233,000 friends. Facebook has concurrently shut the process down, though the press this generated simply increased the awareness of the campaign. Burger King was successful because they engaged and incentivized people in a transparent and straight-forward way. No tricks, no gimmicks; just make ten people feel slighted and get a cheeseburger. That’s huge!

Unfortunately, companies are shooting themselves in the foot by doing the opposite and conducting their business in a way that continues to turn audiences away from anything that even looks like advertising. A March 2007 report from the Anti-Spyware Coalition stated that 91% of internet users polled had changed their behavior online to avoid being attacked by unwanted technologies ( Assuredly, there are similar findings for people in the digital community dealing with spam emails and pop-ups, which have been met with public backlash.

To combat this, companies are attempting to gather as much data about internet users as possible. Unfortunately, they continue to act like digital consumers are stupid. Corporations like Google and MySpace continue try to sneak revisions into Terms of Service Agreements that allow for increased intrusions into user data or emails which had previously been assumed private. Rumors have been circulating that the digital cable transition has been another way for companies to gather data, through data recording technologies built-into the converter boxes (

Surprisingly, there are quite a few well-educated, informed people online. They write blogs that deal specifically with corporate transparency or corporate ethics. The premise of the worldwide web is that everything is linked and when one person discovers something a business has done to exploit consumers, that person is going to tell everyone they know and the information will spread like wildfire. Before the internet, newspapers were the biggest thing corporations had to fear. I still baffles me that businesses do not understand that they must be transparent after almost 25 years into the Digital Age. Instead, they simply apply conventional wisdom that they can exploit and take advantage of people without much repercussion.

Most digital advertising is also failing because the advertising industry is stuck floundering around in the interweb. To be successful, companies need to begin to realize that there is much more to digital than just the web. As of January 16th, 2009, 15,000 applications have accumulated over 500,000,000 downloads from the Itunes Store to be used on approximately 13 million Iphones. Yet few companies have integrated any advertising into application or paired with Apple to create product-centric games or utilities.

The mobile universe should be the next stop for advertisers in North America. While invasive text messages might go the way of spam e-mail, providing cell phone users with incentives or an enjoyable experience could easily engage a wide audience. Some Itunes application developers have reported earnings in the millions of dollars. Steve Demeter, the developer of the popular game Trism, reported making more than $250,000 merely two months after its July 2008 release. The combination of a skilled developer and a forward-thinking agency would have an easy time creating a marketable outlet that consumers would find value in.

Many advertisers are daunted by all the possibilities provided by the digital world. This is somewhat understandable as the market has become incredibly fragmented with consumers breaking into smaller and smaller groups. The winner in this though should be advertisers! Rather than struggling to find their audience, advertisers should be able to find their targets almost gift-wrapped in a small corner of the digital world. Pandora Radio is one interesting outlets that takes many of these fragmented groups and gives them all something to appease their eclecticism; music. The site is a free radio service that is generates playlists based on formal musical components of songs rather than genres. The company has an in-house team that creates adverts for companies that work with the site’s radio player. These ads are displayed during songs or genres which correspond with the advertisements desired market.

It seems so easy, but still advertisers have not taken the steps necessary to capture much ground in the digital world. Listen up! Stop thinking in terms of “this banner ad” or “that cheesy viral ad”, and start thinking truly digital! Be nimble and creative and look at the innumerable outlets available to you. Start making trustworthy content that is mutually valuable to you and your consumers.

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