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Of social media and ostriches

Asymmetric Consumer Engagement

There is definitely a feeling of “it won’t happen to us” in the advertising market. I am talking about the tidal wave of advertising content that is flooding media channels, the effect it is having on the audience and the fact that advertisers are not adapting their behaviour in line with fairly clear audience responses.

There is plenty of evidence to show the audience is not happy.

The use of ad-blockers on web-browsers has grown rapidly (the developer of ad blocking app Crystal took $75,000 in its first week of release) and for a wide number of reasons:

Close to 50% of our audience already considers there are too many adverts and they are too intrusive and/or annoying. Does this tell us something? For advertisers to continue along this path is like saying “I don’t care what you want, you are going to listen to me” to the target audience. This cannot be a good thing, especially as the audience now has so much control over media channels and, perhaps more importantly, a global voice.

Kantar, the data, insights and consulting company has recently published a report revealing that social media is the least trusted channel of communication in the UK, while print and broadcast media rank most highly. The report also finds that social media and advertising are the two least trusted sources of information on products and brands.

According to Kantar’s DIMENSION study, which is now in its fourth year, concern over privacy has led to widespread mistrust in advertising, with 58 per cent of UK-based connected consumers in the UK stating they are concerned that more tailored content might compromise their privacy and only 43 per cent saying they prefer to see ads that are relevant to their interests and needs.

It's Ancient History surely?

Indeed, none of this is new. Excessive tele-sales led to the creation of the TPS ‘do not call' list, spam email led to spam filters, banners led to banner-blockers and now ads have ad-blockers. As Hegel somewhat paradoxically said, “the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history”. And we clearly have not learned.

So where are we now?

Many web-based businesses rely on advertising revenue to survive. Advertising, in all its forms, is a business necessity especially now we can all access global markets. How are prospects on the other side of the world going to hear about our products if we don’t communicate?

We sidestep ad-blockers by relying on the fact that they don’t affect advertising on social media and other apps, and we flood them with adverts. We insist that website visitors disable ad-blockers before we allow access to content. But are we missing the point?

We clearly have a quandary. The volume, generally poor quality and intrusive nature of on-line adverts has turned the audience against the advertisers to the point that they will pay to stop seeing them, but advertising is essential for the economic survival of a huge number of companies.

So, is circumventing ad blockers and relying on apps the answer? It may keep the advertisers happy, but this approach is a symptomatic treatment. It’s like taking paracetamol for a headache. It does not address the underlying cause and a headache is sometimes an indicator of something more serious.

What is the underlying cause?

The root of the problem is that advertisers have broken the ‘contract’ they had with the audience by bombarding them with low-quality content via digital channels and giving nothing in return for their attention. Spam for a new generation. It’s easy to see why, of course. As budgets are squeezed, the costs of digital advertising look very attractive, but it’s short-termism.

As in medicine, it is better to treat the cause than the symptoms.

There have been attempts of course, operating under a variety of names such as ‘native advertising’ and all aimed at blending in with the user experience. But this approach brings with it some serious issues of trust with the consumer.

Native advertising relies on the difficulty in distinguishing between ‘genuine’ and promotional content. It’s a risky manoeuvre. It relies on an assumption that the audience is not very bright and will not notice as we ‘sneak in’ adverts. (A study by IAB concluded that half of viewers could not tell the difference between native ads and actual news … advertisers are banking on consumers being too unintelligent to know otherwise)

It’s a lethal assumption. Not only have advertisers broken the symmetrical contract with the audience, they now risk breaking the trust contract and, in the process, they will lose the ability to communicate with the audience.

Mark Inskip, CEO Kantar UK & Ireland, Media Division, recently said: “Now, more than ever is the time for the advertising and media industries to work together to rebuild consumer trust…”

I’m not blaming the technology. I’m blaming the way it is being used. Remember.

The audience is not only bright, it is savvy and can spot a fake a mile away. Once spotted, that fake will be held to account on-line with potentially disastrous results for the brand. Trust, once lost, can take years of hard work to rebuild. Prevention is definitely better than cure!

It’s not all doom and gloom of course, there is an answer

We have developed an approach that we call Asymmetric Consumer Engagement, or ‘ACE’ (convenient eh! well we are an advertising agency).

We believe that there is room for advertising, as long as we return to the premise that we treat our audience with respect and honesty.

This is key and something that has been forgotten in the digital stampede.

If you would like to know more, please get in touch.

David Acton

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