Michael Nutley
Michael Nutley 29 April 2013

Will earned media stop advertising eating itself?

When everyone else is shouting, can you make yourself heard by whispering? Or do you need a different approach?

The online advertising industry is in danger of eating itself, as the overwhelming number of online ads risks people avoiding ads altogether.

That was the view put forward by Andy Hart, Microsoft VP Europe, advertising and online, at Advertising Week Europe recently. But while I agree with his comments it’s hard not to feel like it’s deja-vu all over again. Every new wave of innovation in online advertising is overused, and a few people warn of the problems, only for the whole thing to come round again a few months later.

Back in 2000, when pop-ups were everywhere online, GM O’Connell, founder of the first digital agency in the US, came up with the immortal warning about over-advertising: “you can’t annoy someone into liking you.” Last September on a panel at DMEXCO Pete Blackshaw, Nestle’s global head of digital marketing and social media marketing and consumer communication, warned against repeating the mistakes of previous internet eras. “Social has taught us that the way to get consumers’ attention is not to slap them in the face.”

The problem is that while all this annoying and slapping may not be working, it’s working well enough for people to carry on doing it. One of the secrets of email marketing is that people tend to delete individual emails rather than unsubscribe. So if you send out more emails you have a better chance of getting a desired response, set against a low risk of an unsubscribe. And while the average click-through rate on a banner may be only 0.2%, if that’s the industry benchmark and you hit it, then you’re doing as well as everybody else.
Still, Microsoft is making a big bet on the idea of reducing the number of ads they show people and targeting the ones they do show better. This is brave - when everybody else is responding to the din by shouting louder it’s impressive to try whispering. But I do wonder if they’re looking for the solution in the wrong place.

Even when banners were a novelty, click-through rates were only around 5%, so 95% of the audience wasn’t clicking. Targeting will undoubtedly increase the current CTRs, but no-one really knows by how much. Part of this is a comparison problem; we don’t know how many people “click” on a poster or a TV ad, so we have no reference point outside the digital world to work from in knowing how many people “should” be clicking. It’s also true that the DR element of banners isn’t their only function - there’s always a branding element as well.
But what about the people who don’t click? Social media expert Antony Mayfield describes them as the “dark matter” of the internet. He argues that rather than asking what would make them click, we should be asking what else they might respond to. And his suggestion is earned media; giving people something to talk about in the social space.

Looked at like this, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a boom in interest in content marketing. It’s the opposite of targeting - rather than working out what someone might be interested in from past behaviour, you get them to tell you what they’re interested in from what content they read and, more importantly, share. As a marketer, you then get the benefits of their engagement with your content, plus the amplification that comes with discussion of your content in social media.

What’s interesting is that this looks, in technological terms, like a step backwards. After all, content marketing has been around for as long as marketing itself. But with concern starting to be voiced about the actual results advertisers are seeing from real-time bidding, changing the focus to letting people choose what they want to engage with is gaining momentum.
Antony Mayfield talks about “the correction beginning at 20%”, referring to the fraction of its marketing budget Coca-Cola committed to social media last year. If the pendulum continues to swing towards customers making their desires known through their responses to content, that 20% will start to look pretty conservative.


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