It’s true to say that online advertising is currently in flux and is changing a lot, with many brands unsure about what to do about it. Key to this is the fight over data privacy, as Apple has just done away with unfettered access to device-level identifiers (aka IDFA – Identifier for Advertising) and is now forcing all iOS app makers to get permission to collect and use IDFAs from users. In addition, Google is stopping the use of 3rd party cookies in the near future (deadline just pushed back from 2022 to 2024 – more below)
There have been two main reactions from the industry.
The principal response is that the move is good for people’s data privacy – which it is – but that it will make it harder for brands to sell their stuff. My response to that is not necessarily, although it WILL change things. So you as a marketing and brand leader do need to be aware and make changes to how you market your brand – see the excerpt below from my recently published business bible, “Social Goodness”, where I dissect this in depth.
The secondary reaction is a classic sleight of hand from the Ad Tech executives, who are claiming that it won’t stop advertising but will simply make it less relevant. However, this is just a misdirection because targeted online adverts aren’t actually that relevant now, despite what is claimed – see the below excerpt from ‘Broadcasting into the Void’ chapter in “Social Goodness”.
Why do People Opt Out of ‘Relevant’ Advertising?
It’s a given that people will opt out of receiving targeted advertising because people HATE being advertised at. In fact as soon as online advertising started people tried to avoid it because advertising is invasive and often rubbish, not to put too fine a point on it. Obviously not all of it by any means (we highlighted some brilliant ones during Social Media Genius Week last year), but generally advertising makes us very unhappy in measurable ways as a major study by the University of Warwick found in 2017. The Harvard Business Review invited lead researcher, Andrew Oswald to explain his findings. He said:
“Our analysis shows that if you doubled advertising spending, it would result in a 3% drop in life satisfaction. That’s about half the drop in life satisfaction you’d see in a person who had gotten divorced or about one-third the drop you’d see in someone who’d become unemployed.
“We have a lot of experience working out how people are affected by bad life events, and advertising has sizable consequences even when compared with them.”
Today people are increasingly aware of what does and doesn’t make them feel good, what does and doesn’t make them feel bad. We see this manifested with betterment, self-care and, clearly in, the trend towards Social Goodness. Plus most of us are aware of what trying to compete for status (aka ‘keeping up with the Jones’) does for our mental health and wellbeing. The upshot is that most of us try to avoid advertising wherever possible, and this is especially true of the younger demographic.
People subscribe to avoid adverts, opt-out, fast forward through it, don’t look, use ad blockers, and have generally become more and more ‘banner blind’.
This is when people have learnt to avoid looking at adverts, as well as anything that looks like an advert. Most marketers are aware of it and try to get around it in various ways, perhaps changing the look or position of adverts, for example, or using pop-ups.
Unfortunately for brands, people now also avoid looking at anything that is positioned near an advert or placed in a traditional advert position on a webpage, according to the Nielsen Norman Group research, ‘Banner Blindness Revisited: Users Dodge Ads on Mobile and Desktop’. The study shows that people not only completely avoid looking at adverts, but their learned reaction is also poisoning their engagement with other content that is associated with the advert or the position.
Targeted Advertising Doesn’t Work
But at least targeted advertising means that the people most likely to buy are now seeing your adverts, right? Because they can’t all avoid them! So that means that even if fewer people are engaging, at least they buy..?
It seems not.
If the advert is rubbish, they’ll blink and scroll past it, and various research reported on Marketing Profs has found that even if there are clicks on advertising it rarely increases sales, however the conversion rates are presented:
- Decreases in the level of advertising do not lead to an immediate decrease in sales. An increase in the level of advertising by itself does not lead to an increase in sales.
- On average, half of all ongoing ad campaigns are ineffective.
- Changes in the creative, medium, target segment or product itself sometimes lead to change in sales, even though increases in the level of advertising alone do not.
- When advertising works it is effective either early on or never.
- When advertising does affect sales, its impact is not large and is much smaller than that of price.
From personal observation, I often find that click-through traffic from Facebook advertising bounce way more often than they convert into a sale. Sometimes the bounce rate can be as high as 100%. So even when people do click through from a social advert, the conversion rate is often low; in fact Hootsuite has calculated it is less than 2% on average.
Then there’s the whole issue of click bots, which exist solely to drive up the perceived engagement with digital advertising. Frustratingly they are rife and difficult to screen out. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and digital security firm, White Ops, half or more of paid online display adverts have never been seen by an actual real life person.
Which is a bit shocking, especially if you paid for any of those adverts.
Keeping Bad Company
The other 50% of adverts that do get seen by a real life person may not get seen by the people you want to see it. They also might not be doing your brand any favours whatsoever because many programmatic and social adverts still end up next to inappropriate content or fake news. Interestingly, in October 2020 YouTube announced that they are working on a fix aligned with standards defined by the Global Alliance of Responsible Media. Essentially, this will help them identify inappropriate content more easily to give brands a common set of definitions of what is suitable across eleven categories, including sensitive social issues.
However, this still isn’t available for most social or programmatic adverts and while most marketers sign up for brand safety technologies, it seems most aren’t doing the job properly, and in fact are nothing more than blunt instruments. In fact, many adverts are being placed on sites that spread misinformation and hate, thus increasing their profits, according to Sleeping Giant and Check My Ads co-founder, Nandini Jammi, who says:
“I’m seeing the worst sites on the internet being monetized by these ads, and when I flag it to these companies, they remove it immediately but they are working under the cover of, ‘Oops, we didn’t catch that one. . . . Thanks for bringing it up!’
“This problem hasn’t been solved at all, which is strange because the ad industry claims to have been working on this problem for years. So why are the basics not taken care of?”
Why not indeed?
Online Advertising Damages Your Brand
So taking a bigger picture view here, a large percentage of social and digital advertising is in reality likely to be a waste of money. Not only that, but it could harm your reputation if your advertising shows up next to content that you really don’t want to be associated with. Plus your organic visibility gets knocked if click through traffic bounces. A website bounce means people aren’t interested; it’s not what they were expecting or looking for. Sometimes it can happen because a page loads too slowly and people get bored and move away, but mostly it’s because they quickly judge what they see and click away. In the case of adverts, it can also be caused by click bots.
Google knows this, so bouncing is one of the main elements that it uses for ranking pages. Low bounce and high page engagement mean the content is useful and of interest (and just in case you are wondering, our bounce rate at The Media Marketing Co has been consistently less than 1% for years now), and websites with low bounce tend to rank higher than those without. Adverts rarely provide that engagement unless the advert is superb and highly relevant to your customers.
Online advertising certainly doesn’t work if it’s wokewashing, unethical or patronising, for example, like the Sears vacation adverts that objectifed indigenous people. Or Dolce and Gabbana’s ‘how to use chopsticks’ adverts on social media, which deeply offended Chinese consumers, led to D&G cancelling a runway show in Shanghai and caused a sharp drop in sales after celebrities slammed them.
In short, you have to tick ALL the boxes to use advertising successfully. That includes it being a brilliant advert (easy to say, hard to do) that delights and connects, being super vigilant about who creates your campaign so you are certain they understand your market and brand values and are sensitive to wider cultural values. You also want to have confidence as to where your adverts are appearing, as we saw above, and the way they are integrated into your company’s social media and digital strategy so there’s no brand voice disconnect or jarring between the marketing and the advertising.
Google’s Cookie Phase Out
However, even if you do that, you’ll still be up against the fact that online targeted advertising just doesn’t work very well as a sales tool. And that it’s about to work even less well, given the fact that we are on the cusp of another major change to the digital advertising landscape, with Google phasing out cookies by 2022. This has a potential impact that many brands are still ignoring.
Research published in 2020 by Piano and Digiday found that brands and agencies are transitioning away from relying on third party data by switching to collecting user data directly, but that it is happening too slowly in most cases. In fact they found that over half of those surveyed were delaying implementing direct engagement data to replace third party data beyond the Google cut-off date.
Another factor is that targeted advertising frequently causes resentment and irritation, and a desire in prospective buyers to swerve, which are not reactions you want people to have to your brand. It’s also true that people tend to be suspicious of businesses that spend a lot of money targeting them, particularly when those companies that creepily ‘follow’ them around the internet. So much so that there’s a whole online niche devoted to helping people stop targeted ads, well, targeting them.
So What’s a Brand to Do?
In short, the most impactful thing you can do is to invest in building your first party list, and do it organically and ethically using social traction so everything works together to give greater reach and visibility and become magnetic to your prospective customers.
By which I mean embed Social Goodness at all levels of your business and show people you care, so they want to engage with and buy from you rather than avoid or ignore you. This also means that the marketing department isn’t forever falling over its feet and getting attacked online for greenwashing if it supports a good trend.
Ensure your excellent expert content is answering actual real people’s actual real queries in the best way possible to help them make up their minds so it 1) gets found online organically and 2) builds confidence in you as an expert people can trust. Don’t just guess what people are searching for or rely on the sales team to tell you.
If you do it properly your target audience are more likely to bookmark it, subscribe, backlink and share your content. They may even recommend you to their peers and circle. I call this ‘walking alongside’ your potential customers, and it means that when they are ready to buy, your brand is more likely to be the one they choose in preference to every other interchangeable brand (and most brands are interchangeable to most people) because you’ll have become memorable and trusted. Then promote it consistently to your audience to get the social traction working properly and if you must advertise, for goodness sake be a genius about it.
No. But the rewards for doing it properly are immense and the penalties fierce for ignoring it. And the key plus point is that if you invest in addressing this now you’ll be way in front of your competitors when they (finally) wake up to a changed advertising landscape in a year or so’s time.
Want some help with any of that? Get in touch – we specialise in raising brand awareness and visibility organically online using social traction.
This article originally appeared on Philip Kotler’s and Christian Sarkar’s Marketing Journal in May 2021