Digital Advertising Just Got Worse (If You Can Believe It)

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It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

The year was 1994. There were only about thirty million people on the Internet then. Most of those people were accessing it via Internet Service Providers like CompuServe and Prodigy. While many of those services ran advertising, they were private, so our industry considers HotWired (which was the Web version of Wired Magazine) as the first commercial media property to run a true banner ad. The message on that first banner ad was: "Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?" I was around then. I was active on the Internet, and I was involved in the very early days of banner advertising and search engine marketing (long before Google even existed). What got me so excited about digital advertising? It was the ability to put advertising only on sites that were relevant. It was the ability to truly make that ad interactive, and allow consumers (that were interested in it) to actually do something. To take action. It allowed those that weren’t interested, to simply keep on going. Most importantly, it was about the data and information. Up until that point, even traditional advertising offered certain levels of targeting, but the ability to know how many people saw the ad, how many people clicked on it, what they did next and beyond was staggering. It was still nascent and web analytics looked nothing like they do today, but it was the promise of it all that was so inspiring to a marketing nerd like me. With that, you could change creative on the fly, run multivariate testing fairly easily, and you could even stop a campaign within minutes. We take it for granted, but that was never even a possibility with traditional media.

So, how did things go so wrong?

Books, articles and blog posts have been written about how the dream of what could have been with interactive advertising never truly came to fruition. In short, these ads performed so poorly in terms of converting a consumer to take action, that we changed the name of the creative. We started calling it, "display advertising" instead of "interactive advertising" to better position this ad format as a way to create brand interest and attention over actual conversions to clicks and acquisitions (nobody was doing any sort of interacting with this type of advertising). Make no mistake about it, the current format is a healthy format. It is growing, and it is as dominant (if not more dominant) than TV advertising. Display advertising is now, more often than not, a major component of every healthy marketing mix. Still, the hope for what this type of advertising could have been (which, to some degree, has been realized in search engine marketing and other performance-based marketing initiatives), is something to think about.

Now, let’s talk about retargeting. 

Recently, I rented a car from a popular car rental company. Something happened on the website that didn’t allow me to complete my transaction, so I had to finish my order over the phone with customer service (from a tech standpoint, my actions probably got banked as a shopping cart abandonment). Around the same time, one of my family members used my computer to check out a briefcase that they had been eyeing (they wanted to see how big of a laptop it could hold). It has been well over two weeks since both of these incidents. Without exaggerating, I would say that over 80% of the advertising that I am currently being served online is from this car rental company and the brand of briefcase that my family member was looking for. Just yesterday, a close friend asked me if I could explain how online advertising works, because after looking for some tickets to an event in another city, all they’re now seeing are display ads either for the event or from travel sites. They think it sucks.

Welcome to the failed state of data to make advertising better.

Without being an apologist (as I am often – and rightfully – accused of being), the idea of retargeting could be a technological breakthrough, and the true future state of advertising, as we know it. But, right now, it’s bad and getting worse. There is not enough supporting data and effort being put into it, to give it the legitimacy and efficacy that it needs. The outcome of it are the examples above. What happens is simply more wasted advertising on multiple levels (retargeting is often much more expensive to do as well). Suddenly, consumers are seeing ads that are only related to things that they have already looked at (which, for a vast majority becomes annoying) and – at the same time – those ad impressions are being taken away from another brand’s chance to make a good/relevant brand impression.

How is that good for advertising? 

My feelings and sentiments towards the car rental and luggage companies brands are eroding. I’m falling out of love with them, because I am being annoyed by them. My feelings and sentiment towards the publishers that are running these retargeted ads are dwindling as well. With that, I am left wondering what kind of potentially interesting ads am I missing (and yes, I do like relevant and interesting ads!), while this spam-like atrocity of bad retargeting is taking place?

It’s going to take some time.

It’s true. This type of advertising will, eventually, be super relevant, contextual and timely. Advertising and media partners will figure out how to tell when a further impulse is needed. Until then, we’re kind of stuck in the middle (or, purgatory, as I call it in my second business book, CTRL ALT Delete). We have to work through this. We have to hope that the technology gets better (and faster). We have to hope that brands just don’t blindly buy into something because it seems cool on a PowerPoint deck, but fails miserably in the real world (a real problem). Until then, I’d like to keep calm and carry on (as the saying goes), but looking at it from the perspective of a consumer who doesn’t have my level of passion for marketing, advertising and communications, I think we can all understand just how very bad it has become.