Online Advertising Sucks

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How often do you hear about a traditional mass media company shifting to a "digital first" strategy? Those companies may want to take a look at this…

As mass media advertising continues to fragment and shift, the bigger concern is that they are also loosing eyeballs (as if people are nothing but eyeballs) to the online world. This has caused many of those traditional mass media companies to change their advertising game. Almost all traditional media outlets now have websites or have gone on to acquire major (and minor) online properties. On these websites, they sell advertising (it’s the business game they are most accustomed to). While the revenues from online advertising have never really supplanted the traditional ones (you’ll often hear sayings like, "trading analog dollars for digital dimes"), there is a common-held belief that the shift to online – and away from the more traditional channels – is inevitable. Personally, I’m more in the "everything is ‘with’ not ‘instead of’" camp, but I’m often wrong as well.

Here’s what you need to know if you think the future of media is based on online advertising…

"Americans Ignore Internet Ads Far More Than TV." That was title of the news item published in today’s MediaDailyNews. Here’s the scoop according to the news item: "A majority of Americans say they ignore Internet ads – far more than television, radio and newspaper ads. Some 63% of consumers say they tend to ignore or disregard all Internet ads. Among this group, 43% say they don’t pay attention to banner ads and 20% ignore search ads. The research was produced by AdweekMedia/Harris Poll, from a recent online survey done by Harris Interactive. Farther down the list was television ads – only a 14% number. Radio was at 7%; newspapers ads, 6%. Overall, almost all Americans say they ignore some ads – 91%. Looking at the Internet space, men and women ignore ads around the same levels – 42% for men; 45% for women."

It’s hard to sell any kind of advertising that is being ignored.

For years, I have been pushing the concept of CTRL-ALT-DEL – it’s time for us to reboot, rethink and reinvent how marketing connects to consumers online. The traditional ways of advertising will not work in these online channels. While that’s nothing more than a concept statement, I believe that making money online has less to do with leveraging it as an advertising channel, and much more to do with figuring out new ways to publish content that creates value along with newer ways to bring back a spirit of marketing (where advertising plays a less significant role). The minute any company sees a community or audience of people their default monetization strategy leans back on putting an ad in front of those people. The bigger, deeper thought may be around taking the time to figure out how to leverage that audience with relevant and wanted marketing content and messages.

It’s not easy, but what choice do we have? 

If anybody actually reads the news item above, it could well be the cold splash of water that this industry so desperately needs to wake up. This continual onslaught of multiple messages in every single white space only is clearly not working (it’s just more clutter and confusion). It’s going to be a long, hard road to convince the bigger brands that online advertising is the place to be when they see stats and surveys like this.

The opportunity to turn this around is now. The question is this: where do we begin?


  1. Online advertising has sucked for a while now, and is only getting worse. You know how annoying Flash ads are getting now? You know, the ones that expand on the page, moving all the real content down while it plays for a few seconds? CNN uses these a lot if you need examples.
    Or what about the eyeblasters? The popup flash ads that you have to chase around the screen, hunting for the impossible-to-see X you need to click on to get rid of it. Those are fun too.
    I lose a lot of respect for any brand who uses these formats. They are just offensive.

  2. You’d hope that eventually he marketers would come to this conclusion themselves, by measuring the ROI of their campaigns.
    At some point, the reduced ROI of ads that are being ignored outweighs the “building content and relationships is hard… spending money is easy” mentality.
    It will take time though. An organization having the idea that they need to change is one thing. But the required changes to corporate culture, and organizational structure required to change direction is perhaps the biggest limiting factor to mass adoption of a new way of thinking, living and interacting with customers.

  3. Hey Mitch,
    Great post and I think the question you post at the end is probably one of the biggest challenges facing digital marketers today. I’ve been noticing that interaction seems to be a growing trend in online ads and I think the rise of social gaming seems to be playing a part.
    Any thoughts on how the rise of social gaming may provide a new platform for marketers to interact with consumers online?
    Here is an article I came across that provides an example:

  4. Hi Mitch, definitely agree. Once marketers FINALLY realize that interruption-disruption advertising no longer works in the context of the internet, though, the natural question is: what *does* work?
    I love this article from eMarketer’s CEO about creating content that draws users in, pull instead of push:
    I touched on a similar idea in a post for Bazaarblog. Social media recontextualized the internet — we simply don’t stand for being talked at anymore. We want two-way communication, a dialogue, and that’s why traditional broadcast ads don’t work online. I’d argue (and I do, in the post) that as our offline and online lives increasingly become one, the offline world is going to face the same recontextualization.
    My post, if anyone’s interested. Disclaimer: I do work for Bazaarvoice.

  5. I think online advertising too easily takes out the human factor. Television commercials have people, granted actors, that relay (usually) something insightful about a product.

  6. Where to begin?
    – Stop shouting irrelevant info at broad audiences
    – Figure out who your most strategically important audiences are. Listen to them, collaborate with them and
    – Provide them with genuine, highly relevant value.
    Then you will have their attention.
    That’s my 2 cents.

  7. Oh, and I completely agree with Neil’s point above. The challenge here, is one of organisational change, especially in large organizations.
    I.e. Getting snr leadership to:
    – understand the internal changes required to keep pace with the external changes and
    – provide the instrumental leadership required for a strategic reorientation (structure, funding lines, resources etc) that are necessary to make the operational changes necessary.
    Interesting times ahead!

  8. Okay Mitch, stellar post but I think “Rowan Hetherington” sums it up in his comments.
    Advertising is being forced to get better and better, I love the reference to “the spirit of marketing” which doesn’t rely on advertising as much, I can only hope the industry goes in this direction.
    I like your take on this Mitch, you should write more on examples of better marketing, not so heavy advertising but maybe better story telling? I think these would be quite interesting.

  9. Although I’m on a career break my background is at a traditional agency and each year when we would plan for the following year it was so frustrating as the budget was allocated amongst different media without first looking at how these pieces would fit together. What was the message going to be?
    Coming from a traditional agency it is just as frustrating to see the same clients say to the digital agency: okay we have X amount of dollars, create some banners and maybe we’ll take a chance and do some road blocks.
    I feel their pain from across the boardroom table.

  10. Long before I started advertising my business on search I discovered by trial and error that the search ads returned better answers to my questions than the organic top ten
    ( I learned to look to the far right column first in google). The reason for this is Google rewarded the advertisers that did the best job of answering my questions by moving their ads to the top while not asking them to pay more for this privilege.
    In contrast on-line intrusion banner advertising almost always led to a quick dead end (I learned to turn it into a blind spot).
    As the dollars shift the many that don’t get it will in the end have their market share replaced by those that do and all will be well.
    P.S. Sorry if there are typos or grammar issues, filling out the comment form on an iPad is problematic.
    Hard to believe, or maybe not, that the old school does not get yet.

  11. Consumers would probably define engagement in a very different way from advertisers. Advertisers just count the number of seconds an ad is in front of a consumer. A consumer considers whether they care about the message first.

  12. Imagine, we live in a world where a 0.5% clickthrough rate is considered an industry standard… and a good one, at that. Just think about that. Does that sound like the kind of advertising that consumers are interested in?

  13. I think it’s great if that’s the type of engagement a consumer wants. A gaming aspect works if the person you’re placing the ad in front of likes gaming.
    We have to go back to consumer interaction. Someone does a search for something specific and is now on the page that has this information. Is that the best time to bombard them? Might there be away to give them what they want and then offer them something?

  14. Part of this is understanding that the way a consumer gets information online is fundamentally different from the way they get it in a newspaper, magazine or TV show. If that is the case, who are Marketers fooling by trying to use the same type of advertising engagement?

  15. I’d like to hear more about humanizing things like banner ads and affiliate marketing. I see how well this works when brands work in the social spaces or with marketing materials like a more personalized e-newsletter, etc…

  16. Part of it also has to do with finding the better blend between between the strategy, the creative and the analytics. So few Marketers and brands really dig deep to deliver stellar results at all three levels, and – unless they do – it’s like a stool with an uneven leg.

  17. The c-suite still sees Marketing as an expense and there are not enough Chief Marketing Officers at the table providing the true economic value of Marketing to the overall organization. It’s something we (as Marketers) have been begging for… for a very long time. It’s something we need to get better at.

  18. What comes first? The chicken or the egg? We can play that game in Marketing too: what comes first? The budget or the strategy? I wonder if we can ever get past the reality that the budgets do come first, and then they get divided and then the decisions are made. Maybe we should put the decisions first and then divide the budget up accordingly.

  19. People always laugh at those little Google Ads, don’t they? So few people truly understand the magic behind Google’s optimization of their advertising platform. They could have done what everyone else is doing, but no. Instead, they spent the time to really figure out a new way of advertising that would work best for them. They are, without question, the best example of CTRL-ALT-DEL that there is… and they do deserve the money they’re making from it. Hard work pays off.

  20. How often has any of us tried to relay a great creative message but forgotten the product or service? Online advertising is clearly not cementing new business for many because the interruptive tactics are getting desperate.
    If you have to click three things to get rid of the ad simply to view the content of the website, how warm and fuzzy are you going to feel about the offer?
    Sites such as Facebook are selling their traffic to advertisers and advertisers think the traffic is enough to move the revenue needle. As you point out, Google has it figured out and everyone else is trying to copy that without grasping the vast amount of work that goes on under the hood.
    As long as anyone thinks they can “sell” to an audience they will forget an essential part of the equation and which is to understand behavior, need and desire. If the response rate on direct mail is less than 5%, how does anyone expect that an online interruption will do any better?
    Strategy is important and so is budget. Before you do all that, I think it is vitally imperative to identify why you want to get people to pay attention in the first place. And showing your boss a shiny pie chart with click through metrics is not good enough.
    Advertisers who are used to “buying” or “placing” media are quite surprised to see that online metrics are real while television, radio, print and outdoor audience measurements are arrived at through a complex mathematical estimation akin to calculus.
    Looking at short term greed verses long term growth and building business verses a campaign approach may be a place to start.

  21. The Brands that are deeply aware of their consumers and tailor their pitch to them in a way that is meaningful and helpful will win the day.
    The Marketising will need to satisfy the users as much as it does the Brands making them more useful as tools or services.
    I read a post somewhere that said “I want to be able to smell my customer’s breath” now that is close, will they really make that kind of commitment?
    Apple is a Great Example of a company with this deep understanding and connection to their audience.
    I’m currently reading “The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs” by Carmine Gallo, and Steve Jobs Gets It, and I’m a PC, my kids are Apple. (Should be added to your reading list)

  22. It’s that short-term gain that we’re feeling the pain with online right now. The theory was, “we have a page… people are looking at this page… charge advertisers to put their message here.” No one spent any time looking at the media and the context. It was a greedy money grub… and this is where we’re at now.
    It’s going to take something significant to really move that needle.

  23. Marketing and advertising has been saying all of those good things for decades… long before the Internet. The challenge now (as I see it) is to really crank those wheels of innovation in regards to what Marketing can (and should!) look like in these new online channels (and yes, I’m talking mobile too).

  24. When did marketing become about flogging stuff (i.e. an expense)?
    Back when I studied marketing, the definition was “any exchange activity intended to satisfy human wants”. In order for that exchange to take place, we must listen & collaborate with our target market(s) to know what they want and what they value, no?!
    I think this time of change represents an opportunity for CMOs to bring their organisations into line with the marketing concept (placing the customer at the centre of everything they do). Going back to my earlier point, this will require significant, skilled change management with charismatic/transformational leader(s) from within marketing and buy-in from instrumental leaders who have the power to change org structures, funding lines, resource allocations etc.
    In my crystal ball I see pilot projects and proof gathering in the near future!

  25. It’s a disaster.. completely!
    But, unfortunately, a lot of decision makers I’ve come in contact with (and agencies… scary), consider “spending the budget” as a primary metric, and then fall into the trap of “brand moments” metrics, as Avinash so brilliantly discussed on my favourite episode of Six Pixels podcast; instead of stuff that actually matters in terms of achieving real business results.

  26. There’s a fundamental, massive difference between traditional and online advertising: the latter can be easily – and for free – ignored with a simple plugin available for most major browsers. Not everyone use them, sure, but that’s also ’cause so far maybe they didn’t feel the need.
    If online advertising will become more and more present, in a bad, obnoxious way, I am sure though these people will promptly convert.

  27. Let’s just hope that the CMO and their role (as you have described it) does come to fruition. Two major winners will emerge:
    1. The consumer.
    2. The economic value if the company.
    I don’t see a loser on that list.

  28. The ad blockers will hopefully be non-important in a world where we’re focused on delivering something more than a “punch the monkey” or “click here to watch a movie trailer” type of ad format.
    A boy can dream ๐Ÿ™‚

  29. Exactly, Mitch.
    I think the ‘digital strategists’ and / or anyone interested in this area can take a leadership role to drive this change (influencing upwards, downwards and sideways) incl. developing or curating content that communicates the need to place the customer at the centre of marketing, and initiating pilot projects that can test out new customer focused approaches.
    To me, this appears to be the way forward. Would love to hear other ideas too.

  30. It will take more than the strategist… there needs to be a desire from the brand and an appetite to make the changes happen from its corporate leaders. They’re really the ones who can push the agencies and publishers.

  31. All great points above. I think one key place to begin is so simple its scary. What turns “you” as a consumer off about advertising? Banner ads, skyscrappers, pop-ups, etc was just the beginning for me when I began purchasing advertising. I vowed not to run the type of advertising that I could not tolerate. With regards to traditional media (newspaper, television, radio) why produce ads that you find boring, annoying, or ignorable? It blows my mind to see how many large brands and small businesses throw money at these mediums and expect it to pay off. It really comes down to what the consumer wants to see, and how they want to interact with a brand that matters. From an advertising point of view, you really have to put the consumer first and the brand second. Find the strategies and then develop the budget. If you know what you need to say and who you need to say it to, you can usually cut your spend and see a greater ROI. Especially (dare I say it) in this economy.

  32. In a perfect world this world, but few brands, agencies and publishers work alone. Most creative and formats stink because it’s death by committee. Now, if we can just get everyone in the industry to think like you do, then we would be on to something.

  33. Agree Mitch, it will definitely take more than the strategist. It will take buy-in and active support from the most senior corp leaders to ‘instrument’ the changes (change funding lines, org structures, reallocate resources etc). However many corporate leaders (incl. CMO’s) don’t yet seem to understand this shift to digital, the new power of the consumer – and the implications, including the cultural changes required within their own organisation. What I’m suggesting is that marketers with a high level of digital expertise within the organisation may need to ‘make the case’ to get buy-in and engender support from their corporate leaders.
    Drawing on change theory, co’s are facing relatively high socio-technical uncertainty, therefore change will need to be guided (per Kerber & Buono’s model, 2005), not just planned. If the business is complex, then I’d be surprised if this kind of change could be directed. The call for change is likely to emerge from within the organisation, from creative people with specialist expertise. The challenge with emergent leadership is always going to be getting past the politics (many senior leaders will have a lot at stake and want to keep the old model).
    For this reason, I think a lot of proof will be necessary from pilots projects etc. So, I see very interesting times ahead!

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