The Web Has Failed Advertising

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Think about this: the Web has failed advertising. Hasn’t it?

This was the question Marketing Magazine asked yesterday following an Advertising Week session titled, Digital Publishing in the Age of Engagement, that took place on Wednesday in New York City. The context behind the question is that advertising (as we have known it to date) offers little by way of content and engagement, which seems to be the main thrust behind online usage for consumers. They’re no longer just consuming content. They’re engaged with the content (text, audio, images and videos) in a very different way.

Advertising has failed.

"Erin Clift, senior vice-president, global sales development at AOL, said ‘failed’ is a strong word, but the Internet as it exists today isn’t built for what brands are trying to accomplish. ‘Publishers in general just need to think differently,’ said Clift, offering up her company’s new platform Project Devil as a possible answer. ‘What we’re trying to do is maximize the page for the consumer experience. And if you’re going to reinvent a page for content, then let’s also reinvent the page for brands to really engage with the users who want to connect to that content and give them a canvas where they can have messaging, utility and function.’"

The Web has not failed advertising. Advertising has failed the Web.

Let’s tweak my last turn of the phrase: advertising – as we have known it to date – has failed the Web. Bad, boring and interruption-based advertising always struggled to capture mindshare. Traditional marketers beat that reality through frequency and repetition (in layman’s terms: shoving more of it, more frequently, down our collective gullets). More modern online advertisers not only followed that tactic, but they also cluttered the pages with multiple messages in multiple sizes in a very primitive way (low quality images and creative to ensure speedier downloads).

We did it to ourselves, really.

When those models began to fail, we switched the name of "banner advertising" to "display advertising" as if that turn of the phrase would make brands (and consumers) forget the big promise of online advertising: that consumers will take action and click on your highly relevant and targeted ads. The truth is that there is a lot more to online advertising than just those little square boxes that surround every piece of content we see online. In fact, search advertising (the kind that Google mastered) hasn’t failed the Web at all. Email Marketing has not failed the Web (well, spam has, but that’s another story for another Blog post). Affiliate marketing works great too.

The secret isn’t much of a secret.

Add value. Add context. Add relevancy. The best advertising does this. Yes, the big idea and breakthrough creative is critical, but if it’s not delivered on a platform that runs in compliment to the content it surrounds – and the desires of the people consuming the content – all is lost. If anything, the Web has changed advertising. The Web is changing advertising. The Web is forcing advertising to take a big, hard and long look in the mirror and ask itself: " how do I make consumers care about my message?"

Has the Web failed advertising? Has advertising failed the Web? What do you think?


  1. Advertising hasn’t yet learned to use the web. It hasn’t figured out how to use the distinct qualities of the interactive environment yet. It also hasn’t quite taken the zeitgeist of the web to heart. Consumers behave differently here and advertisers have to adapt their approach to marketing to them.
    If there is a failure it is a failure to understand, experiment and innovate.

  2. I think the best way to summarize this is that advertisers need to pull their heads out from between their legs and realize that the internet isn’t some type of cliché (just my $0.02). It’s a moving locomotive that’s done nothing but pick-up a ton of momentum since it first hit main street.
    Boarding it is tough and will involve a new learning curve. Failing to board brings a risk of getting run over… if you can somehow manage to keep up with it long enough.
    Jill hit it on the head. It is a failure to understand, experiment and innovate… but the reality is that Advertisers have had nearly 10 years to experiment, innovate and adapt to this change… it’s now time to deliver or you risk facing a slow death (*cough* US Newspapers).
    Value, Content & Relevancy is what has been pitched to advertising executives for years. It’s the really the foundation of the web. The web is the new culture for the majority of the consumers.

  3. I think push advertising has failed miserably on the web. I believe pull advertising is succeeding wonderfully though. I think push advertising is also failing in general. We TiVo our shows so we can skip commercial. We listen to podcasts and satellite radio so we don’t have to listen to commercials. I think our tolerance for push advertising is now very low, so traditional advertisers are desperate to push even more on us. Which makes us even less tolerant. And so the cycle goes.

  4. Of course, there will always be something new that makes some portion of marketers say, “Okay, this is finally the answer,” but it really seems like those new-ish ad/captchas are one solution, right? I mean, at the very time when a site visitor has to be paying attention, they’re being asked to reference an advertisement. Once the inventory and usage is wide enough, those captchas should be able to be more targeted rather than how it is now with everyone seeing a Toyota ad, and at that point, wouldn’t advertisers be able to be reasonably certain that every impression they got was valuable and counted within their target group?

  5. It’s interesting that display advertising has not, but search advertising works so well. Who would have thought that such a highly interactive and multi-media platform would find the winning formula in two sentences of text?

  6. It seems like every attempt to look at online advertising still looks like some kind of modern attempt at a magazine ad or billboard ad. I grapple with what the new model looks like, but I think that basing it off of the old construct is clearly not the path.

  7. The qualifier is that we skip the *bad* commercials. Whether it’s a PVR or whatever, I do slow down to watch the content/ads that are interesting. Great advertising still works… in a major way (say hello to the “I’m on a horse” dude from Old Spice!).

  8. I’ve been making an argument for years (one that has not captured the attention of advertisers because it destroys their previous models), which is to no longer look at the Internet as an advertising media but rather a marketing media. Think about email, CRM, affiliate, cross channel promotion, content marketing, etc… The opportunity here is to stop advertising and to start marketing.

  9. Indeed testing has been going on for years, now let’s start connecting the dots …properly> the reality remains that the medium itself must be leveraged differently and that what works for one can’t always work for another.

  10. You say to add value and add relevancy, but it’s not always easy. In the current state of the web, there are a lot of people trying to figure it out, and competition can be fierce. Most of the successful advertising campaigns are either referral driven or won with huge budgets.
    Does PPC really work that well for small companies? In my own experience, and having talked with many founders, it is not nearly as effective on the smaller scales.
    My concern is that as big blogs (like TC) continue to grow in strength and power, we’re simply replacing the old gatekeepers with new ones, and that the little guys will once again be overshadowed.
    There are only so many hours in a day. Do you spend them creating content or making your product better?

  11. This is one of my favorite posts of yours, Mitch (having been a creative person in traditional advertising for years now, and waking up one day and saying Uh-oh!).
    The thing about advertising is that it’s always worked best when it’s a mini-version of the content that surrounds it, but it’s also idea based so it captures peoples attention and imagination. So — Newspaper Ads were rectangular shaped with “headlines” and “copy” the same way the newspaper itself was. The best radio commercials are “theater of the mind” that transports you somewhere else. The best 30 second TV commercials are as good as 30 minute sit-coms.
    But advertisers don’t know what to make of the internet because it IS so multi-faceted and interactive and (depending who you talk to) intelligent. What DOES the ad unit look like? The reason search works so well is that it starts at the very core of what the internet was created for — to make it easy to search for information that you wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise.
    YES, marketers — PLEASE listen to Mitch. Use the internet as a marketing medium instead of an advertising medium. Be engaging, not intrusive. Throw out your old models, embrace the new. Don’t just survive, thrive.
    Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

  12. We as consumers want the ability to share how, what, when and where we want the products or services we buy. If we listen our audience will share. Our existing model is “Tell” we do not tolerate this approach anymore because we understand our community makes or breaks a company that thinks they know everything.

  13. I believe CHANGE is the real issue here. People have always been hesitant to change, especially advertising clients. Having worked in advertising, specifically media planning, for several years, I have seen fantastic new ideas continuously get shot down because people weren’t willing to change. Progress would slowly come about as we really pushed forward with selling our ideas through examples and results. There are few advertisers out there that have truly embraced the change of traditional advertising and it is working well for them. Others are not comfortable with it.
    Unfortunately for them, the Internet is changing every day, so their unease intensifies and they revert back to banner ads or something static that they can measure in numbers.
    Once advertisers start to embrace change and have open minds in general, they will be able to utilize the Web to its fullest potential. I found that if you provide enough examples and sources to your current pitch to the client, you may be surprised what they approve.
    I agree that the first step is to change the mindset to marketing instead of advertising. Once people are mentally on board, the process is must easier.

  14. Great post and wonderful thoughtful comments by people who are actually in the industry! I especially liked the comment from Rick Jackson (October 2, 2010 6:30 AM) about push versus pull advertising. He’s right on.
    Pull advertising, CPC, testing landing page content, is the way to go. The only push advertising that gives us a good ROI is email. We send a link to something free and valuable every week and this has built our fan base and branding, which in turn has boosted our SEO considerably.

  15. Great Post! I’m always amazed when I hear that online killed advertising! Opt-in email, ppc, affiliate, YES! never before have we actually been able to test creatives so accurately and refine campaigns using live data and split testing.
    It also makes me happy to hear that many think the web has failed advertising. It creates more opportunity for those of us that get it!

  16. It sounds like a lot of complaining to me.
    1. If this type of Marketing is important to your business, you will make the time to get it right. All people have time for the things that are important to them.
    2. TechCrunch started out as a simple Blog. It had value and relevance, so it grew. There’s no stopping anyone from doing the same thing. In fact, the door is wide open.
    3. Search marketing seems to be working for most of the businesses I speak with (small, medium and large). The trick is in spending the time to get it right. For smaller businesses, there is an advantage because you can move and shift much faster than the bigger boats.

  17. Thanks for crystalizing where I was going in this Blog post. Make your online advertising more like online content. Stop making your advertising more like print advertising, but on the Internet. I guess I could have written this Blog post in a couple of sentences!

  18. Amazing that they don’t like change in a format that has become traditional, so imagine their inability to innovate in a media format that continuously changes and evolves. Isn’t it insane to even think that the ad formats we created (like banners) back when the first web browser was forst launched will still work today? Think about the speed, the types of content and the multiple platforms (from Web to mobile). And yet, we still do the same stuff. Sadly.

  19. I guess I feel sorta sympathetic to advertising.. I mean the web is moving so fast, and the advertising business wasn’t really built for the kind of agility needed here.. it just takes a while for whole industries to move..

  20. I read Anderson Cooper announced a TED contest at AdTech last week in this regard, and I read a lot of comments people nagging, they’re asking for free work etc. But really how hard is it if you take a step back and look at the building blocks. As I said in your other post I think it could be fixed if you look at the roots.

  21. The key to this post is Interactive marketing versus Interruptive marketing. Complex campaigns are emerging that drive people to websites, engaging with youtube videos and other social media, interactive websites and viral campaigns. People choose to participate rather than being interrupted with information they didn’t request. AKQA does this well as well as many other agencies. There is still a market place for Ad Networks and banner ads, but the overarching trend is moving to be interactive.
    I recently discovered your blog and love your insight. I’m in the commercial real state world, but have a passion for media and most of my family is in the ad world. I blog also at Look forward to connecting.

  22. We were calling banner ads interactive advertising from day one, it did not change much. People still didn’t want to interact with something that was disrupting them (whether it was flashing or getting in the way of their experience). Perhaps we need to look more in that direction: can we create ads that don’t get in the way of the experience, but rather add context and value to the experience. Think about how ads in magazines like Vogue, etc… are – essentially – a part of the overall experience.

  23. I could not disagree more.
    Think about it this way. You can access and pretty much rip-off any music, art, literature or other piece of personal creation on the web for free without retribution.
    But rip-off or mis-use an ad and you will have a flock of attornies at your door. Advertising is the only protected creative work on the web. Advertising hasn’t failed the web, it has become its highest art form. It has thrived and dominated like a virus in a Petri dish.
    And like that virus, it is also figuring out how to evolve and adapt to its environment. Don’t sell the industry short. It is learning to monetize everything everywhere, where the rest of us have failed. It is the Internet’s lord and master.
    Thank you for inspiring a blog post. We seem to do that to each other. : )

  24. That’s what I’m saying Mitch, when you’re in a small 2-3 man operation, you have to choose what’s important, and I don’t feel that this sort of marketing fits the bill.
    Search marketing might work, but would you call that advertising?
    And as you said, it does take time to get right, time that for me could be better spent improving product, engaging with customers, and reaching out to future customers.
    So in my case, I don’t necessarily need advertising in order to build a business, and I think others feel the same. And it’s not even because of the blogs or platforms either, it’s because with the web, I can listen, and then connect with people that might be willing to help me spread the word.
    Furthermore, you’re right when you mention relevancy, but I’d argue that it’s not the ads that are irrelevant, but the products.
    People are tired of “push” marketing, true, which is why I believe the focus should shift from more advanced advertising to more relevant products.
    Lastly, how this fits into the TC comment is this:
    We’re going to see more and more big media/tech jumping into purchases like this, and as they do, they are going to bring their old-school tactics with them…trying to control the channel.
    Many big blogs already resemble their old media ancestors.
    It’s not going to work, and people will learn to trust blogs less, and people more.
    We’re shifting, but I don’t think it’s because of the web, I think it’s because of the way the web let’s us connect and pass on true recommendations.
    I think we have to stop looking at the web as a place to get in front of eyeballs and instead think of it as a way to learn more about those eyeballs so that we can connect with them outside the lines. Gladwell’s story in The Tipping Point, about the Hush Puppies Brand, is the best way I can describe it.
    Thanks for the platform Mitch.

  25. No disagreement with anything there… it’s your own perspective in relation to how you see the growth of your business happening. Not every business is ever going to be able to use these channels in the same way.
    As more traditional media buy the more independent ones, I think things will change. Part of that change will be the introduction of newer independent channels too. It’s a healthy (or somewhat healthy) ecosystem. If consumers lose trust in the platform… they’ll do what they always do: find a new one.
    As for search marketing? Yes, I consider it advertising: 100%.

  26. All I can say, is that I can think you’re on to something (or on something ;)… just not sure what.
    What do you mean by retribution with lawyers? For years people have been doing tons of things to brands (GM, Dell, Apple, etc…) and brand haven’t done anything (well, maybe except for innovating to the point where people don’t screw around with their brands). I’ll look forward to your Blog post to see how this though fleshes.
    Do you have any examples of individuals being sued or threatened by lawyers because they did something with (or to) a brand online?

  27. Mitch, the answer to both of your questions is a resounding, “No.”
    We work with clients every day, on a local level, who are creating new definitions of success with different web-based advertising formats. What is the relative value of flash-display ads vs. “expandable” or “hover” format ads? Does the format of the ad really matter, or is the message what really what drives potential customers to “click through?” How effective are video display ads and/or video preroll when compared to large-format ads? By experimenting with different ad sets, and tracking them in ways that are impossible with “old” media, we can show clients what works and what fails on a major local tv affiliate website.
    Even Google recently heralded the coming “golden age” of display advertising. It would be extremely hasty to pronounce that the web and advertising are an ineffective combination of media and content. Really, we’re all still figuring out how it will all work best.

  28. I saw your tweet and you know I always have an opinion, for good or bad!
    I think the Web was not built for Advertising. Same with Social Media. The purpose of the technology is being hijacked for a use it was not intended for. We had advertising models that worked for some time off line and many still do. Then some smart people when browsers came along figured they could get investors to believe they can do the same online. They never asked people if they wanted advertising online. They just assumed the same TV pact of free content for seeing Ads would carry over to the Web. And that was the wrong assumption.
    The web is different than TV. There is proof an ad was clicked on. You can block Ads like I do with FireFox. And a banner ad where this started was limited in scope. Its too small to be a print ad. And since I am already online I can find and visit any brand website via search. So I think the business model was broken from the beginning.
    No different for Social. If I was Twitter or Facebook I would be charging monthly fees and make the networks so good that people will pay for the service a small fee (say $3/month) They could then shut out Brands and Agencies and make a killing selling/renting technology. I have been saying this for 9 months. If Facebook could just get 200mil people to pay $3/month to be their cloud for communicating and sharing and F-U brands, they would have $7.2bil in revenue and rank 314 in the Fortune 500. Instead they will be disappearing like all the other bad business models down the road.
    Perfect example is Apple v Facebook. At $33bil you would be paying $66 for every $1 of profit (Advertising Model). Apple is $21 per $1 of profit (make and sell technology). Which stock would you buy.

  29. These are awesome points that spin the debate in a completely different direction. The best of your points is the one that revolves around the issue of applying old-media advertising models to the digital platform. We need to figure out what works best, not just for the brands, for for consumers, too.
    Have you considered the data which suggests large-format ads on high-reach websites boosts brand-specific searches? What about metrics such as “view through,” by which cookies track properly tagged ads to see which web users (customers) wound up on a particular brand’s website – without directly clicking on the large-format ad they saw?

  30. I don’t think I’d put the nail advertising’s coffin at all (especially considering that it’s how I make my living!), but is it possible that dumping the very traditional models into this highly interactive channels is simply not the right mix? Especially considering how it’s being crammed down our throats and the diminishing returns on the value…

  31. I think it won’t be a world with ads or without ads. I think it’s going to be a hybrid. I always refer back to this one thought: if people hated advertising and ignored it, it wouldn’t work… so why does it work?
    The missing link here will be in the Marketing – how we we understand the consumers, provide value and market to them in a meaningful way vs. a blasting of advertising kind of way.

  32. I think Web 3.0, the mobile web, will not fail advertising. The savvy marketers will leverage it more and more with their other strategies such as out-of-home and experiential/event marketing campaigns to stimulate the audience’s engagement.

  33. Excellent post.
    With an averge of 0.02% of CTR banner advertisement is not going anywehre. Web is already spammed and full with rubbish popups popunders, peel off ec etc adverts. YouTube used to be just “watch Video” and now it has turned into “Watch advert” platform.
    Browse through any big content rich websites and all you will find is advertisement.
    Every now and then come some new dot com bubble which flushes down it’s banenrs in Google Sponsored ad network which in turns gets flooded on every website running Adsense. Groupon and LoveFilms are the most recent examples.
    It seems web advertisement has reached to its saturation, however it is going to stay here until n unless we comeup with something new!!

  34. They’re still relevant and an important part of the Marketing mix. The challenge is in making them more relevant and interesting to the consumer. Part of that will be in not placing so many of them is the same place.

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