Snapchat, black boxes, struggling artists and a Nobel Prize in Economics – On the future of modern advertising (1/2)

Digital, Marketing, Technology 2017-03-08

Recently YouTube, one of the world’s largest ad distributors, announced that it was cutting unskippable 30 second ads from its offering to businesses, citing a reduced inventory and high user turnover as one of the key problems with the format.

The landscape that marketers and advertisers alike will find themselves in, in the very short future, is changing rapidly. The rise of ad-blockers, the rapidly deteriorating state of monetisation via advertisement, and the popularity of subscription services and on-demand media, make opportunities for attracting customers significantly more scarce. But this is actually a huge opportunity for savvy operators to differentiate themselves in such a way as to not only survive this brave new world, but to thrive in it. So what lessons are there to learn and how can they be applied to your business, no matter what field you are in?

Traditional media advertising platforms, such as TV, are rapidly declining in the face of on-demand services...

Traditional media advertising platforms, such as TV, are rapidly declining in the face of on-demand services…

...and the rise of ad block means that plenty of online advertising is also suffering.

…and the rise of ad block means that plenty of online advertising is also suffering.

It’s a ‘Snap’ world now

In 2013, a bizarre application made its name (and billions of dollars in valuation) known across the world. Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging app, essentially removed functionality found in other communication applications, and became a huge sensation. This is a key clue to what the future holds, as it represents the next big leap in what has been a decade long paradigm shift from old media to new.

It might be tempting to look at the likes of Snapchat and Twitter and grumble about declining attention spans that can’t pay attention to anything longer than 140 characters or a few seconds of time, but there is more refined analysis to be had here. The fact is, we have an awful lot competing for our attention in the modern world, more than any other time in human history. In order to get anything done, we have to dedicate focus to it, and that represents a larger opportunity cost than it ever has done before. Advertisements are unpopular, particularly ones that hold you as a captive audience like YouTube’s unskippable 30 second ads, because they are just noise that keeps us from what we are actually interested in, and this cumulatively costs a lot of time.

Snapchat is popular because it condenses entire stories into bite-sized chunks. It is unobtrusive in its delivery, and because nothing holds any permanence, it means you are focused entirely on the here and now. Everything is always relevant and current, and the format is personal and intimate. This is in stark contrast to old media, where content is served essentially to a captive audience. Even the most ardent advocate of this type of marketing has been sat, gripped to their seat watching a favourite TV series or film, only for a climactic moment to be interrupted by an overly bright ad with hokey dialogue and recycled clichés.

Marketing in its original form was typically rooted around finding consumers who have a need, and informing them about how their product fulfils that need. This strategy typically only works if people and businesses always know what their needs are, and it creates a hard ‘ceiling’ of potential customers, but the biggest success stories often come from creating a product people don’t know they need until they actually use it. This involves telling a story that people can buy into, an idea, something that can entice them into buying into the company and the product. The problem is that the stories have become long and bloated, they sometimes try so hard to hide their commercial nature that it becomes painfully obvious, and they often just aren’t actually any good in the first place. How is this model meant to survive in the era of Snapchat? Where there is a huge opportunity cost for simply reading a handful of paragraphs, that time that could be better spent watching funny videos on YouTube or the latest drama on Netflix. On this very blog post, no matter what you consider its quality to be, it’s unlikely that more than 50% of people have read this far (a thank you to those who are still with me!).

The rise of content marketing

Daniel Kahneman, author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ and the winner of a Nobel Prize for his acclaimed work into the study of human bias, details research in his book on how humans weigh up information to make decisions. One useful takeaway from his research is that humans are pretty poor at visualising abstract information. We can understand it on a logical level, but it is hard to create emotional buy-in without something more tangible to back it up. This makes intuitive sense. A chart with a list of percentages is less useful than a helpful visualisation, such as a graph or infographic. Perhaps most importantly though, he concludes that handling such abstraction is significantly more taxing of our finite mental resources. Modern advertising has to give people a very good reason to buy in, before it makes its case.

The industry’s response has been the focus on content orientated marketing or ‘content marketing’. This approach recognises that simply pushing products to sell resonates only with an exceptionally small number of a potential customer base. Content is presented as an experience, and can be found in almost any form. The majority of the time it is presented in extensive social media engagement, videos, articles, et cetera. They will typically contain a somewhat clever metaphor or idea, the bad ones will be based on a terrible pun.

Creating this much volume and trying to maintain quality is expensive and time consuming, and though a select few achieve huge success, there are plenty of companies of all sizes who have seen little return. So why are people more disaffected than ever before? Why are they not spending their valuable attention on all of this stuff? Well because, despite the change in approach, the way the stories are delivered still sucks.

Authenticity, not content, is king

Most marketing departments do not set out with the goal of creating bad campaigns. They do it almost entirely by accident, with the help of a couple of shibboleths that have gone unchallenged in the industry for years. There is a shortage of the kind of blue sky thinking required to really engage people, and cut through the aforementioned noise. Make no mistake, the competition between adverts is cutthroat, you’ve got to be bold to stand out. Because there is so much volume, people have developed a built-in instinct for what an ad looks like and sounds like, and once that association has been made, all that work towards a content-orientated strategy will likely fall flat on its face. This is because it lacks authenticity, it tries to hide its KPI-driven ulterior motives beneath a veneer that barely conceals it. The creative direction is often cliché-driven and overly padded. Social media strategy is a good example of companies recognising the need to engage on these relatively new platforms, but being stuck in an old mindset that has not adapted with the technology. Tweets and posts are meticulously planned out and rather than resembling the distinctly ‘social’ nature of that platform, each one instead feels like a mini press-release. A web-advertising campaign across multiple socials, YouTube, Google et al, will cost a significant amount for a comparatively paltry amount of engagement. If you look at genuine content creators, people who make a living from these platforms, they are often able to generate tens to multiple thousands of times the interest with no spend whatsoever. It’s not even that their content isn’t commercial in nature, many of them create content explicitly related to products and brands. Something crucial is happening with respect to the interaction between the audience and the content.

This applies just as much to B2B as it does to B2C. B2B marketing has come a long way since ads were just a product with a list of bullet-points on a neutral colour, but it still has a reputation for being tediously dull in many sectors, particularly mature ones. The scarcity of attention applies just as much to business people as it does to consumers, and if anything, authenticity is of greater consequence when companies are being asked to stake a significant investment in you and your product. The only significant difference between the two is the needs you are fulfilling and the corresponding messages you want to send.

So what can a company, irrespective of its size, do to adapt and succeed in this environment? Watch this space for part 2!