Advertising is an incredible art; over the years some of the most influential ideas have been progressed through creative adverts.  But there is also a science to advertising.  And when the aim is to promote a product or service, the value of the advertising spend can be very hard to justify, especially in the modern era.

At the same time, “content” today has truly become king, at least if the measuring stick is volume (amount).   Content volume is way, way up but nearly all would agree that much of the content available today is far from premium or “must see,” and that “nearly all” group includes both companies that advertise and the agencies that make and sell the ads.   The once popular intersection of content and advertising is no longer visible on any map.

As the world has moved from a defined and relatively small number of high volume publications to a place where the volume of different choices available for an advertiser are now massive, it has also become much harder to get consumers to pay much attention to adverts.  

IMG 0683When television had only a few channels and whole demographics were glued to specific shows at the time when they were initially broadcast, the “results” from showing an advert could be felt and evaluated in certain ways almost immediately. But the world has moved on, we now have literally thousands of broadcast channels, across over-the-air (OTA), cable, satellite and various internet mediums of static image, video/animation and audio streams, plus consumers now have the ability to record shows and watch them later while skipping the ad breaks.  And worse still for advertisers the sheer volume of adverts has trained almost the entire population to ignore them.

Think about it, for many it used to be the case that TV ad breaks were the time to go and get a snack or use the bathroom; it approached a Pavlovian reflex for many of a certain generation).  Advertisers tried to regain attention by increasing the volume (a situation that every TV watcher knows to be the case, but every TV channel and advertiser can “show” is not true by showing average decibel readings during a show).  And today advertisers use an ever increasing arsenal of annoying tactics to make skipping the ad harder, from non skip-able ads for the first 15 seconds on channels such as YouTube, to ads that zoom out to cover the whole of your screen and challenge you to find the hidden X to close it.

The companies that sell advertising (to the companies who desire to have their message heard) have a million tactics for proving their relevance and worth.  They look at a myriad of technical data about the way ads are consumed and find one or two that don’t look (on the surface) terrible and it is (of course) these they present to their clients to show the value they provide.  Some of the most obvious (and overused) ones are click through rate (CTR) and impressions, but there are hundreds of smart-sounding metrics to choose from.

CTR is the measure of how many times an advert was clicked on, as opposed to the number of times it was presented.  When this is used as a measure, then the advertiser makes it very easy for the contact to click on it by mistake as missing that tiny ‘X’ by even by a millimeter drives a CTR tally.  Even a mistakenly clicked click-through is considered wonderful for the advert as it drives an impression and an official “view” of a new page or ad.

The “impressions” measure talks about the number of times that an advert has been displayed on a webpage.  And for the advertiser it can be very easy to display the same ad many million times without a single relevant person actually noticing it lurking the page.

Neither of these often-used ROI measures truly is a measure of success for the person paying for the advert.  They don’t to the true level of engagement that a prospective consumer has with reading an advert. Astute purchasers of advertising can perform their own research on any online activity using any of the many available tools (or create their own tool), and can quickly learn if an ad is working as well as any ad agency or publication ad sales representative is telling you. One of the easiest measures to look at is the bounce rate, this will better inform you as to how many people actually got to read the content and then look at additional content on your site. If the bounce rate is really high, and the average time spent on the page is really low, you can see if readers are not truly interested (and learn more about the effectiveness of the targeting and the ad itself).

And as adverts become more annoying, new technical solutions are found and used by consumers to avoid seeing any ad, with systems that can block all ads from being displayed or stop ads spawning a pop-up window.  For TV, solutions include hard disk recorders allowing ads to be zipped through or even skipped entirely, the latest of these allows TiVo BOLT users to skip entire ad breaks (and I can confirm that it works really well).

With every new advance in ad blocking comes another round of technology by advertisers to circumvent the ad blocker.  It’s another cold war but instead of spy vs. spy we now have advertisers vs. the public.

The end result is that consumers don’t spend any time actually looking at the advert, instead they are expending time to avoid them.  I’ve read recent research from numerous sources that show that the generation that has grown up with the Internet has the lowest levels of retention of adverts of any generation.  Clearly we are fighting back against ads seen as interruptions and are learning to filter out advertising at a cultural level.

A dilemma we have is that advertising truly is important from a couple of perspectives.  It is a way for great content providers to be able to afford to build great content.  Most newspapers, TV channels, radio channels and many websites survive at least in part by the revenue they get from advertising.  And without advertising they would have to charge a lot more directly for access to their content, which would create a barrier to a large part of their reader/viewer/listener-ship.

The dilemma is currently being worsened by the metrics as the Internet is now both the easiest way to measure the success of adverts and the easiest way to measure the failure of advertising.  The TV-based Nielsen rating system and the print industry’s measure of issues sold (and average number of viewers per issue) used to give advertisers enough wiggle room that they could justify the value of their work based on numbers and details of people that would very likely see the ad.  New metrics and the Internet provide many ways for those who may (for the creation and placement of advertising) want to measure their own level of success and be able to aggressively challenge advertising and media agencies as to the value.  This metrics-based skepticism and its downward pressure on ad rates, while healthy in some ways, is definitely changing how everyone spends on advertising.


So what are the choices?

It is worth noting that when the Internet protocols were first developed at CERN, the concept of micropayments was considered and only removed from the definition of the standard when it became clear that getting agreement with business people on how it should be implemented would have been a huge barrier to getting the whole standard off the ground in the first place.  The idea of micropayments was dropped because it would have been too “disruptive,” this is quite humorous when you consider just how disruptive the Internet has been in business terms overall.  But that ship has sailed and there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to create a new model that would use it.

Some businesses have found their path to success has been in branded content.  This is a process whereby a company in effect sponsors the creation of great content (which entertains and/or informs) that is also relevant to their brand.  In this way the content itself can be very interesting to an audience that is also interested in the product of the company who paid for the content creation.  There have been some excellent branded content pieces that have brought true value to the consumers and the vendors.  But for every piece of good branded content there are dozens of self-serving lazy pieces, which are so blatantly biased to the message of those that paid for them, as to be no less irritating than adverts.

There are though a couple of models to address the larger dilemma that do show promise.

The first involves educating the audience of a publication as to the need for sponsors, and providing a pathway for sponsors to have their content heard/viewed while not intruding in the actual content.  For example, some publications ask their readers to sign-up prior to accessing content, and are then presented either on a monthly email or a special offers section on the content medium with a place to peruse the branding and products of the sponsors.  These relationships demand trust though, as the consumer must trust that the publication will respect their privacy and won’t blanket-bomb them with emails, phone calls of masses of printed mail in their snail-mailbox.  This trust can be hard to win, as most consumers and business buyers are wary of the way “signups” have been used in the past and tend to exit when faced with the sign-up, even when the content is of interest to them.  A missed opportunity for all involved.

Other publications are now charging for their print copies and giving free access to those who sign up to their online content.  The same model is being used by subscription and cable-based TV services which now offer access to their online content and mobile device access to those who subscribe.

The challenge is that with so much content available via so many subscription models, consumers are now conscious of the large number of monthly charges they are paying to access content.  It’s not uncommon for one household to now pay for cable/satellite TV, a daily newspaper, a TiVo subscription, Amazon Prime, a music streaming service, a couple of weekly or monthly magazine services, and additional streaming services such as Hulu.  Individual premium TV channels once available as a cable add-on are now available to the cordless via a separate streaming subscriptions (e.g. HBO NOW).  The amount of money a consumer is being asked for to access content is increasing, but so is the complexity of access that content, truly a “lose-lose” situation.  Maybe it is time for some form of media consortium to provide aggregated content to consumers across all mediums.  While people hate the channel bundles forced on them by cable TV services, there are economies of scale available to content aggregators that are not available to individuals.  And with content aggregation can come a friendlier form of advertising.

Imagine if you could sign up for a service that provided access to the twenty or thirty content sources that you look at each month (i.e. newspapers, video, magazines, etc.), with the benefits of lower pricing due to the volume, and separated the advertising elements into a package of “special offers” as opposed to the smack-in-the-face advertising we see today.  Would you try it?


In Summary:

  • Advertising is important but doesn’t need to be so painful for the modern consumer and ineffective for the modern advertiser
  • There are choices beyond the new cold war between advertisers and consumers.

Choice 1 – The on-ramp community of ISP’s, cable TV providers, printers along with content publishers can form (or be brought together as) a consortium to ring fence a part of the content subscription already charged and deliver this to content provider “distributors” based on content consumption.

Choice 2 – Branded content allows truly interesting and informative content to be created that is consumption-worthy for an audience and presents the business case and/or message that a company wants to present.  Low quality, self-serving “stealth collateral” packaged and promoted as content dilutes this, and so publishers must take an active role in managing quality.

Choice 3 – Publishing mediums can work with the advertising world to separate adverts into a separate part of their publication. The reasons for consumers to visit this section of the content would be to learn, get discounts on products or participate in promotional activity. Imagine this new world where you were not continuously bombarded, interrupted and insulted with advertising, but instead “advertising review” was a choice you would make because the content truly interested you and the brand who brought it to you had earned your interest. 

On a personal level, I see promising signs of Choice #1 forming, and I will continue to deliver branded content (Choice #2).   I know I’d personally be very interested in a “Choice 3” type of service and will try to make it a reality.

How about you?  I’d love to hear from you.


We are the knowledge generation, we read more, listen more, watch more, write more, create more, think more than people ever have before.


We are just as good at ignoring irrelevant content as we are at finding relevant content.

Advertising and content providers must change to earn our respect and attention.


And we have just started, can you imagine what the generation being born today will do.


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