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To Win Digital Advertising, Think Outside the Interruption

I’m generally a pretty relaxed person. That is, until something stands between me and the thing I want to do on the internet.

Say, when I’m trying to watch a video and a commercial plays first. Or when I accidentally mouse over a link or banner and get a flyout marquee covering most of the content. Or when the whole window dims to reveal a pop-up ad, forcing me to frantically search for and click the tiny “X” so I can (finally!) go back to what I was doing.

When Seth Godin coined the term Interruption Marketing back in 1999 he was referring to more traditional marketing methods such as telemarketing calls and print ads, the goal of which were to “interrupt what the viewers [were] doing in order to get them to think about something else.” The same goes for today’s digital landscape — and arguably, it’s even worse now. Every page view and every action in an app is a new opportunity to get an ad (or seven) in a viewer’s face.

As a marketer, I get why flashing calls-to-action are popular. But as a consumer, I get why they’re annoying.

And I’m definitely not alone.


Ad-blocking: the end of the advertising world as we know it?

A rising tide of concern recently peaked when Apple introduced iOS9, which features ad-blocking functionality in its Safari web browser. Mobile ad-blocking is already available on Android operating systems and via downloadable apps, but the iOS9 announcement in particular launched an avalanche of commentary over the state of the digital advertising industry — mobile, desktop, and beyond.

Some rallied behind technology that blocks the ad-blockers. Many others argued that the problem isn’t ad-blocking, it’s the ads themselves. After all, why would any advertiser want to force viewers to endure ads they clearly don’t want to see? What kind of conversion rate could he or she possibly expect in that scenario?

The massive disconnect between advertiser and consumer

There are a myriad of other complicating factors here. The metrics of the current system flat out don’t make sense — fiscal or otherwise. It’s well-known that pop-up and display ads don’t perform well in a desktop environment, but on mobile they truly flounder. Screen size and user behavior are serious issues, and so is basic usability. Video, animation, and other dynamic content are a drag on page load time and eat up user data allowance. Plus, there’s the ethical issue of making users quite literally pay to see ads.

Yet all this circular discussion does is underscore, over and over, the same three key problems:

  1. Content cannot remain free.
  2. Advertisers need to advertise.
  3. Consumers have a right to choose what they consume.

So is there any place we can all meet in the middle?

Well, sure.

If you build it, they will come

“… most online advertising doesn’t follow your interest; it competes for your attention. It’s a barrier you have to overcome (minimizing windows, clicking it out of the way, ignoring it) to get to the article or interaction you want.”
– Ethan Zuckerman, The Internet’s Original Sin

One thing advertisers could do is focus on creating ads people want to see. Digital media is changing all the time, offering up great solutions for building creative, beautiful, and engaging ads such as cinemagraphs. It’s the Super Bowl commercial effect on a smaller scale — the concept of giving consumers timely, relevant, compelling ads they want to talk about and share.

… or will they?

Creating the best, most beautifully engaging ad you can dream of is a good and aspirational goal, but it doesn’t magically solve the core problem plaguing digital advertising:

The interruptions.

I get mad at anything that pops up on my screen, including offers to chat with a live representative or entreaties to take a feedback survey. It doesn’t even have to be an ad, let alone a lush, rich, gorgeous one! If it interrupts me, I don’t wait to stick around and hear the message.

This is why I believe that the future of digital advertising lies in building seamless transitions between content and ads — but I’ll circle back for more on that soon.

Aim for that tiny bullseye

Another key rung on the advertising success ladder is better targeting. We talk about targeted audiences a lot as an ideal, but I get the sense the industry is a bit afraid to scale small for fear of missing out. Advertisers are still very much stuck in a rut of purchasing ads across tons of sites at bargain-basement prices. You could chalk it up to a misplaced sense of “value” — paying the least amount possible for the largest distribution feels like you’re scoring a sensible deal, right?

Not so, though.

“Targeting to intent (as Google’s search ads do) works well, while targeting to demographics, psychographics or stated interests (as Facebook does) works marginally better than not targeting at all.”
– Ethan Zuckerman, The Internet’s Original Sin

Let’s say you’re a wedding planner. Are you likely to fetch more leads hawking your services on a city street corner or in the parking lot of a bridal convention?

Typically the highest-performing online ads are the ones that occur just before a point of sale — that is, when a consumer is ready to make a purchase. The lesson here is to always follow user interest and intent. You’ll find people more willing to listen to your message there.

Get your listeners on board

Which brings me back around to the point I was making about seamlessness. You can circumvent the whole issue of consumers blocking your ads by making ads that are, well, unblockable.

Think about embracing a layered, nuanced content marketing approach that includes:

  • Sponsored posts
  • Partnerships and community investments
  • Product placement
  • Educational materials
  • Infographics and videos
  • Guides and tutorials
  • Research, white papers, and case studies

In other words, if you haven’t had much success being loud, maybe it’s time to try being quiet.

This doesn’t mean you have to abandon display ads entirely — under the right circumstances they can perform well. But don’t forget about all the other unblockable, less-intrusive forms of digital advertising out there, either.

With a little outside-the-interruption-box thinking, you can build a cleaner, faster, precision-targeted advertising experience that consumers won’t automatically want to turn off or tune out.

Good luck! And if you need any help developing your unique marketing strategy, just let us know.

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