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Is there a solution to the advertising disconnect?

priscilla-du-preez-NQTphr4Pr60-unsplash Credit: Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash
Advertisers are desperate to get their audience's attention. Most of that audience would prefer not to see advertising and do their best to avoid it. This is the digital advertising disconnect. So far, few brands have figured out an effective solution to the problem. So, what is a brand to do?

Most people do not want to see advertising
Despite what the ad platforms might claim, whenever people are asked for their opinions, the answer is consistent, most people perceive digital advertising to be overwhelming, irrelevant, and interruptive. Here are a couple of stats that speak to the problem.

"More than six in ten respondents said they know advertising helps to keep social media free, but 59% said there's too much of it, and 52% are fed up with self-promotional brand content."

"Nielsen found that 64% of US consumers intentionally take actions to avoid ads on free, ad-supported video services like YouTube. 59% say there are far too many or somewhat too many ads on those platforms. When ads cannot be skipped, 46% say they dislike it since it interrupts content they enjoy."

People's behavior backs up their opinions
It is easy to write findings like these off on the grounds that it is just a survey. However, behavioral data lends credibility to the attitudinal data. People avoid advertising if they can.

"On average, eyes-on dwell time with 15-second unskippable YouTube ads is 4.9 seconds. Eyes-on dwell time with social media ads is much lower, which is largely a result of the scroll velocity."

Given today's advertising overload, people are primed to instinctively avoid ads that interrupt their search for content of interest, entertainment, or utility, and, unless forced to watch or listen, most people will follow through on their instinct. Even when forced to watch 5 seconds of unskippable video, you can bet most people are focused on the skip button in the last couple of seconds, not what is being shown or said.

(Actually, you do not need to bet. Shortly after I wrote the preceding paragraph, I saw this post from Seán Higgins which reviews some eye tracking stats for YouTube. He reports that on average the Skip button is found inside 700ms from the moment it appears on screen and gets about 25% of overall visual attention.)

Most advertisers are ignoring the elephant in the room
So far, most advertisers and ad platforms have successfully ignored the elephant in the room (or at least done little to walk their talk). The amount spent on digital advertising only increases. This is the tragedy of the digital commons. Content may be infinitely scalable, but our attention is not. People have never wanted to see advertising, but in the dim and distant past, there was just less of it. Now that most of the world uses a smartphone to access content, the ad load is sky high.

How many ads is too many?
One of the consequences of what Cory Doctorow refers to as 'enshittification' is an imbalance between attention and ad load. Platforms that once put their users' needs first now put those of their shareholders first, with advertisers footing the bill, and users discomforted.

Take the example of Facebook. In its country of origin, the US user base has been flat since 2016 and time on site remains stable despite the company's attempts to emulate TikTok and serve up content designed to earn more attention. Yes, I know investors are going gaga for Meta right now, but one reason for their excitement is the additional revenue generated by the increased ad load on Facebook. The question is, how long can that last?

Personally, I have all but given up on using Facebook. Once it was simple and easy to connect with friends and family on the site. Now it feels like I am wading through an excess of ads and recommended content. Maybe some of that stuff is "relevant" to me, but it is not relevant to my main motivation for being on Facebook at the time. At some point, I believe that the ad load on the site is simply going to be too great for most people and they too will start to spend less time on the platform. When that happens, look out WhatsApp, Messenger, and Oculus users because those ads will be destined for your screen.

(What? You did not realize that those platforms offer optionality for monetization? Yes, that is the real reason investors are going gaga over Meta.)

Shorter ads are not the answer
This said, some advertisers have recognized the fundamental problem of the digital disconnect but have either adopted the wrong solution or tried to sidestep the problem.

The wrong solution is to make shorter ads. Common sense should tell you that any impression left by an ad lasting a couple of seconds will be minimal. However, failing common sense, it will be interesting to see what a study previewed at the Advertising Research Foundation's AUDIENCExSCIENCE 2024 Conference concludes. Bill Harvey reports that the preliminary finding is that brand attraction measured by right frontal cortex Alpha wave activity takes 15 seconds to peak and that a couple of seconds attention can reinforce but rarely change behavior.

(For the record, I am still somewhat skeptical of claims made by neuro practitioners when it comes to predicting behavior, most claims seem far too definitive. However, if Alpha wave activity in the right frontal cortex indicates valence, i.e., whether someone is attracted or repelled by the stimulus, then it may be indicative of later behavior.)

Leaving this research aside, there is plenty of evidence to show that people will happily watch hours of content on their smartphones, provided it is what they want to see. The real challenge for advertisers is to earn people's attention and then deliver something memorable.

No easy answers
I know it sounds old-fashioned, but most established brands still need to create an effective advertising campaign to reach, influence, and remind potential buyers, and that means figuring out how to earn people's attention, not avoiding the problem. In my next post I will consider a popular sidestep to the problem – influencers – and then turn to what advertisers really need to do in order to get people's attention.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Am I being too pessimistic about the digital disconnect? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. 

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June 23, 2024