Friday, July 4, 2008

Fine Art Threatens Online Advertisers

Lovers of art may rejoice, but online marketers will cringe at the news of a new Firefox plug-in that inserts fine art in place of banner ads and other online advertising. As discussed on the blog Experience The Message, this is "Another example of the growing empowerment of the consumer, and a resounding example of art trying to subvert commerce -- something that is usually done the other way around."

Marketers can no longer ignore consumer's growing power and control of all media. On this blog, I often refer to the consumer backlash against our ad-saturated world and encourage marketers to think less about the valueless interruptions of consumers' lives on which we've all come to rely and instead focus on the kinds of value-added marketing consumers desire and will seek out. I don't for a moment believe that every dollar spent on brand-controlled marketing (such as TV and online ads) can shift to consumer-controlled media (such as advergaming, social media, and branded content), but clearly a significant shift is underway and is nowhere near completion.

The Experiential Marketing Continuum has been discussed frequently here at E:TB. This concept attempts to define the openness, acceptance, and availability of consumers to various marketing media. For example, one end of the Continuum is where you'll find marketing channels that consumers find so offensive that they seek laws to prevent marketers from using those tactics. Examples include adware, spam, and telemarketing.

The next step up the Continuum are legal marketing means that consumers dislike to such a great degree that they'll pay to avoid marketing messages in these channels. In a world of free TV and radio, consumers spend money on DVR hardware and subscriptions, on satellite radio access, and on MP3 players. In part, consumers spend in this way to increase their control of the media they see and hear, but a large justification for these investments is to eliminate the advertising that interrupts and (in the perception of consumers) detracts from the viewing and listening experience.

Online display advertising is one of the less-welcome forms of advertising, akin to what TV and radio advertising has become. This category includes both pop-up advertising and banner advertising.

The desire to block pop-up and -under advertising has become so common that browser software routinely comes with this capability set to default. Crafty and annoying online marketers constantly seek to defeat anti-pop-up measures, an effort that leaves me scratching my head. If consumers hate the tactic that much, why would a marketer want his or her brand associated with this kind of advertising?

I guess we'd have to ask Netflix that question, since they seem to be the largest brand that uses pop-up advertising. The sad answer may be that it works as a direct marketing tactic, but I wonder if they've thoroughly explored the negative feelings their pop-up ads engender with consumers. (Or maybe Netflix simply knows the future of video distribution is online and sees that their days sending movies to people via the postal mail are numbered, so they're wringing everything they can from their brand today and simply don't care what the consumers of 2013 will think of their brand.)

While the percentage is still small, a large number of consumers have downloaded and are using ad blocking software to eliminate or decrease display ads from their web surfing experience. Ad blocking has become so common and accepted that PC World, a Web site that relies on advertising revenue from online advertisers, named Adblock Plus one of its Top 100 products for 2007. The number of daily users of this software has increased from 1.4 million to 3.3 million in just the past year (although it has seen a drop in the past month, which I suspect is due to the new Firefox version that has just been released.)

Add Art is just one of many ad blocking applications, and their number will only grow. And as more Internet users visit sites while blocking those sites' ads, this will put pressure on Web publishers to find other ways to increase revenue. It may be that consumers will be forced to pay for the content they wish to see (although the challenges to converting a site from being ad-supported to being paid are very significant, and in fact most sites have done the opposite in recent years because consumers simply aren't willing to pay for content when so much if it is already free).

Online display advertising is not about to go away, but perhaps we marketers might consider ways to encourage consumers to view our ads rather than to find ways to block them. For example, stop overlaying content with your ad--consumers find this annoying. When executing an ad that includes an animation appearing over content, be sure the "Close" button is evident and easy to find rather than forcing consumers to find a tiny "X" button amid a cluttered ad. And ads that never stop blinking are irritating, so online ads should repeat several times and then stop. These are all obvious best practices for online display advertising.

The more important way marketers and publishers can keep people seeing their ads is to make sure these ads are relevant. I'm 45 years old, successful in my career, and financially stable--why do I continually have to see online ads for debt consolidation and online degrees? They annoy me (and I suspect they annoy you, too). If ads were better targeted to consumers' needs, they'd pay more attention.

Even better than targeting and relevance is to produce advertising that consumers actually want to see. Just look at this year's Cyber Lion winners: a screen saver that is almost a work of art, banner ads that create two-way communication, and an alternate reality game that motivated consumers to engage for thousands upon thousands of hours.

Marketers that continue to pursue the interruption method of marketing may spur immediate clickthroughs, but are encouraging consumers to think worse of their brand and are hastening the consumer backlash against ubiquitous marketing. It takes effort and creativity, but there are more welcome and more experiential ways to reach consumers!

Should you use Firefox and be interested in seeing art rather than ads, here is how Add-Art works. The first two minutes are about installing the software; after that, you can see the functionality and results of using Add-Art:

Introduction to Add-Art from Steve Lambert on Vimeo.

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