Online advertising – a bubble

I just recorded a podcast with Duncan Riley and Bronwen Clune – two New Media innovators I greatly admire, to discuss what the future of media was. Unfortunately, the podcast recording came out battered and my normal analytical mind wasn’t in gear to add fruitfully to the discussion.

So Dunc and Bron, here I go: why I think advertising on the Internet has a future that will repeat the property bubble that fueled the world’s economic expansion these last few decades. (Y’know -the one that just burst.)

Advertising has been broken by the Internet
Let’s think about this from a big picture first: why do people advertise? It’s to get an outcome. Ignoring elections and government campaigns, the regular market economy has advertising so companies can make money. Pure and simple. Whether it be "brand" advertising which is a way of shaping perceptions for future sales, or straight-off-the-bat advertising pushing a product – the incentive for companies is to get a response. That response, ultimately, is to take that cash out of your wallet.

Now’s lets jump into the time machine and think about companies in the 1970s and 1980s – before this "Internet" thing became mainstream. How could companies get exposure for their products? Through the media of course. The mass media had captured audiences, and they were able to monetise this powerful position they had in society by forcing people to consume advertising as they were dealt with servings of information they actually wanted.

It worked in the past, because that’s how the world worked. That is of course, until the Internet and the Web completely transformed our world.

Companies jumped on the web thinking this was simply an extension of the mass media but so much better. And they were right to some extent – it was much better. A bit too good actually, because it now exposed the weaknesses of the concept of advertising.

Take for example one of the undergraduate students that works at my firm. Apparently, this 19 year old never watches television – but he is on top of all the main shows. He does this through peer to peer technology, where he is able to download his favourite shows. I asked him why does he do that and he responded quickly: "because I can avoid the ads". What’s happening with the Internet is that consumers can control the experience they have when consuming information now, unlike the past where they marched in line according to the programming schedule. The audience is no longer captive.

The Internet did another thing: it made advertising more accountable. In the past, savvy agencies would ‘segment’ the population and associate various mass media outlets as better being able to connect with the ‘target market’. To measure, print used circulation and readership – working out how many people bought the publication, and some number out of some Actuary’s head of how many people read that same copy (through statistical techniques of assessing patients in doctors’ surgeries, no doubt). Broadcasters on the other hand, would randomly call households and using statistical methods, would estimate the number of people that tuned in.

Perhaps the fact I took statistics for my undergraduate degree, is why I am so skeptical. Even my stats lecturer admitted it was bullshit – albeit in an ‘educated’ way. In relation to the mass media, the bigger issue was the fact this educated bullshit was not disaggregated. What I mean, was that when a newspaper has a readership of 100,000 people – there is a massive assumption that if you advertise in that publication, you will actually reach them. You might have bought a newspaper to read this one article your friend mentioned – and yet, your act of purchase enables the newspaper to justify all the other pages to advertisers with a simplistic metric.

The Internet completely changed this because we no longer are relying on statistics, but actual data collected. In the past, advertisers would get a plane and fly over an Amazonian forest they picked and pay to drop one million pamphlets hoping that at least 50,000 of their target market would catch the pamphlets and respond. Of course, indirect sales activity could indicate the effectiveness of a campaign, but in reality it was all a guess. Now with the Internet, a lot of the guesswork is not required any more – and quite frankly, advertising on the Net looks bad but the reality is that the truth has now been set free.

This is looking at it from an accountability point of view, but looking at it from a practical view as well, there are issues. The holy grail of advertising, is targeting. The reason being, if you can target an ad better, you are more likely to get a conversion. However there is a natural friction with targeted advertising and it’s called privacy. As I’ve said before, privacy is the speed hump for the attention economy.

Advertising on the net technologically offers a great ability to target, with marketers licking their lips at the opportunity. However this is coming with a complete misunderstanding, that technology may be an enabler but culture and society will be a breaker. People do not want better targeting. The thought that some company profiles you scares the crap out of people. Yes, I’ve even convinced myself that when advertising is relevant, it’s useful – but this is looking at it after the fact. The problem with targeted advertising, is that whilst it may run a world record 100 metre dash, it might not get the chance to actually get off the starting blocks. Just ask Facebook if you don’t believe me.

The structural impact the Internet has had to ruin advertising
The Internet is great for measuring – but there are a few too many measures. The lack of a consistent measurement system creates several problems. More significant is the fact that different types of Internet services compete based on what model works best for them. For example, pay per action is something advertisers love because they are getting a better return on their investment by seeing a follow through. This works with contextual advertising like the kind Google uses – it’s actually in Google’s interest for you to click off their pages.

Contrast that with video sites where a person is engaged with the content for ten minutes. An advertiser can’t compare ten minutes of engagement on a video site easily with click-actions on contextual advertising sites. What this creates is a vacuum, where the ad dollars will bias those that offer a better likelihood of making a sale. After all, why would you care about capturing someone’s attention for ten minutes, when you can simply pay for someone clicking on a link which is directly linked with an e-commerce sale on your site.

This creates a real problem, because it’s not an equal playing field to compete for the advertising. Certain types of services do better under different models. Banner advertising will die, not just because people are realising the usability issues surrounding banner blindness , or the fact that banner advertising is simply a copy and paste model of the mass media days , but because competing advertising models that better link them better to final sales will become more popular. When we hear about the great growth rates in online advertising, don’t forget to dig a little deeper because the real growth comes from search advertising which makes up about half of that.

There’s another structural problem with the Internet: there’s too much competition. In the mass media days, the media had an established relationship as "the" information distribution outlets of society. With the Internet, anyone can create a blog and become their own publisher. Additionally, the Internet is seeing growth not just in New Media ventures, but utility and commerce ventures as well. Same advertising pie theoretically (ignoring the long tail effect for a second, where small advertisers can now participate), but a lot more "distributors". This creates a fragmentation, where advertising dollars are being worn thin. It’s for this reason the larger internet services tend to manage to get by . Just looking at the face of it though, you know there’s a problem in the longer term even for the bigger players when you operate in such an environment.

It’s not just other Internet services to worry about however: it’s the advertisers themselves. In a world of information, democratised by search engines judging quality content – you as a publisher are on the same foot as the company paying for the ads. Why would Nike want to advertise on your website, when it can just improve its own search engine ranking? Companies can now create a more direct relationship with their customers and future customers – and they no longer need an intermediary (like the media) to facilitate that relationship. That’s a Big Deal. It’s not just search though – the VRM Project is doing exactly that, creating a system that will facilitate those relationships.

Concluding thoughts
I could just as much put an argument in favour of online advertising, don’t get me wrong – there will be a lot of growth occuring still. But what I want to highlight, is that taking a step back at the facts, there is something seriously wrong with this model. If advertisers no longer need that intermediary to facilitate a relationship; if advertisers are chasing the industry down the tail of measureable ads that better link to a final sale; if the entire industry is not consistent and competing with each other both in inventory and in methods, in an infinite battle; and if consumers are no longer captive to the content distribution experience – it makes you question doesn’t it?

According to Nielsen over a year ago, about a third of all U.S. online advertising dollars spent in July came from the financial sector–with mortgage and credit reporting firms representing five of the top ten advertisers. Together, those companies spent nearly $200 million on search, display and other Web advertising, meaning that a slowdown would degrade fairly significant annual revenue streams. The writing was on the wall that long ago, what analysts are only now saying are troubled times for online advertising.

Just like we knew a year ago about the credit crunch, before a drastic turn of events turned it into the most dramatic economic shift in our world in our collective memories, so too will the advertising bubble burst. It will be years – perhaps decades – before this happens. However one thing is for sure – the Internet has not only ruined the newspaper, music and traditional software industries, but it’s also ruining the world of advertising. Like how newspapers, music and software are currently evolving into new models which we still are not sure where they will end up, so too will advertising be transformed.

Mr Online Advertising and Ms Media Company relying on it as a revenue model – you are growing on the basis of some very shaky foundations.

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