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Advertising as Curation

I’ve had a few conversations over the past 2 weeks with a collection of industry friends about the shittiness of online ads. They’re generally shitty in one of two ways.

The cool, custom units that please consumers because they’re well-integrated with the content experience are shitty for publishers and advertisers because they aren’t standardized, thus they cost too much to produce, and they aren’t easily reusable on other publishers’ sites or for other advertisers’ campaigns.

And the standard units — the IAB’s various display rectangles — are shitty for consumers because they’re designed to interrupt a reader’s content experience and convince him or her to click somewhere else. Reuters’ Felix Salmon says we’ve brought this variation of shittiness upon ourselves: “Because it’s so easy to measure things like impressions and click-through rates, the online ad industry has missed the real power that advertising can have…. It’s the measurement fallacy: people tend to think that what they can measure is what they want, just because they can measure it.”

Too often online ads are either pitching an impulse buy or they’re custom sponsorships cuddling up next to great content in hopes that “adjacency” will transfer some of the content’s goodness to the sponsor’s brand. Salmon points out, though, that advertising can succeed without either. If an ad becomes a self-contained media experience in itself, ad unit as mini media, then it doesn’t need as much help from the publisher to accomplish its goal.

Leaf through a glossy fashion magazine like Vogue, and you’ll find dozens of pages of ads at the front of the book, with basically zero editorial content to break them up. If advertisers thought that readers only looked at ads insofar as they were adjacent to editorial, then they would ask for placement opposite editorial. But that’s not what happens: the ads all cluster at the front, the editorial gets relegated to the back, and readers spend more time looking at ads than they do looking at editorial features. In fact, the most avid readers of the editorial shoots are the advertisers, who use them for ideas when they’re planning their next campaign.

Vogue is a prime example of the power of advertising: if, as an advertiser, you know how to give people something they want, then you don’t need to rely on second-best stratagems like adjacency. And no one ever clicked on an ad in Vogue. Which is one reason why Gawker’s former ad chief Chris Batty once proposed that all ads on Gawker Media should be images only, and not clickable at all — it would force advertisers to create something good, instead of chasing after clicks from idiots.

We’ve spent the past 15 years arguing over the size and shapes of banner ads and the click-through rates they generate, and this has distracted us from the hard work of filling the space with good story-telling, good entertainment, good content that happens to be published by a brand. Many advertisers have given this approach a whirl. Noah Brier at Percolate calls out a few brands — Amex with their OPEN Forum, and Redbull — that have emerged as persistent, credible web publishers in their own right. But it’s a big investment and has mostly ended in failure: “Microsites were probably the best example of [the wrong way to do it]: Buy a bunch of advertising, drive people to a new .com, stop advertising, stop getting traffic, tear the site down, repeat.”

Brier and Salmon (the former is a Percolate founder and the latter one of its partners) recommend a new approach: Advertising as curation. The argument is, if your customers are using the web to find interesting, relevant content, brands should use the media they buy to serve up links to content those customers might care about. In other words, banners and Facebook Pages that drive customers to other people’s websites — and the brand benefits because consumers associate a sense of gratitude with its name and logo. “Thanks, Coke, for delivering me to this awesome skateboarding video I wouldn’t have found on my own.”

If we’re talking about a brand’s Twitter feed or Facebook Page, where it has already won (or, through advertising, paid for) the right to re-engage with a subset of their customers, I love this approach; it’s easy to send a customer off to that skateboarding video because you can insert your brand into their newsfeed again tomorrow.

It’s a tougher argument to make to content publishers who are still trying to make a living from banner ads of one type or another. Hey, Coke, I want you to pay for some real-estate on my site to drive people off to skateboarding videos, and tomorrow I’ll sell you more space to do it again. We still also need find an approach to online advertising that offers the self-contained goodness of a Vogue print ad or a Superbowl spot — advertising that’s so good we don’t mind a little interruption.