Pardon the Interruption: Will Future Consumers Have Any Patience For Ads?

andrewshebbeare“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Andrew Shebbeare, Founding Partner & Global Chief Strategist at Essence.

Only a few years ago, I grazed on hundreds of different destination sites. These days, there are only three or four I visit regularly. I know I am not alone; the way audiences engage with content is changing fast. These days, we’re not so much browsing content as feeding on it. We’ve gone from expecting publishers to guide our entertainment to demanding full control of every byte of media we consume and every pixel of our many (shrinking) screens.

This change has big implications for advertisers, who will be projected from the periphery of users’ attention right into their direct focus. Advertisers will need to earn the right to interrupt or endure harsh rebuke.

We used to passively watch whatever TV channels were put in front of us. Now we record the shows we want and skip everything in between. We used to immerse ourselves in full-page Web experiences that basically mirrored newspapers and magazines. Now we’re snacking on tinier and tinier parcels of information on demand. We used to listen to radio stations; now we’re curating personalized playlists that we take with us everywhere we go.

The old model of lean-back media consumption opened natural windows for advertisers to insert themselves in and around the user journey. Lean-forward experiences are inherently more linear, more goal-oriented. For audiences who know what they want and want to get it by the shortest route possible, ads can become an obstruction and an annoyance. As this becomes the norm, we’re going to have to adapt. Technology, media and user behavior are all changing.

Here are some specific examples of this trend at play:

Small Screens

Perhaps the biggest accelerant is mobile. Smaller screens mean less peripheral real estate, so making an impact typically requires hogging the screen. Mobile-use cases tend to be pretty linear, and without a windowed GUI, it’s a bigger imposition to ask users to leave what they’re doing to respond to an ad. These types of interruptions require a new level of permission, which marketers must earn. Being interesting, useful and relevant is essential if you want to create successful mobile campaigns.

Shorter Journeys

When I wanted the weather, I used to go to a weather site. When I wanted to convert currency, I went to a currency conversion site. When I wanted to know the capital of Azerbaijan …you get the idea. These days I obtain all this information from a Google search, a home-screen widget or maybe an app – it’s all a click or screen-unlock away. That means a whole lot of traditional display ad inventory gets taken out of the equation. I realize we’re nowhere near an impression drought just yet, but I don’t think we should take it for granted that we’ll always be able to lean on an abundance of banner inventory either.

New Interfaces

Changing user interfaces present completely new challenges. When you get into speaking, hearing or touching – the senses that tend to focus on one thing at a time – earning that permission gets even more difficult. In the near future, many interactions with computers will be entirely voice-driven. Inserting ads into a conversation without being annoying gets really hard. Where do sponsored results fit into a voice search query and response? Imagine your favorite AI doing voice-based advertising:

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m afraid I can’t do that until you check out the great savings at, Dave. It’s the last chance to save up to 15% on pod bay doors this holiday weekend. Free shipping and easy returns!

This example may be silly, but the point it makes is serious. Computing is weaving itself into the fabric of the everyday real world. Traditional ads would suffocate the elegance of these new interfaces; they simply won’t be allowed in. There’s been no suggestion yet of advertising on Google Glass, but there’s already been plenty of outrage. Many people are excited about wearable computing; few are looking forward to wearable advertising.

Digital Subscriptions

Subscription-based media is moving a chunk of viewing time into ad-free environments, from traditional radio to Spotify, from cable to Netflix. As people consume more content on tap, there will be fewer opportunities to enter their space. The cable-cutters out there will become increasingly hard to reach, especially assuming they tend to be “feeders” rather than “browsers.”

Sure, there’s the argument that advertisers will always need to advertise, a shortage of inventory will just drive up prices and the digital ecosystem wins. However, if prices rise far enough, digital could become a difficult medium– where space is at such a premium that it just doesn’t cost in.

How Worried Should You Be?

Well, if you remove Facebook from the equation, comScore would indicate that US display impressions actually shrank year over year by more than 10% in April, to 294 billion from 329 billion. I’m sure there are many factors at play, but it does look like growth is slowing in mainstream display. Even including Facebook, eMarketer forecasts modest growth next year of just 7% for “traditional” display. This isn’t to imply that digital is in any sort of trouble – video and mobile are booming, of course. But if the complexion of the display market is changing, it’s because people are engaging with content differently.

Successful Examples From The Front Line

So what needs to change for digital marketing to keep up with digital media? I think we can learn a good amount from the brave souls who have given us the first generation of ad products for lean-forward, linear media:

Facebook solved its mobile problem almost overnight by adding highly targetable, functionally rich ads into its timeline. The change went down poorly with users, who expect to see their friends on their timelines, but has done much for the social network’s revenue model. Twitter has done the same thing well – and without as much backlash. Its job was easier, though, because people expect to see brands in their timeline, and a tweet is pretty unobtrusive anyway.

Apple’s iAd was the first to patch up the mobile-ad response user journey with seamless in-situ downloads on mobile. Kiip is doing interesting things with rewards, which it’s offering for engagement that users can run in the background without detracting from the stuff they’re trying to get done. These small things feel essential to delivering conversions on mobile devices without frustrating users.

Many publishers have been successful in offering users an explicit value choice: endure interruptive ads and earn something in return, or pay up. Pandora, Spotify and Kindle have all developed compelling ad-supported models that save users real dollars in return for a few moments of their attention. I find this elegant, partly because it explains so neatly to all the ad-haters why so much of the Web is free to them. Models like Hitbliss make the exchange even more explicit – watch ads, get stuff!

YouTube pioneered skippable video ads, perhaps the first major ad format designed for the user-driven Web. They monetize hitherto unmonetizable short-form user-generated content much better than display ads, and on a wider range of devices. But the skip reflex will ultimately create a challenge. My sense is that giving people choices about what to watch, or a choice between paying or tolerating ads, might be more sustainable in the long run.

Lessons Learned

So here are the lessons we’ve learned so far: Small changes can do big things. The user journey is everything. Explicit value choices can create permission.

All that is helpful, I hope, but certainly not enough. There’s a lot of buzz about “native” ads right now, but I think there are still plenty of ways an ad can feel like an ad and still be successful. I’d settle for “good” advertising.

We’re going to need plenty of new and creative ideas, each with the user at the center. They probably won’t all play nicely with existing platforms for buying, delivery and measurement. They will probably drive fragmentation and format proliferation. But if we can’t figure out how to create good experiences that are sufficiently interesting, relevant and useful to consumers, ads will just get forced out of the increasingly precious digital realm and relegated to the channels that are easiest to ignore.

Follow Essence (@essencedigital) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. Definitely interesting, but I’d say that they should probably rephrase this to say “Pardon the Interruption: Will Future Consumers Have Any Patience For Ads as they are now?”

    Most ads in our eco system are designed to be as annoying as possible within the user experience in order to get users to upgrade. In other words, users are intentionally driven to distraction to the point where they don’t have any patience left. The industry needs to change this, and there are already some great examples out there.