The Digital Ad Industry Needs To Innovate For Consumers

“Data-Driven Thinking” is a column written by members of the media community and containing fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

David Levy is co-founder of SocialVibe, a digital advertising technology company.

Jerry Neumann posed a question on AdExchanger the other day that should strike a chord with anyone who works in media and advertising: What If Online Doesn’t Work For Branding?

Branding plays a critical role in the development of a company and its products, and brand advertising has represented enormous investment from brands to garner consumer attention within quality content like magazines, TV, music, and news.  Yet while digital disruption has flipped traditional media on its ear, the consumer-focused innovation that propels media forward seems to have been left behind when it comes to brand advertising. Jerry is right to call this into question, and he issued an apt challenge: How do we disrupt branding?

The key word here is disruption. We have to disrupt branding because there is disruption in everything else that surrounds it. All content will be digital at some point, so failing really isn’t an option. The issue is not so much about the online medium being antithetical to building brands. It’s that brand building really only works well alongside quality content with an attentive audience, yet the majority of current online advertising models are still designed for the lowest common denominator content, not the rich content we know today. Disrupting branding, then, is about innovating the right models and products for brand advertising to live in this high quality content again – in digital.

However, to quote Steve Jobs, most advertising products “really suck.” The best technology companies’ successes have largely come from the ability to create amazing products for people that enhance the old way of doing things. This consumer-focused mentality around product innovation, as opposed to revenue-first, is the only way to truly be disruptive.

For all of the startups focused on the world of brand advertising, few if any think of brand advertising as a product, and few care about the user experience. In reality, most of the focus in ad tech has been on servicing the client: advertisers – but at the expense of the consumer. This focus has destroyed advertisers’ relationship with consumers online, making it nearly impossible for brand advertising to do what it’s good at – tell a story and create an emotional connection.

As Tim Chang and Tim Hanlon keenly pointed out, a lingering reliance on outdated and insufficient metrics, rather than actual brand intelligence and engagement, has further hampered the online brand ad market’s success. Immersed in delivering day-to-day campaigns, too many ad tech firms fixate on a clickthrough rate and fail to recognize what brand advertising is all about. At its core, brand advertising is about storytelling. It is about bringing consumers on a journey and making them feel something. But in order to tell a story, people have to be listening.

There used to be a sense that advertising provided consumers with value. Brands sponsored quality content – soap operas got their name this way – and because of that exchange, consumers were more receptive to listening. But nowadays in digital, advertising is seen as the enemy, ruining people’s online experience, especially when it comes to consuming content. It’s something that gets in the way of what people have now come to expect for free. All you have to do is tell your friends you work in online advertising and see their reaction. It’s not pleasant.

So how has much of the ad industry used technology to try to get quality attention back? Well, companies have decided that instead of creating a better user experience, they will try to prevent consumers from ignoring advertising: full screen takeovers that disrupt, ads that expand when consumers accidentally roll over them, granting coupons instead of relevant rewards people actually care about. Neglecting the user experience has led to a downward spiral in the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and consumers online, and consumer contempt is growing.

However, if we focus innovation on creating great ad products for consumers that actually provide them with value for their attention without detracting from their experience, then we can start to rebuild this advertiser-consumer relationship. As more and more content moves online, we have to develop technological solutions that foster a balance between effective advertising and a viable attention economy. If you bring people into the experience in the right way, they will listen to your story. As Neumann rightly pointed out, “Brands do not choose you; you choose brands.”

Success for brand advertising online will happen when there is a true intersection between technology and the art of storytelling. As advertisers, media providers, and technology companies, we need to focus our resources on facilitating that intersection as quickly as possible. Innovating for the consumer will pay off for advertisers and for publishers, and it’ll bring us to a sustainable advertising ecosystem online.

Follow David Levy (@thedavidlevy), SocialVibe (@SocialVibe) and (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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