There are three platforms that dominate the time people spend online and their names are no surprise – Google, Facebook and Twitter. They have become the backbone of the digital experience and smart brands go where their audience is – so is this the future of advertising?
Dry. That is the best word to describe the experience users have when they see the ads above. These ads are all structured and template-driven. Yes, there is space for a great headline and brands can do something with their thumbnails, but there are no big full-bleed images, no snippets of killer video, no clever interactive overlays.
The “ads” have this form because all three companies have shifted their focus to content distribution and lightweight publishing.
Unfortunately this means the ad unit is a tiny chunk of content with about as much heart pounding, emotion-inducing impact as a postage stamp.
Google’s success with text ads has started this. At $40 billion of revenue, Google AdWords is part the marketing plans of most businesses. $40 billion of clicks on the simplest ad unit ever created: Four lines of template text with almost no typography and no advertiser controlled colors.
If we step back and ask why, it is because it works. The ad unit works for both the brand and the consumer. The consumer is searching for something and the ads are a commercially organized set of results. The ad unit is easy to make, easy to buy and you only pay if someone clicks to learn more. Who wouldn’t put money against that?
In 10 years it has displaced all sorts of traditional direct advertising from big dimensional DM from credit card companies, to full-page spreads from a local retailer in the local paper, to quirky poorly produced display ads in the Yellow Pages directory. With mail volumes down, local newspapers shrinking to be the size of a high school pamphlet and the Yellow Pages sitting unloved soaking up the rain outside the door, it is clear Google has changed advertising and pulled most of the creativity out with it.
Facebook Sponsored Stories
Facebook, with 1.1 billion users and Americans spending around 6 hours a month on the site, has gotten plenty of attention for its growth and incredible stickiness. It is also being positioned as the place for digital brand advertising and has tried a number of ways to deliver it.
Initially the thought was branded applications that provided rich, immersive promotions and entertainment, but these are difficult to create and manage across mobile. Facebook also looked at simple thumbnail, text and link units on the right hand rail (“Marketplace Ads”) but had limited click rates. People aren’t searching on Facebook. Now the ad unit of choice is the Facebook Premium ads in the news feed.
Like the Google ad unit, they are incredibly simple – nothing more then the author’s profile, a headline and a thumbnail. All templated. In fact it is even simpler because if a brand is following the lightweight publishing approach Facebook is recommending, the ad is nothing more then a distributed page post headline.
The problem? How do brands make an emotional impact with a thumbnail, headline and text article? The repeated delivery of interesting content can attract people to read, but it is hard to get a car configurator into a news feed.
Twitter Promoted Tweets
And now Twitter, the darling of the madness we love on the Internet. Continually growing by leaps and bounds while continually looking to define its native ad format.
Sponsored tweets are already appearing more regularly in the twitter stream. Twitter cards could allow for small product listings linked to e-commerce. Hashtags do make discovery of ad content easier. Like Facebook they can move to embedded video in tweets.
Twitter will likely pursue all of these, but there will always be the pressure to, like the others, focus on content distribution and simplify the ad unit. The volume they are looking to achieve requires it. The fact that many tweets are still read in a variety of Twitter clients means rich, immersive experiences won’t be delivered through Twitter in the short term. Only the teaser and the link.
The Answer? Bring Back the Campaign Microsite!
Ironically the answer may well be to bring back the campaign microsite.
Back in 2007 the industry talked about the death of the campaign microsite as Facebook apps became trendy. The reason was once a campaign microsite was built, brands had to drive traffic to them with banner advertising. And click through rates on banner advertising plummeted.
Last year Fred Wilson drove a bit of controversy when he questioned whether search or social drives more traffic to sites. The Atlantic reports 18% of traffic to publishers is from social sources. While it is fun to question Google’s advertising dominance, it really proves the point that all three of these companies are becoming Link Distribution Engines. They don’t deliver the emotional experience, they deliver the link.
Let the advertising “be efficient.” This minimizes the amount of interruption while still giving users the ability to choose to see more when they want to see more. There are lots of people that want to watch Justin Bieber sneak into Macy’s Black Friday Sale or live feeds from the British Territorial Army in Afghanistan. Marketers can deliver much richer experiences then a 30 second spot or full page print ad on the sites they own on the other side of the link.
Ironically as the French like to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” So direct mail and directory advertising go away. And the banner ad, after only 10 years, loses its position of dominance. In its place, brands focus on building rich, immersive digital experiences and real product extensions delivered through web, mobile, tablet and TV.
Google, Twitter and Facebook won’t build your brand, you have to do that yourself. They simply deliver you the audience. Your customers want more than the postage stamp when they are looking for your products.