I should start this post by pointing something out: I don’t work in the advertisng industry. I even question whether I’m technically a marketer. I like to think of myself as a communicator and hope I was an effective educator for awhile there. But I see myself more as someone who aspires to improve operational effectiveness than someone who makes a living from selling ideas. As a result, I see the whole concept of a post-advertising world as a sublime achievement of humankind.
But the thing about advertisements is that they do a very good job of letting you know about a product, a brand or a concept. The reality is that for the vast majority of goods and services out there, you will have seen an advertisement or at least an example of branding before you decide to invest. And the role of awareness as a trigger for purchase intent is clear. Until quite recently, the effectiveness of advertising messages in all the usual channels (print, broadcast media and outdoor spaces including billboards, event sponsorship branding, and so on) was remarkable.
It would seem on the face of it, that the need for advertising is obvious. And not just for commercial industries. Charities, non-profits, governing bodies and even educators all recognise the need for advertising to help drive awareness and sell ideas. The most effective advertising is that which is highly memorable and persuasive, not just in terms of purchase intent, but as instrument of changing attitudes and behaviours.
But while advertising can still be effective, it doesn’t logically follow that business communicators should always look to advertising as a means of effecting change.
There are three major shifts in consumer behaviour that are impacting on the advertising sector simultaneously:
1. Rise of socially connected world, enabling asynchronous communication among highly specialised and targeted passion groups;
2. Rise in number and range of content channels through which information about products can be shared;
3. Reducing reach and effectiveness of discrete advertising campaigns.
The first two of these trends I need hardly defend, but the third is one that may generate some ire among professionals from the advertising sector. It is, however, factual. Audience behaviour is changing. Consumers are spending more time researching products and services, and they are seeking out the opinions either of their peers, or of networks to which they aspire, to influence their decisions. And importantly, they are less likely to trust advertising messages than ever before.
As a result, any individual advertising campaign must spread into more content and experience channels than ever before, and more attention has to be paid to conversations about products rather than just relying on the advertisement to convince a captured audience. This makes any marketing exercise more expensive and harder to evaluate in terms of effectiveness in generating behaviour change.
The response of the advertising industry to these shifts in behaviour and the concomitant overhead costs arising therefrom, has been predictable and disappointing. Advertisers continue to rely on reach as an indicator of success of a campaign, and they have encouraged firms to spread outbound messages to emergent digital content and experiential channels on top of existing broadcast, print and outdoor channels. Of course this increases their budget and workload, so that’s all very well for advertisers.
Messages are getting louder, not more nuanced.
The behaviour changes that advertisers are battling – a fragmented content landscape, consumer-to-consumer communication, and distrust of advertising messages – are being accelerated by industry tactics. In the perpetual battle for audience reach and message control, advertisers and their PR counterparts have just got better at shouting.
The reasons for this should be obvious and will be the focus of another post: the way we measure our businesses, policies and achievements is always based on previous benchmarks, so it follows that advertisers will use previous benchmarks of reach and memorability as a means of dterminging their campaign ‘success’.
The problem is that even if their reach and memorability scores are accurate, with increased distrust of advertising messages and reliance on peer review, the conversion ratio of reach and memorability to behaviour change is inevitably declining. And if a brand behaves poorly in social channels by seeking empty positivity and meaningless engagement, it will increasingly be considered worthy of shunning.
But what’s the solution for companies and groups that still need to alert the world to their ideas and products?
For me, the most logical option is to gradually phase out advertising altogether. If audiences don’t trust advertising messages, then companies shouldn’t invest in them. Instead, we need to respond to emergent consumer behaviour by tapping in to audience desire for information and for conversation. If decision making is based on accessibility of information, the flexibility of a brand in responding to emergent audience needs and on peer review testing, then it is the facilitation of these behaviours, and not advertising, that merits investment.
I’d like to see a time where audiences controlled the information they received in every facet of their lives. Instead of being bombarded with advertising messages, the audience could easily elect to retrieve information about goods, services and concepts in whatever context they were engaged. And if they chose to live a life free of information about products, they could do so by electing not to ‘click here for more’. And I’d like to see a time where firms understood that the best means of engaging socially with audiences is to respond in a timely manner to audience needs, rather than constantly seeking to provoke their engagement.
I suspect the augmented reality of Google Glass may be the first real phase of this kind of world. Having the capacity to look at an object and find out information about it, or to use voice recognition to research an idea is probably the best example of a user-led experience of the world. But while I’d like to see the advertising industry gradually starved out of existence, I suspect our first glimpses of a user-led world will be corrupted by the noisy, aggressive and increasingly irrelevant pall of advertising.