Are there fewer (but more relevant) ads in our future?

A new theory in the MarComm field is the notion that the future of advertising is one where people are confronted by less advertising – but the ads that are presented to them will be more relevant to their interests.

I’m pretty sure about the second part of that … but not so sure about the first bit.

Certainly, “fewer, more relevant ads” don’t appear to be what’s happening at the moment.

Think about the plethora of digital screens these days – not just smartphones and tablets and such, but also the ones on gasoline station pumps, in taxis, on airline seatbacks, in kiosks and on the sides of buildings – and it’s pretty clear that many more ads are being displayed to more people in more places than ever before.

Of course, many of these ads are selling products or services that are of little or no interest to most of us. Some people respond by blocking ads on their own personal devices, doing what they can to mitigate the onslaught.

As well, people seem to like the idea of commercial-free TV to the degree that quite a few are willing to pay for video-streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video that provide content to them without all of those pesky ads embedded within.

It’s also true that advertising and media platforms are becoming ever “smarter” and more data-driven, giving them the ability to replace mass-reach ads with ones that are customized to some degree so that different people see different ads. It isn’t a stretch from there to the notion that because these ads will yield better results for media platforms, total ad loads can be reduced while still increasing consumer engagement.

This idea is leading some people to predict that in the coming few years, consumers will experience significant change in how many ads they see and how relevant they’re likely to be.

In response to that, I have two counter-thoughts. The first is that with all of the buying choices that people have today — more than ever before — brand loyalty is being eroded.  And with less brand loyalty, advertisers need to stress “recency” – being the last message a consumer sees before purchasing a particular product or service.  This leads to the compulsion for advertisers to “be everywhere all the time” so that theirs is the last message the consumer sees before taking action.  It’s hardly in line with “fewer, more relevant” ads, unfortunately.

The other issue pertains to the basic economics of advertising. Fewer ads will happen only if their increased relevance is accompanied by a commensurate increase in their price.  I don’t see that happening anytime soon either, unfortunately.

Besides, heightened ad “relevance” isn’t really enough to overcome the issue of audience aversion and avoidance. On that score, fundamental attitudes have never changed:  The consumer’s relationship with advertising has always resided somewhere between “passive ennui” and “managed hostility.”

Today, of course, consumers can do more to “manage their hostility” to advertising than ever before, creating even more of a challenge on the ad revenue front.

What do you think? Are we indeed moving to an era of “fewer, more relevant” ads … or will we continue to deal with merely a more contemporary version of “all advertising, all the time?”  Please share your thoughts with other readers below.

The escalating “arms race” in the adblocking arena.

Have you noticed how, despite installing adblocking software on your computer or mobile device, a lot of online advertising is still making it through to you?

That isn’t just your imagination. It’s happening – and it’s getting worse.

According to a recent report based on findings prepared by researchers at the University of Iowa, Syracuse University and the University of California – Riverside, the extent of “end runs” being successfully made around adblockers is quite high – and it’s growing.

According to the research, more than 30% of the Top 10,000 Alexa-ranked websites are thwarting adblockers in order that millions of visitors will continue to see online advertisements despite running adblocking software.

As the universities’ report states:

“Online publishers consider adblockers a major threat to the ad-powered ‘free’ web. They have started to retaliate against adblockers by employing anti-adblockers, which can detect and stop adblock users.   

To counter this retaliation, adblockers in turn try to detect and filter anti-adblocking scripts.”

Some of the more “forthright” publishers are being at least a little transparent about the process – first asking visitors to stop blocking ads. If those appeals go unheeded, the next step is to notify visitors that if they fail to whitelist the site, they will no longer be able to access any of its content.

The problem with this scenario is that many visitors simply go elsewhere for content when faced with such a choice. Still, it’s nice that some online publishers are giving people the choice to opt in … in an environment where the publisher’s content can be monetized to some degree.

Other sites aren’t so courteous; instead, they’re overriding the adblock software and serving up the advertising anyway. That certainly isn’t the way to “make friends and influence people.”

But “violating consumer intent” is kind of where we are in this arena at the moment, unfortunately.

QR Codes Live!

In marketing, QR codes have been the butt of jokes for years. The funky little splotches that showed up in advertising on everything from magazines to transit buses were supposed to revolutionize the way people find out information about products and services.

Except that … QR codes never lived up to the hype.

While a few advertisers stuck with QR codes doggedly, for the most part we saw fewer and fewer of them after their first initial years of splash.

But now, QR codes are making a comeback. It turns out that they’ve become central to mobile marketing tactics.

We’re talking about QR couponing, which is exploding.  Newly published estimates by Juniper Research, a digital marketing consulting firm, show that nearly 1.3 billion coded coupons were redeemed via mobile devices in 2017.

Moreover, Juniper is forecasting that the number of coupons with QR codes being redeemed via mobile devices will continue strong at least through 2022.

A big reason for the sharp increase in use is built-in QR functionality on smartphones – led by Apple which has begun including QR reader functionality as part of the camera application on its new iPhones.

This action takes away a huge barrier that once confronted users. The lack of in-built readers meant that consumers had to download a separate QR code scanner app.

We know from experience that one more action step like that is often the difference between market adoption and market avoidance.

But with that hurdle out of the way, major retailers are starting to take advantage of the more favorable playing field by finding more uses of QR code technology. Target for one has announced a new Q code-based payments system to scan offers directly to their device-stored payment cards, which can be scanned at checkout for instant payment.

Expect similar activity in loyalty cards, making their redemption easier for everyone.

The newly revived fortunes of QR codes remind us that sometimes there are second acts for MarComm tactics and technology – and maybe it happens more often than we expect.

Fewer brands are engaging in programmatic online advertising in 2017.

How come we are not surprised?

The persistent “drip-drip-drip” of brand safety concerns with programmatic advertising – and the heightened perception that online advertising has been showing up in the most unseemly of places — has finally caught up with the once-steady growth of economically priced programmatic advertising versus higher-priced digital formats such as native advertising and video advertising.

In fact, ad tracking firm MediaRadar is now reporting that the number of major brands running programmatic ads through the first nine months of 2017 has actually dropped compared to the same period a year ago.

The decline isn’t huge – 2% to be precise. But growing reports that leading brands’ ads have been mistakenly appearing next to ISIS or neo-Nazi content on YouTube and in other places on the web has shaken advertisers’ faith in programmatic platforms to be able to prevent such embarrassing actions from occurring.

For Procter & Gamble, for instance, it has meant that the number of product brands the company has shifted away from programmatic advertising and over to higher-priced formats jumped from 49 to 62 brands over the course of 2017.

For Unilever, the shift has been even greater – going from 25 product brands at the beginning of the year to 53 by the end of July.

The “flight to safety” by these and other brand leaders is easy to understand. Because they can be controlled, direct ad sales are viewed as far more brand-safe compared programmatic and other automated ad buy programs.

In the past, the substantial price differential between the two options was enough to convince many brands that the rewards of “going programmatic” outweighed the inherent risks.  No longer.

What this also means is that advertisers are looking at even more diverse media formats in an effort to find alternatives to programmatic advertising that can accomplish their marketing objectives without the attendant risks (and headaches).

We’ll see how that goes.

Advertisers “kinda-sorta” go along with FTC guidelines for labeling of native advertising placements.

In an effort to ensure that readers understand when published news stories represent “earned” rather than “unearned” media, in late 2015 the Federal Trade Commission established some pretty clear guidelines for news stories that are published for pay.

The rationale behind the guidelines is that the FTC wants advertisers to be prevented from presenting paid content in ways that mask the fact that it’s a form of advertising.  Essentially, it wants to avoid leaving the erroneous impression that the advertiser did not create — or influence the creation — of the content, or that it paid a fee in order for the news to be published.

But what native advertising content developer Polar has found is that the explicit disclosures the FTC wishes advertisers to include as part of their stories tend to have a negative impact on readership.

… Which is precisely what native advertising is trying to avoid, of course.

After all, the whole point of these articles is to appear that they’re published due to their inherent newsworthiness, rather than because advertisers wish to push a sales message disguised as “narrative” so strongly, they’re willing to fork over big bucks for the privilege.

In its evaluation, Polar analyzed ~140 native placements across 65 publishers, and found that only ~55% of them used the term “sponsored” as a way to label the content.

As for the term “advertisement” or “advertorial,” the incidence of usage was far lower; less than 5% of the native placements identified their content as such.

Correlated to these findings was that more euphemistic terms like “partner content” tend to perform better in terms of reader engagement than do more explicit disclosures of an advertiser relationship.

“Promoted” was found to be the best performing term, garnering a 0.19% clickthrough rate as compared to “sponsored,” with just a 0.16% clickthrough rate.

[Interestingly, on desktop devices “sponsored” marginal outperformed “promoted,” whereas on mobile devices it was just the opposite.]

More broadly, the Polar investigation also found that nearly one-third of the pay-to-play native advertising placements it evaluated failed to comply at all with the FTC guidelines (as in zip/zero/nada) – which brings up a whole other set of issues at a time of heightened awareness of the “fake news” phenomenon online.

Programmatic ad buying takes a hit.

There are some interesting new trends we’re now seeing in programmatic ad buying. For years, purchasing online ads programmatically instead of directly with specific publishers or media companies has been on a steady increase.  No more.

MediaRadar has just released its latest Consumer Advertising Report covering ad spending, formats and buying patterns. The new report states that programmatic ad buying declined ~12% when comparing the first quarter of 2017 to the same period in 2016.

More specifically, whereas ~45,000 advertisers purchased advertising programmatically in Q1 2016, that figure has dropped to around ~39,500 for the same quarter this year.

This change in fortunes may come as a surprise to some. The market has generally been bullish on programmatic ad buying because it is far less labor-intensive to administrator those types of programs compared to direct advertising programs.

There have been ongoing concerns about the potential of fraud, the lack of transparency on ad pricing, and control over where advertisers’ placements actually appear, but up until now, these concerns weren’t strong enough to reverse the steady migration to programmatic buying.

Todd Krizelman, CEO of MediaRadar, had this to say about the new findings:

“For many years, the transition of dollars from direct ad buying to programmatic seemed inevitable, and impossible to roll back. But the near-constant drumbeat of concern over brand safety and fraud in the first six months of 2017 has slowed the tide.  There’s more buying of direct advertising, especially sponsored editorial, and programmatically there is a ‘flight to quality’.”

Krizelman touches on another major new finding from the MediaRadar report: how much better native advertising performs over traditional ad units. Audiences tend to look at advertorials more frequently than display ads, and the clickthrough rates on mobile native advertising, in particular, are running four times higher than what mobile display ads garner.

Not surprisingly, the top market categories for native advertising are ones which lend themselves well to short, pithy stories. Travel, entertainment, home, food and apparel categories score well, as do financial and real estate stories.

The MediaRadar report is based on some pretty exhaustive statistics, with data analyzed from more than 265,000 advertisers covering the buying of digital, native, mobile, video, e-mail and print advertising. For more detailed findings, follow this link.

Good news: Online advertising “bot” fraud is down 10%. Bad news: It still amounts to $6.5 billion annually.

Ad spending continues with quite-healthy growth, being forecast to increase by about 10% in 2017 according to a studied released this month by the Association of National Advertisers.

At the same time, there’s similarly positive news from digital advertising security firm White Ops on the ad fraud front. Its Bot Baseline Report, which analyzes the digital advertising activities of ANA members, is forecasting that economic losses due to bot fraud will decline by approximately 10% this year.

And yet … even with the expected decline, bot fraud is still expected to amount to a whopping $6.5 billion in economic losses.

The White Ops report found that traffic sourcing — that is, purchasing traffic from inorganic sources — remains the single biggest risk factor for fraud.

On the other hand, mobile fraud was considerably lower than expected.  Moreover, fraud in programmatic media buys is no longer particularly riskier than general market buys, thanks to improved filtration controls and procedures at media agencies.

Meanwhile, a new study conducted by Fraudlogix, and fraud detection company which monitors ad traffic for sell-side companies, finds that the majority of ad fraud is concentrated within a very small percentage of sources within the real-time bidding programmatic market.

The Fraudlogix study analyzed ~1.3 billion impressions from nearly 60,000 sources over a month-long period earlier this year. Interestingly, sites with more than 90% fraudulent impressions represented only about 1% of publishers, even while they contributed ~11% of the market’s impressions.

While Fraudlogix found nearly 19% of all impressions overall to be “fake,” its fraudulent behavior does not represent the industry as a whole. According to its analysis, just 3% of sources are causing more than two-thirds of the ad fraud.  [Fraudlogix defines a fake impression as one which generates ad traffic through means such as bots, scripts, click-farms or hijacked devices.]

As Fraudlogix CEO Hagai Schechter has remarked, “Our industry has a 3% fraud problem, and if we can clamp down on that, everyone but the criminals will be much better for it.”

That’s probably easier said than done, however. Many of the culprits are “ghost” newsfeed sites.  These sites are often used for nefarious purposes because they’re programmed to update automatically, making the sites seem “content-fresh” without publishers having to maintain them via human labor.

Characteristics of these “ghost sites” include cookie-cutter design templates … private domain registrations … and Alexa rankings way down in the doldrums. And yet they generate millions of impressions each day.

The bottom line is that the fraud problem remains huge.  Three percent of sources might be a small percentage figure, but that still means thousands of sources causing a ton of ad fraud.

What would be interesting to consider is having traffic providers submit to periodic random tests to determine the authenticity of their traffic. Such testing could then establish ratings – some sort of real/faux ranking.

And just like in the old print publications world, traffic providers that won’t consent to be audited would immediately become suspect in the eyes of those paying for the advertising.  Wouldn’t that development be a nice one …