The Ad Business Paradigm Shift

on March 4, 2021

A lot is going on in the world of advertising at the moment. Actually, I should clarify a difference between advertising (which, when done right, also contains a heavy dose of branding) and simply trying to sell a product. When it comes to the Internet and the many free ad-subsidized services that exist, anyone paying attention would agree the clickbait articles, dozens of trackers, websites filled with malicious code, and more have gotten out of control.

I understand this world all too well. From 2008-2010 I was very close to one of the largest tech blogs on the Internet. I spent a great deal of time working with them on their business model, growth strategy, and revenue growth strategy. The product itself was free but was subsidized with ads. During negotiations with our ad-placement agency, I was under the constant pressure of their demands of how they wanted ads to show up. The disconnect, which I found nearly impossible to educate them with, was that you could place all the ads you want in the world all over an article, but if it hurts the customer experience and lessons engagement, there is no ROI. This was where the internal data we had via reader (I still called them customers) analytics and ad-engagement were clear.

The battle I was up against was the belief that with enough ads thrown at a person, via pop-ups, video, in-line articles, etc., that you could inundate them to the point that they simply could not ignore it. This is where tracking came in, and I saw many internal ad-deck pitches that demonstrated volume across websites and some shady statistics about how that helps consumer awareness. But my gut was always that this would create a more negative sentiment to that product and brand than a positive one. What is happening with ad-tracking and following today is the equivalent of a traveling salesman following you around everywhere you go screaming “buy this product” at the top of his lungs. Such a thing would turn people off to the product, even if it is decent, simply because of the tactics of the salesman.

From years of studying this space and having spent time in it, I’m convinced of several things. The first one is that consumers genuinely enjoy discovering new products and brands that enrich their life. The second is that excess ad-placement, and tracking is a turn-off and creates a look of a desperate product or brand, then one confident to go up against the competition.

Google and Facebook are both central to this debate. Both have proven effective, given current means of ad-targeting. Both have lowered the customer acquisition costs for brands and product companies, but again at the cost of feeling creepy, or at the least overly aggressive. This is why Google’s announcement of phasing out third-party tracking cookies and their privacy sandbox is of interest.

From reading through the blog-post, on the surface, it appears Google is simply distilling the information gathered on a person to the bare minimum to put them into a defined cohort of interests. In some ways, this is how Google functioned in its early days and historically the analog age’s advertising industry. If I’m a reader of a magazine on skateboarding, or tennis, or cars, etc., then it is safe to assume I’m interested in said topic and products within the category.

This is why I’ve always believed niche content is the best bang for the buck for any ad or product spend. I’d bet good money those ads will perform better any day over Facebook and Google if done right and placed relevantly. Niche content breeds more engagement, and more engagement creates higher Ad ROIs.

Google remains in the best position here, with the exception of an audio/podcast platform which I believe are excellent ad mechanisms given the integrated flow of ad read and placement. For Google, YouTube is this mechanism, and I’ve noticed a lot more content creates on YouTube start to integrate ads cleverly into their content. Anecdotally, YouTube is becoming one of the driving forces behind my purchasing behavior as I find authentic product reviews on YouTube the most helpful source to influence my purchases.

While Google remains well-positioned, I still question Facebook here and its ability to adapt. I’m even less optimistic of Facebook proper where I can see Instagram in a better position to adapt. The Facebook app/website itself may very well end up being like Yahoo. Not dying but fading more and more into irrelevance. Facebook’s likely inability to develop new assets or acquire new companies doing something innovative in a social media adjacency is going to hurt the companies overall ability to compete, in my opinion.

The model Facebook has appealed to is the Web 2.0 way of advertising but not the web/digital world 3.0. Oculus may be the one bright light for the company, and if they can make the Oculus experience mainstream, there is more upside. But this is still a question mark if Facebook is the company that will mainstream VR and AR.

As I mentioned, advertising can not get in the way of the customer experience. This is an evolving landscape that will need to find a sweet spot in helping consumers discover new brands and products that enrich their lives without stalking them, harassing them, and protecting their privacy. That will be a cornerstone for success for any company looking to subsidize their service with ads, and that is still a very different world than we live in now.

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