If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold
There’s a phrase that’s become increasingly popular in technology and marketing circles over the past fifteen years, it’s; "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold". It’s often used to describe how the internet works - as a way of explaining why services we use on a daily basis such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter et al are free. The idea being that we make a trade off when we use those services - we trade the data that we exude on those platforms, for a service that we don’t have to pay for. That phrase wasn’t originally used in reference to the internet though, it actually dates back to the 1970s, when it was used as a way of explaining that the product of television wasn’t the content, but instead, the audience. Advertising has, for a very long time, funded the content that we consume, for free (and in the case of most magazines and newspapers, we actually pay to consume).
Bad advertising does annoy people
It’s currently difficult to read any trade press at the moment without seeing the adblockpocalypse (now) mentioned. Advertising technology is slowing down the web. Advertising is crossing privacy boundaries. Advertising annoys people. To be fair, I’d probably agree with some of this, but only if each of those handy buzz phrases were prefixed with the word ‘bad’. Bad ad tech does slow page loads down (especially when publishers use in excess of 50+ tools to track people). Bad advertising does cross boundaries. And yes, bad advertising does annoy people.
Good advertising is difficult to come by, and that’s a big problem that we (both agencies and brands) need to address, and I’ll get to that in a second.
We need advertising
Advertising is important to the future of the internet, given it’s been important to any content
Before I do, first we must all agree that without advertising, the internet would look very different - there would be very few online newspapers, virtually no video (other than that produced by amateurs), no Google Maps, no Apple Pay, and almost certainly no free email services. The two alternatives to advertising would be paid services such as paywalls (although even those generally require some advertising funding too), or state / government funding - and given the current conversations around the BBC, that’s probably an avenue best left alone.
So, I think we probably all agree that, actually, advertising is important to the future of the internet, given it’s been important to any content (be that radio, television, or newspapers) that we’ve consumed for more than a century.
Ad tech is a different beast
Advertising technology however, is a slightly different beast. What has traditionally annoyed people about advertising hasn’t been that it’s been invasive. What’s annoying has been the fact that a lot of advertising speaks to the wrong people - broad media titles carry broad audiences, and so the advertising, by proxy, ends up being broad. Out of an entire newspaper, an individual might only actually find a handful of adverts interesting.
It feels like we need a new agreement between advertisers and consumers. A sort of treaty.
The same goes for television. And radio. And, in the past, the internet. What advertising technology has done is enable us to be a lot more specific with who we put advertising in front of, and when. This, however, brings with it a responsibility from advertisers, and advertising and media agencies - we (as I work in a media agency) must ensure that we’re using the data that we have at hand to deliver better, more interesting and relevant advertising, to the people who want it, where and when they find it most appropriate.
If we haven’t already, then I believe we’ll soon arrive at a bit of a crossroads with regards to digital advertising - the IAB announced a few weeks ago that tools that block advertising were on the rise (with one in seven people in the UK having installed an ad blocker). However now advertisers finally have the ability to find the right person, at the right time, with the right message, it feels like we need a new agreement between advertisers and consumers. A sort of treaty. It’s a simple agreement, really, that states that consumers will stop using ad blockers, but in return, advertisers must put more effort into ensuring that they find the right person, at the right time, with the right message, rather than a 'pay and spray’ approach. Increasingly the future of all media sits at the nexus of data, content, and technology - but the advertising industry must ensure that we’re using all three properly, otherwise we’re just creating more noise in an already crowded world.