Thursday, June 28, 2007

Death of interruptive advertising

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Generally speaking, advertising and marketing folk aren’t renowned for their reserve.  On the whole, they’re more likely to be outgoing than introverted, gregarious than shy. 

And when you think about what they do, it makes sense.

Since the Romans pioneered the outdoor advertising market, with everything from ads for wine to brothels, the world of advertising has largely been an interruptive one.  We decide who we want to talk to, what we want to say and where to say it, then we go out and shout it as loudly as we can, as many times as we can afford.

Whether it’s in a newspaper or on TV, we wait until our target is doing something they enjoy, then we leap out:


Buy some stuff!

And it works.  For thousands of years, we’ve been jumping out at people, trying to distract them, grab their attention and sell them something, and they’ve responded by doing as they’re told.  Mass literacy led to mass media, which led to mass brands, and all built on digging people in the ribs whilst they’re going about their lives and telling them something there’s only a slim chance they really wanted to know.

So if we’re so boorish, why did people let us get away with this for so long?

The conduit for all this rib-digging attention seeking, mass media, carries an implied contract with its readers/viewers.  They expect to see ads in the breaks, and they know that the content they’re consuming is cheaper as a result.

So when we speak to them, it’s on our territory.  These are our media, they know the deal, and have developed natural techniques for filtering out our noise, decoding advertising subconsciously to determine its relevance and ignoring the vast bulk of it (which only prompts us to shout louder).  And when they want a little peace and quiet, they get Sky+.

Now marketing and advertising folk may be noisy, but we’re not stupid.  As interactive and direct media have emerged, we’ve tried hard to be more relevant.  More targeted and more discrete in our communications. 

We’ve realised that the interruptive model is broken, and we’re trying to be a bit smarter.  The web has led the charge as media have shifted the centre of their consumption from being predicated largely on availability to being consumed solely on the basis of interest, and everyone with a blog is proclaiming the age of the empowered consumer.

Certainly, we’ve learned that we can’t rely on our ability to butt in on peoples’ lives any more – they’ve become too adept at avoiding us.

The trouble is, this is only half the picture. 

I’ve written several times about the trialogue – the three-way exchange between consumers themselves and brands.  This new dynamic is founded in social media, where the interaction is principally between consumers. 

Here, brands can be facilitators.  They can bring value to the community, and reap rewards for it.  But interruption, lack of value and relevance are met with rejection.  Worse than simply being ignored, this behaviour is spurned by the community.

Because now we’re in their space.  This is their media, not ours, and the old contract has expired.  Interruption fails not because people can avoid our message, but because they now actively resent our presence.

So the answer isn’t simply about shouting and repeating ourselves less, and it isn’t just about being more relevant (although all these help).  We have to think about what we can do for the community, and what we can help them to do.  The value we bring is more direct, and in many ways it’s more transparent – but it’s how we earn our place in the social media environment. 

The contract has changed, and smart brands know their place.  We’re in their media now, and they know it.

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