The first story I wrote about Internet advertising was in 2002. I just began covering the online ad industry for Internet Advertising Report (now ClickZ). My first assignment: cover a speech by Google CEO Eric Schmidt at a conference. Google’s success – this was before its IPO – was just becoming apparent. Schmidt told a roomful of ad types what I thought was a nice, simple message: Stop scaring users. I even used it as a headline.
Ever since, the trend in online advertising has been to emulate Google. After all, it is the shining success story with its simple, unobtrusive targeted links that “act like content.” That’s all good when you’re harvesting demand, but brand advertising is about creating demand. This is where the model falls apart. Creating demand probably requires a degree of interruption. Instead, it seems like all the energy in the industry has gone into using data to target users better and “drive efficiencies” via ad networks. That’s landed display advertising in the pickle it finds itself: a commoditized product that’s nearly universally ignored. Only now, it seems, has the issue of creative gained steam.
Display ads, the presumed vehicle for brand ad messages, have actually gotten less interruptive over the years. In the early days, pop-ups and pop-unders were all the rage. Then we all got pop blockers. Advertisers went momentarily nuts with Eyeblaster rich media ads flying across the page. But those seemed to fade. Instead, display ads have mostly behaved, staying in their little areas off to the side where they can be safely ignored. Facebook, the new darling of the digital world, treats advertising as a necessary evil. The concept of interrupting users appears abhorrent to its executives. As a user, I applaud that.
I also think it’s stupid. The economy sucks. Display ad rates are in the toilet. It’s probably time publishers treat their users like grownups. That means interruption. Troy from Videoegg lays out a compelling case for interrupting users, along with more rich media and an attention model. I'll leave the last two for another time to concentrate on interruption. This is a sensitive issue when we debate “digital creativity.” The notion that Internet publishers can attract brand advertisers with the current little IAB formats is far-fetched. Troy believes ads need to get bigger and flashier. They need to get users’ attention. Maybe they need to start scaring users.
We’re already seeing publishers go in this direction. Witness ESPN’s prestital takeover and the New York Times running gargantuan Apple ads. Hulu is doing just fine with a smart interruptive ad model. The economic pressures on publishers will accelerate this. There is too much supply out there. Ads are not staying on the periphery of content. It’s simply inevitable. The social media gurus will say companies should leave behind this legacy approach and make things worth talking about and sharing. Agreed, but I don't see brands giving up on interruptive advertising. TV is still pretty strong after all. I'm not sure if it's an either-or proposition. It may feel good to say interruptive advertising is dead, but it's probably wrong.