There’s part of the Google story that doesn’t get enough attention, believe it or not. Here it is: Google’s success is based, in part, on people not knowing its ads are ads. AdWords placement looks a hell of a lot like the other links that weren’t paid for. Google of course discretely labels the ads, although it wouldn’t use that term – sponsored sounds much more benign.
Switch over to display. Here, there’s a different story. Many display ads don’t fit with the environments the live. This is for many reasons, but it’s just a fact. And so they’re not only clicked but we actively avoid those areas. This kinda sucks for advertisers. So we’ve seen some taking a page from the old playbook and just making their ads bigger and “more impactful.” (This means LOUDER.)
Social media presents a different challenge. The adjacency model, built for editorial and entertainment content, isn't a great fit. Fred Wilson thinks marketers need to be part of “the stream,” the persistent ticker of information the flows by us daily in Google Reader, Facebook and Twitter. When ads are part of the stream, they can’t look too much like ads. This can be obvious with the popularity of those pay per post, er “sponsored conversations,” programs. Brands will use other methods, I’m sure, including the cover of charities to get people to market them to their friends. Sometimes it’s a matter of subtle placement of regular ad units. The Facebook redesign is taking a step in this direction, I think. Facebook is dead set against having ads overwhelm the experience so they’re weaving them into the experience, which is centered around the news feed. They want to make advertisers part of the stream of conversations. Check out the new Facebook and look at the most prominent ad placement, the ad for a movie called I Love You, Man. That’s an ad? I had to look three times before I could tell.
Other changes at Facebook make this direction clear. Brand pages will imitate personal pages, so their actions can get into the news feed easily and (Facebook hopes) more naturally. My guess is any Twitter ad model will go this route, not banners. One company I know is working on a model to beam brand endorsements, on an opt-in basis, to a friend’s Twitter connections. The idea is these sponsor messages appear seamlessly with the stream of updates. Is this a good thing? I have no idea. I firmly believe advertising messages will get more integrated with content experiences. The adjacency model increasingly looks broken, from newspapers to magazines to display to broadcast TV. Ideally, marketers will earn their way into the stream be doing something remarkable, but they’ll still need to buy their way in sometimes. How this is done in a way that makes people comfortable is the big challenge.