Two Perspectives On The Future Of Advertising

Go to them.
Let them come to you.

Two very different philosophies of online advertising. Both have benefits. Both have issues. What’s the solution? I have no clue.

The first is admirable. Go To Them. CBS recently touted its new policy to go where the viewers are with their video content, rather than restrict it to their own little network ghetto. They saw value in YouTube, MySpace, and all the many video sharing and file hosting sites on the web and have decided to put their content there - where the users already are. Great idea, no question. Consumers are going to watch what they want to watch where they want to watch it, and if your content happens to be there for them to choose from - great! If not, what are the chances you can get them to come to your site every day, with so much competing for their attention? Not good, that’s what your chances are. Very few companies can establish themselves as a destination on the web, and CBS has realized that achieving this end isn’t worth their time, money, and effort. They understand the incredible value in allowing users to control the environment in which they view content. So Go To Them seems like a good thing.

But there is a negative side to it, a potential to take this concept too far. Go To Them is also the philosophy used by marketers who tout the power of brand ubiquity, who encourage large, invasive banner ads and roadblocks and Flashy, loud, screaming commercials. These folks also push the benefits of Google AdWords - of showing ads for your content in “non-intrusive” (yeah, right) ways to increase brand recognition and favorability. Go To Them is the mantra of what I am calling Forced Opt-In ads. There’s probably a real name for ads of this type, but they’re basically of the “Resistance is Futile” family. There’s no way to avoid them (well, there are some Firefox extensions that help, but generally you’re stuck.) and they just get in the way if you’re not looking for what they have to offer.

But then we have Let Them Come To You which offers some benefits as well. The positive aspects of this approach include a responsibility to create extremely compelling content that generates buzz - driving traffic to your site, raising interest in your product, and creating a community around your brand that takes your product elsewhere and evangelizes for you practically free. Advertising this way encourages holistic solutions - web, print, interactive, video, contest, giveaways - anything and everything to get others excited about your stuff. A lot of really innovative campaigns use this approach (case in point: Burger King’s Subservient Chicken website, which was a major viral hit despite never being advertised in conventional media outlets.), and a lot of risks are taken.

Negatives? This approach is risky, resource-intensive, often harder to manage and a measure, and can be majorly frustrating and lead to quitting when the people don’t end up coming to you. It’s hard to be authentic. And even harder to trick users - try this and you’re in for something awful. One bad experience with this approach can create a very bitter taste in the mouths of those who paid for the campaign, and these people (sadly, I know) are very important. But a success can completely transform a brand into more than a composite of its products. A brand can become a lifestyle, an event, a destination, an environment. Your product can be your advertising.

I’d be dishonest if I pretended to know which way things were headed. What I personally would like to see is a bit of a combination of both approaches, which could be problematic. My vision might completely contradict itself, and what I just said above, but I’m okay with that and hope you’ll point it out.

I imagine a future in which companies provide valuable content - advertising as product, and product as advertising - and offer it all over, in communities and networks that I already frequent. But it should be there only if I choose to see it. I only want to see ads for a store if I’m looking for a store. I only want to see a video about Wart-Covered Brides From Hell if that’s what I search for. If what your brand has to offer me is engaging, entertaining, innovative, and most of all, relevant, I will love you and tell all of my friends. And an endorsement from a friend is far, far more valuable than anything else you could possibly stick in front of a face.

If Google or some other social networks use the data I readily provide them to target ads when I ask for ads, I will be happy and I will buy stuff. And I will come back. And I will want to become part of your brand ecosystem. I will sign up for updates and ask for a personalized RSS feed of product offers I’m interested in. I will create a profile on your site and invite my friends and add your widget to my blog and be loyal. But only if everything remains on my terms. The minute this trust and respect is betrayed is the minute you lose a customer - 100 customers - for life.

Be nice. Don’t yell at me. I will call you when I’m ready. Until then, make some cool ads that I will decide to watch in my free time.