Digital Mad Men: Turn on? Or click off?

After I finished university and started working in research, I remember people asking me what I did for a living and most of the time, my ‘I work in market research’ answer used to be met with ‘oh, so you’re one of those annoying people standing outside the tube with a clipboard’. Fast forward three years, another party (all grownups, not young and fresh grads anymore), same question: so what do you do? ‘Well, I work in digital advertising research’ I say, feeling quite proud and thinking I had managed to sound cool and interesting, Mad Men meets the digital world meets David Rittenhouse. And much to my dismay, I get a similar answer to three years ago: ‘oh, all these annoying pop up ads and rolling banners that invade my screen?’

In the same way that market research is not about people with clipboards (I’ll save that rant for another day), digital advertising is not just about banners and pop up ads. Digital advertising is a medium and it comes in many forms, from banners to social media, sponsored blogs, online video and interactive ads. The ‘always on’ digital environment, accessible from anywhere at any time, offers unique opportunities to reach people, interest and engage them. Recent developments like geo-location, personalised targeting, responsive interface design, barrel rolls or apps as ads make it easier than ever to create innovative and compelling communications. So why is digital advertising being seen by the majority as annoying?

“The problem is not the medium, the problem is the message, and the fact that it is not trusted, not wanted, and not needed,” wrote Eric Clemons on a controversial post about digital advertising published on Techcrunch back in 2009. Today, the problem is still the same. In our information-rich world, people are exposed to thousands of brand messages every day. We have more information at our fingertips than ever, but we lack the attention (or desire) to make sense of all that information. Consumers are increasingly, consciously or not, screening out unwanted information and irrelevant messages. As the gap between information provided and people’s ability to digest it widens, the fight for people’s attention becomes crucial. Digital advertising needs to be trusted, wanted and needed if it is to avoid being screened out.

Appeal, relevance, value and trust, have always been the key principles of advertising, making the difference between success and failure. And the very same principles that have worked for traditional advertising hold the key to successful digital communications. However, these principles need to be adapted to the media we are using. Digital advertising should not be about recycling the print and converting it into a banner. Like the early days of television, people are still repurposing from the media that came before. Back then, people also thought that those TV ads were annoying and intrusive.

Digital media offer a great canvas to make compelling advertising that communicates, appeals, excites and entertains, just like the best TV ads. 20 years ago not many would have thought we would see a gorilla advertising chocolate or thousands of bouncy balls coming down the streets of San Francisco. We can’t wait another 20 years to look back and see how digital advertising has gone from the annoying to the amazing. Let’s fix this now.

Ines Nadal is a research manager at Ipsos ASI, the advertising research specialists. Follow her on Twitter @inesnadal

Campaign Jobs