Inevitably in these “ad-funded content vs. end-user fatigue” debates, someone will toss out “Smart businesses will adapt… those who don’t will fail” as some sort of Darwinian justification for not having anything deeper to say. Tautologies like that by definition are true, but what does adapting look like?
I think it boils down to two personalities that live inside everyone:
- The person who believes that economies work because people pay a reasonable price for goods and services they like, and in addition to getting the stuff, they’re happy to feed the machine that keeps producing it.
- The person whose favorite price is “free,” and is willing to jump some hurdles to get it.
Every effort to monetize digital media presents a business model to the user, who then optimizes between these personalities. The original implementations of #1 were pay sites and paid-for ad-free content, both of which met with limited success (after all, perception or reality said that similar content was available for free elsewhere). The idealized version of #2 was a minimally-invasive but extremely well-targeted experience, which has proven to be an ideal still hard to reach.
Revenue needs drove up the noise, and targeting hasn’t proven to be more sophisticated than having something you looked at once follow you all over the web. The hurdle to jump to make #2 palatable has been ad-blocking, and as a free service, plenty of people have found it a reasonable way to opt-out of the social contract (ads for free content) they feel has gone over the line from informative to annoyance. Add on top of that the fear that Big Brother is watching them, and ad-blocking gets even more popular and compunction is rationalized.
Most of the industry effort has been at making the ad-supported experience more effective, and that will always have a place, especially as it improves. Certainly Google SEM has proven that people want ads when they’re actively shopping. And as online streaming becomes a stronger rationale to stop paying for TV signal, so too becomes their ad experience that cannot be skipped because it isn’t playing from recording device.
But what is fascinating are the growing signs that “Content Is King” and worth paying for. Apple’s iTunes sells millions of recordings to people who are probably willing and able to find illegal downloads, but choose not to.
Today’s demand for content includes the extremes of the shiny, fully-produced versions of programming we’ve all grown up with, and the user-generated, one-to-one video messaging that has shown enormous growth in applications like Vine and Snapchat. Isn’t there something between giving the producer getting complete control over your virtual experience and the user having to generate entertainment from scratch? Let’s face it, the improvised solution to the latter problem is what makes Snapchat’s content predominately about the private selfie.
My colleague Chris recently wrote about the empty grandstands at a racing event and why so many seats were vacant. Having been to a recent event myself, I get it: technology has changed what we expect from experiences like sporting events, and we’re no longer tolerant of the downtime and dull time inherent in any “un-augmented” experience.
What’s more, digital enhancements to events and experiences can make the “on screen” experience as immersive and thrilling as the actual in-person one (maybe even more).
There’s a sweet spot in there. We’re going to see a lot more effort directed towards producing what content people want rather than guessing what message they’ll respond to. And lots of people want their creativity engaged. Maybe not everyone. But a lot more than the ideal 1% of people who click through to a website because they saw an ad.
Maybe “adtech” is going to turn out to be something pretty different than what it started out to be.