Online consumers are more jaded than ever. With 62 percent of Americans saying they trust brands less than they did a year ago, according to the 2009 Edelman Trust Barometer, marketers seem to be asking themselves: What can we do to recapture people's attention and regain their trust?
Creating likable ads in a user-controlled space is no easy feat. In order for brands to find a way back into the hearts of their customers, they must create a true value exchange by providing something that people want, or better yet, need. According to Sarah Fey, former CEO Aegis Media North America, "We have to think in terms of content, not advertising. Advertisers and marketers have to pass the content-worthy test -- is there something in it that is entertaining and useful for the end user?"
eMarketer's October report "Americans Want Brands that Inform" states loud and clear that consumers want brands to give them information.
By delivering genuinely useful information such as music, search results, local information, articles, white papers, recipes, games, videos, and more, brands can win back attention and engagement -- but content alone won't make you likable.
Here are four core ingredients that can transform an old-school online ad campaign into a valuable, new-school user experience.
1) Always keep it relevant
Above all, we have to address the fact that users have little tolerance for information that is irrelevant to them. And by relevant, I mean content that's either relevant to the page the user is on, or relevant to their personal interests. The most powerful ads provide relevant, timely information that relates to what users are currently reading about, or what they are actively interested in. eMarketer's bold "Seven Predictions for 2010" forecasts that "the classic interruption/disruption model of advertising, whereby marketers insert unwanted, usually irrelevant ads as a price the consumer must pay to view desired content, will erode, if not fade away."
2) Use live data feeds
Using a live feed will transform ads into informative, hyper-relevant, and timely vehicles for a great user experience. For example, during the 2009 U.S. Open, main sponsor IBM tied its ads to player names when they were mentioned inside sports coverage. These ads provided real-time player stats streamed live from the U.S. Open. How convenient -- live coverage around the individual player while I'm reading about the U.S. Open. Thanks IBM! This useful, real-time content unit led users to live video streams, live score updates, and live chat sessions of the U.S. Open, perfectly aligning the IBM brand with the tournament -- and the notion that they can make anything a smarter, easier, more enjoyable experience.
Another example is YellowPages.com, which links its ads to a database of current local search results while users are reading relevant content on the web. This smart-ad sniffs out a user's ZIP code and conveniently supplies the names and addresses of local "art galleries" as they read relevant art reviews, or as they are searching for museum locations. Lee Doyle, CEO mediaedgie:cia, says: "Our YellowPages.com ad gave you an application that allowed you to automatically find local listings in your immediate area; it was a benefit to the consumer, not an interruption to the consumer."
3) Deliver informative, useful or entertaining content
Developing great content is no easy feat, but it's probably easier if you think in terms of these three buckets.
- Informative -- As mentioned above, IBM kept users informed with valuable real-time content, player's stats, and live video coverage as they read articles about the U.S. Open.
- Useful -- Providing utility within an ad is more than simply supplying additional details about the product, brand, or service being advertised. Utility conveniently fulfills a need. In the case of YellowPages.com, it provided customers with geo-targeted, live local search results in context.
- Entertaining -- Video clips, album art, sample tracks, quizzes, surveys, and interactive games can have a life beyond their simple marketing objective. Entertaining ads can take hold and captivate audiences who barely know they're being marketed to. A recent Zune campaign provided a real-time music feed to attract its audience and featured a live online radio stream of relevant music that some users never wanted to turn off.
According to Josh Stinchcomb, executive director, Condé Nast Business Group: "Brands should be in the business of creating content, of creating a relationship with their customers. You do that by providing information and accepting information from them... I like seeing brands think of themselves as content producers or creating content other than blunt advertising messages. It implies a desire for a more long-term relationship with the consumer."
4) Be helpful, not intrusive
Find the right design balance between your brand message and the content. More often than not, the utility of content is overshadowed by the glam and glitter of the brand messaging. If your ad is providing something that looks and feels like content, why dilute it with too much branding? Become a true resource and let the usability take the lead, framed by the brand messaging.
The moral of the story? The best advertising is real content. It's not a matter of disguising advertising as content -- it is using advertising as a vehicle to deliver relevance, utility, information, and entertainment.
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