The New Era of the Internet Ad
Illustration by Joseph Kuefler
General Motors pulling their advertising off of Facebook right as the site was going public was, in an ironic way, a last battle cry of the most awkward, annoying era of the Internet ad. GM argued that Facebook didn’t do enough to cater to marketers or increase their bottom line. Other sources pointed out that what GM wanted to do was create a page-takeover ad, and Facebook said no because … they actually want people to like being on Facebook. In a sense this was two different generations talking to one another, one wanting to do things the old way, and one insisting that the way of doing things has changed.
The reality is a good one – Internet ads now have the chance to leave their awkward puberty, and become something that doesn’t exactly look like ads anymore. But before explaining, let’s back up and look at the current schema.
I think that Internet ads were originally conceived as a middle ground between print and TV ads. They could have the style and punchiness of the magazine ad, but they could … move! The capacities of Flash were like a magician’s toolkit, allowing ads to be trickier and do all kinds of new things. They could take over the page! They could look like the page but then suddenly rip the page apart! They could make the page drop down and force people to look at them! They could blank out the rest of the page to be unreadable until the ad is over! Most efforts were put into arresting people’s attention so that they had to pay the price before they could get to the content that was sponsored.
Unsurprisingly, the results were disappointing. If only people didn’t Tivo through commercials like they used to and we could forget about this internet thing …
Facebook changed this. They urged brands to think less about advertising, and think more about two things:
1. Creating a community.
Make your Facebook page a place for addressing customer concerns, listening to customer ideas, and celebrating a passion for whatever it is your product or service is.
2. Creating content.
A lot of brands just put their TV campaign onto Facebook, or make a little app that makes it more interactive, which is fine. But it also gave brands the chance to create other content, partner with designers, entertain people without just reminding them that their product exists or that there’s a coupon. This is good, because brands are starting to figure out that their digital presence is more appealing if it actually has engaging, journalistic content, rather than just … product stuff.
The purpose of Facebook ads is basically to get people into your community, and to get them participating. A well run community improves your brand’s reputation, which pays off in the long-term, and in the short term makes people spend more money on your product or service.
I didn’t realize how much the Internet ad had changed until Tumblr quietly started to monetize. Tumblr is very similar to Facebook in some ways. They’re both social networks, they’re both run by hip, young people, and they both didn’t bother with monetization until they got huge. Do you know how huge Tumblr is? Google trends shows that the word Tumblr may soon replace the word blog, and reports are showing that users spend 1.5 hours on Tumblr every day. Last year they basically hit the point of runaway growth, you know, like when the chart just suddenly does a straight line up.
So what does Tumblr offer to marketers who want to get their huge userbase looking at their messaging? Two simple options:
1. A spot on their Radar
This is Tumblr’s simple sidebar that features particularly “hot” content.
2. A spot on their Spotlight page
This is where users go to find engaging blogs to follow.
You may notice a couple things here:
1. These are not advertisements. They’re just spots at the top of the attention hierarchy.
2. They have to actually link to content. This means that brands who want to advertise there must actually have a Tumblr, with content that people would actually want to read and share.
3. These spaces are not just for brands. They are shared with regular people creating exciting content.
In the Tumblr world, you aren’t making advertisements or buying ad space. You are creating content with the rest of the world and getting a leg up by paying for it to sit high in the content hierarchy.
So yes TV commercials still exist, even though people can fast-forward them, and yes magazine ads still inform customers about your product, but the most forward-thinking brands will be creating original content and putting it on the digital channels in a way that works with them, rather than against them.
In the long run, Facebook and Tumblr are going to push businesses to think differently, and the smartest brands are going to turn away from advertising and toward content creation. This creation will naturally lead to all kinds of media partnerships, since media companies are the ones who know all about making content people actually want to engage with. So what does that mean for the world? Less annoying, interruptive ads, and a lot more marketing work for former journalists like me.