Why digital advertising needs to pay more attention to the people (before the people will pay attention to it)

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At the Modern Marketing Summit, held in Auckland over the weekend, Exponential Melbourne director of global sales strategy Tyler Greer spoke about the importance of creating user-centric media experiences. Here, he expands on why this is so critical for marketers … 

You’ve probably all heard the modern marketing lament that goes something like this. “People have never been so hard to reach; it is getting increasingly difficult to connect with our audience.”

Um really?

When I think back to when I was starting out in my media career, that doesn’t quite ring true. I’d listen to the radio whilst getting ready for work (occasionally TV if there was a big news event), walk out the door and then disconnect from media as I took the train or bus to my job.

No mobiles, no internet.

If I was staring vacantly out the window, I may have clocked the odd outdoor billboard and if I was flicking through a newspaper the odd print ad, but for the rest of the day; nothing.

When I get home, I might watch a bit of TV and see a few ads before bed. 

Compare that to my current routine. From morning podcasts, through to catch up TV on my smartphone on the train, through a quick read of the online headlines while getting my coffee, via crafty social media catch up’s during the day, desk top research and … (you get the picture – I’ve never been more easy to reach). 

Reaching people is the least of our problems. The real pain point is that advertisers aren’t getting the response they desire because they aren’t designing the right kind of ads. 

When I opine this in meetings, there’s often push back along the lines of, “Well ok. But Millennials hate advertising and their attention spans are much shorter”, so we still have a unique problem.

Again; Um really? 


“Reaching people is the least of our problems. The real pain point is that advertisers aren’t getting the response they desire because they aren’t designing the right kind of ads.”

Yes, we like to get misty eyed about the TV spot viewing of yesteryear when a brand like Guinness put out its new commercial (actually this still exists if you think about Meat & Livestock Australia Day advert and the UK’s John Lewis Christmas spot), but the reality is that no-one has really ever truly LOVED advertising (except for those in advertising, narcissists that we are).

Instead it has been tolerated and considered occasionally relevant, useful and amusing. 

The only thing that has changed is that the evolution of platforms in a digital world has meant that the way in which advertising can be relevant, useful and amusing has altered. This in turn has changed the way we (should) measure how and when advertising is relevant, useful and amusing. 

Unfortunately, not everyone has figured this out yet which means we are back to the same pain point – we aren’t designing the right kind of ads.

And this is what we do about it. 

The most important thing to build into the design of digital advertising is control. Compared to the ‘push’ media of 20 years ago, like it or not the consumer is now in control of their media experience. When I’m sitting on public transport on my way to and from work, I am the one who is choosing which cat videos to watch on YouTube, whose annoyingly smug Instagram Story I check out, which HBO series to begin bingeing on etc. etc.  

Now the audience is the gatekeeper of their own media experience, ads need to respect and reflect this. Essentially this means saying goodbye to intrusive, auto-play, automatic take-over and ceding control to the consumer. 

“Viewability metrics are getting warmer but being seen is not enough in a market that is overwhelmed with stories, noise and clutter.”

Giving consumers control is critical, but just the beginning. To properly connect with people a brand must take its story to the market in a way that matters, be that with utility, aspiration or entertainment.  A lot has been written about shortening attention spans and how hard it is to make that connection – but think about it. People manage to binge-watch an entire season of Game of Thrones in a weekend and synthesise the convoluted plot whilst answering a work email. Consumers still pay attention to things that matter to them, so if campaigns fail to connect we are designing (and measuring) them wrong.

The designer Charles Eames (he of the chair) observed that ‘recognising the need’ is ‘the primary condition for design’. Early digital advertising made the mistake of replicating offline ads online without understanding how the consumer needs were different – and we are still playing catch up. The reality is that our needs vary across different devices and at different times of the day and ads need to find a way to answer these needs. 

This can be easier said than done as outmoded forms of measurement can hinder our ability to find out what and how we make people truly care. Too many people are still relying on reach and frequency to tell them if something has been successful. This was the primary metric in the old ‘pull’ media of environment when eyeballs were restricted to a few key channels but today it is not (nor should be) the goal for everyone. Similarly, ‘click through’ is still a thing in some quarters. Why? No-one wants to click on your ad – stop using it as a metric. Viewability metrics are getting warmer but being seen is not enough in a market that is overwhelmed with stories, noise and clutter.

Instead we should be focusing on the one thing that endures when it comes to a consumer’s relationship with a brand – and that is how much time they spend with it. It is variously called attention, dwell time or time spent. Either way if we are able to measure the time people spend with a brand, we are better able to understand what stories and creative connect with a consumer and what stories do not.  

An oft-repeated phrase around the Exponential office is that whilst content might be king and distribution may be queen, the people rule. Digital advertising must may more attention to what the people need and what they care about, if they have a hope of making the people care about them.

About Exponential
Exponential Interactive delivers innovative advertising experiences that transform the way audiences interact with brands across desktop and mobile. Exponential’s platform fuses one of the largest global digital media footprints and proprietary data with user-centric ad formats designed to drive engagement and performance. Creativity, data and audience insights form the foundation for building smart and relevant brand engagement and brand performance solutions for advertisers and publishers. Exponential was founded in 2001 and has locations in 22 countries.

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