Joel Hladecek

Our guest editor Joel has over 30 years experience pioneering creative solutions and strategies in emerging mediums – from Fortune 500 interactive marketing solutions to virtual reality theme-park rides. He currently serves as the World Wide Creative Officer of EF Education First. You can read his blog at theinteractivist.com

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The Death of Talking Good and the Birth of Being Good

It’s like a train wreck, isn’t it—watching the advertising and ad-funded content industries face the digital age?

Way back in the olden days, before the Internet and computers, back even before TV, the interruptive advertising tactic we recognize today crystallized in radio and has been with us ever since. Advertisers have routinely, and brutally, interrupted your experience to bring you “a word from our sponsor”. I mean, they literally stopped the show, mid-stream, right smack in the middle of some dramatic, gripping moment and told you about… toothpaste. They did that because they knew you would be listening or watching intently and wouldn’t miss the ad. But although audiences eventually became accustomed to this heavy-handed intrusion, the intentional breaking of the content was nevertheless universally undesirable. Perhaps viewers would have expressed their displeasure to the handful of stations and networks if they’d had immediate means to do so. Perhaps audiences would have changed the station or channel if content existed elsewhere without ads. Ultimately it was an era of very limited options and audiences just got used to the annoyance.

But then something changed.

Today, we do have options, powerful ones, like ad-blockers and the back button. We have unlimited places to get content. And we have the means to express displeasure with a virtual, global megaphone. Not surprisingly, we take advantage of all of this.

And where advertisers should finally recognize this stark reality, and embrace it, they tend not to. Sadly, most advertisers still think—even in the digital space—that it would be a good idea to interrupt the pursuit of what’s important to you, to tell you something that is rather more important to them. And this thinking is fundamentally flawed. Flawed right down to the first principle that powers digital media.

To get to the heart of why these users (and most others, frankly) are rebelling against these old, interruptive ad tactics, one must ask why digital tools, computers, and the Internet exist at all. Why didn’t we just stick with print, radio, and television in the first place? Why did digital media seem intuitively better than the previous media? Yes, computers and the Internet facilitate commerce, utility, and communication, but why were we driven to develop these technologies? What is the first principle?

The answer to this is control.

The primary improvement we see in this medium, over all previous media, is the provision of control: tools that do what we want, unencumbered by the limitations of the real world. That’s what a single button is after all—a point of control. That choice, to press or not, is the atom of the interactive experience, and that choice is made by the USER.

To understand how fundamental this condition is, take note of how you, as a user, feel when a random 30-second ad appears instead of the video you chose. And further, the annoyance you feel when the controls for that 30-second ad (like advancing the play-head, or muting audio) are disabled. A feeling of righteous injustice at your control being wrested away is common and the correct feeling to feel, because this medium promises that such control is yours alone.

In an effort to regain users’ unassailable ownership of control, they have embraced powerful new ad-blockers. Marketers really should not feign surprise at this development. It’s the direct result of advertisers’ own ongoing, insatiable quest for interruption, where such a thing is patently disallowed.

Indeed, the ideal interactive experience would dynamically conform to every user’s unique interest. In other words, it would do only and everything you wanted it to do. That is this medium’s ideal condition, its sole reason for being. Such provision of user control is the unspoken promise of this medium. And this has wide-reaching implications.

As a creator of content, you would be very wise to live hard and fast by this principle: that you are merely a subject of your king, the user.

How then can advertisers, for one second, imagine that they have permission to interrupt the user’s pursuit, when the first principle of the very medium they exist in disallows the violation?

What a great question. The answer sadly appears to be that legacy thinking and once-supreme business models can be hard to abandon.

I was mildly shocked (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to learn that key ad industry executives have seriously explored whether they can sue ad-blockers in court.

Dear Advertisers, oh for crying out loud, enough with the desperate theatrics. Just make something that is honestly valuable, would you? Like, something users actually want? Stop making ad content of such questionable value, content just barely good enough that users might not look away after you have wrested their control away.

Many worried advertisers and publishers claim that without their interruptive advertising, there will be no content… Ok, now I’m laughing so hard I can hardly type—give me a second… whew… ok, look, that’s ridiculous. There will still be content, in fact there will be more than ever; it just won’t be your content—the content of providers who have grown slovenly accustomed to collecting interruptive ad dollars, and who aren’t further willing to bow to their new king, the user. And if you do try to withhold your content, others will fill the vacuum quite happily and suddenly you will merely be some percentage less relevant.

Embrace this: Interruptive ad messaging is on the road to becoming an antiquated concept, a mindset that is long in the tooth, a tired line from the Mad Men era.

How to Behave Now that the User is Your King

When it comes to ad messaging in today’s landscape of freely available information, the paid claims of value by a company for its own product just don’t ring true anymore. Indeed, the only thing a company can authentically say today without garnering fair suspicion or an eye roll is, “We exist, and we made this product.” As far as how well a product or service performs, today’s audiences demand more authentic forms of information. Proof, if you will. And that proof can no longer come from the company itself. Rather, it must come from trusted third parties—the proverbial world of social marketing. This is why some companies today send products or samples to popular bloggers and reviewers. But even then it doesn’t take much for the stink of shillery to settle on these participating third parties.

I am regularly asked: how, then, can a brand take advantage of social marketing? How do we take control of it?

My answer is quite boring, and quite hard for advertisers, who are used to manipulating perception, to wrap their heads around:

There are no quick tricks, and you don’t take “advantage” of it. You certainly don’t control it. Sorry. Here, all the sneaky, manipulative, quick tricks eventually, though perhaps not immediately, fail. But there are three things you can do to ensure that social marketing is absolutely working in your favor:

1) Deliver the best product or service in your category.
2) Provide the best customer service possible within any medium or channel your customers prefer.
3) Be honest, noble, and open as an organization.

In short:
Stop talking about how good your company or product is, and just be that way.

If you do all three, positive social marketing will happen, and you will be assisting it to happen. Guaranteed. However, if you choose not to, preferring instead to favor the temporary business puffery that comes from manipulation, deceit, or excessive hyperbole (e.g. most marketing), you will eventually fail. And that is also a guarantee.

The selfie generation wants companies to do the right thing. No green-washing, no cheap tricks, but the real, actual, honest right thing. Even if that means profitability is affected to a degree; perhaps particularly then, because that surely proves honest intent. Oh, the kicking and squirming I can hear coming from the ad-funded end of our economy.

The shift that’s happening here is this: the age of talking about, of convincing consumers that your product is great, is waning. We are transitioning to a new age where the product must simply be great.

The long asserted “Show, don’t tell” is passing to “Be, don’t show”.

It doesn’t get more basic than that.

And if there truly is sufficient value in your product, users will pay you.

If you have done all that and still have a wad of cash burning a hole in your corporate pocket that you would have otherwise spent on interruptive advertising, try this instead:

Invest it in bold plans that allow users to engage and interact with your product, to customize it, create with it, who knows, perhaps to sell it themselves and maybe even profit from its sale right along with you. These would all be authentic ways to interact with a user who is in control.

But whatever you do, for goodness sake, spend it on something valuable that consumers actually want. Because that’s what this medium is about.