Web 2.0 and Advertising: Do We See Eye to Eye?

Do developers of Web 2.0 and the advertisers they are pursuing for revenue see things the same way, even their own way of working together? Do advertisers and consumers of the Web see eye to eye?

These are the questions that kept coming up for me at the Monaco Media Forum, an event organized in early November 2007 by Publicis, a French-based global network of ad agencies. Attendees at MMF were from media companies and ad agencies, with a strong presence from Europe. Most were there to understand how Web 2.0 (or whatever you want to call it) were changing the media business and that meant looking at the changing world of advertising.

One of the heads of an ad agency showed a clever video that parodies the advertiser’s view of his relationship with the consumer:

To my surprise, this video was produced by Microsoft.

The conceit behind this video is that advertisers think they know consumers and know what they want but they really don’t. Nearly every Web 2.0 business model depends upon the promise of delivering more targeted advertising. The ability to make advertising more relevant will determine whether Web 2.0 succeeds in the market.

Ad agencies will admit to the limits of traditional media, saying, okay, maybe we don’t know consumers the way we ought to but this new technology is going to give us all that. With social networking and viral videos, we will learn more and more about consumers, and produce advertising that is more relevant to them.

I had the feeling that I was watching the ongoing courtship of agencies and Web 2.0 companies like Google, MySpace, and Facebook. It has progressed from them staring at each other across the room to now where they are laughing at each other’s jokes. Each one thinks they know the other pretty well, and they’ve agreed to talk about the future in the same way. Like an arranged marriage of members of distant royal families, they are talking about a union that will bring together very different worlds. The Web companies expect to become rich as advertisers pay more to reach an audience that can be sorted and selected on any set of attributes. Advertisers and their agencies are drooling that they will deliver highly targeted advertising messages that audiences will find more relevant, producing better results than they’ve seen in the mass media. The big question is what does the consumer, the commoner, think of this proposed royal wedding?

Advertising trades in simplifications that are true enough — I am male, 35-55, etc. But like the woman in the video above, I don’t think that information tells you very much about me or what is truly relevant to me.

Will my online profiles and detailed behavioral tracking draw a truer picture of me? Will I like that picture? Who do I want to see it?

Esther Dyson kept asking questions of both technology and media companies to find out what advertisers mean by relevance. She says she’d like to see advertising for new cars, even though she doesn’t own a car and doesn’t drive. She’s not in the market for a car but she’s interested in learning more about new cars through their advertising. How would an advertiser know about that preference, and would they care to know?

Another person asked how profiles might accommodate personas so that people could describe themselves in different contexts, such as at work or with the family. Given different contexts, you could consider yourself a different person.

I wonder how ad companies will interpret the rich set of self-identifying attributes that FaceBook or MySpace offers them. What messages might they trigger? How sophisticated and how flexible will the technology become to target messages to you and me? Will this be truly useful or simply annoying? Past attempts at serving up content based on detailed profiles have not proven useful (my.yahoo.com and others). (If you say you’re interested in news on “banking”, you’d get every possible article with the word “banking” in it.) On the other hand, Amazon’s product recommendations seem moderately useful, although it can’t distinguish a short-term interest from a long-term one, or a category of book I buy as gift for another person from one I buy for myself.

The basic fact is that it is hard to describe yourself and your needs and desires. On some level, we struggle to understand others, even a spouse or a parent. It’s hard to find gifts for people I’ve known for decades. (The reason Google ads make sense is that they are linked to an activity — my search terms — not my interests. It reflects what I’m interested in right now.)

The conversation at MMF centered around how this arranged marriage would be good for business, but few asked if the consumer accept the “happily ever after” part of this fairy tale? The advertisers seemed so certain we’d all be happy and that we’d love this new kind of advertising. I found little skepticism. Was it just me? I know my bias is to generally believe technologists when they tell me that they are building something better for the world. I like their optimism, even though some of it is false. The best ones are truly idealistic. I don’t have the same inherent trust in large media companies and advertising agencies. When they say that we’ll be getting better advertising, I don’t know what to expect but I’m skeptical.

Now, there are many different views of advertising. Some people even like ads. Few people say they do. Advertising might be viewed as a kind of tax that we agree to pay on the pleasure we get from media. If the tax gets too high, it begins to take away the pleasure. One seeks to avoid advertising (if possible through pop-up blockers or TiVO), just like death and taxes. On the other hand, most people understand the bargain: that content and a variety of services are free to the extent that they are supported by advertising.

In traditional media, there are common practices governing the proportion of commercials to programming on TV or the amount of advertising to editorial in newspapers and magazines. Google also established a fairly comfortable mix between advertising and content on its search pages, reducing the amount of clutter found on other search engines. How much advertising is enough on YouTube videos or your Facebook and MySpace homepages?

Google also followed traditional media’s rules that kept a clear separation of paid placement and useful content. This separation has defined the dual role of modern media — to serve its audience while also serving its advertisers. This so-called separation of church and state serves us well, but it’s not clear whether the distinction between content and advertising will survive the web.

I heard several content producers talking about “co-producing” content with ad agencies. This “co-produced” content would be distributed as original content via YouTube. One hopes the relationship would at least be disclosed. Think of LonelyGirl15? When I asked panelists about respecting the separation of content and advertising, they were dismissive. This isn’t a problem. Didn’t I know that soap operas are called that because they were developed by companies trying to sell soap? This is the way media works today. The CEO of Blip.TV said that she thought it was important to preserve independence for producers of content because that was a characteristic that attracted people to the content in the first place. I couldn’t agree more. If Web content loses its independence, it loses credibility.

I also worry that the co-production of content by producers and advertisers begins to narrow the universe of content that would be created. Can you imagine advertisers wanting to “co-produce” a documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or coverage of the Iraq war. (Apple’s naming conventions have caught up with me: I first typed iRaq.) We are more likely to see the kind of fare produced by MTV than PBS. What we have believed about the Internet is that it would increase our choices, not limit them.

Nonetheless, there is the good news for the commoners.

If sites or services become too commercialized, or as users catch on that the content is really a commercial in disguise, then they can choose to go elsewhere. They can shift their attention to a new site. I hope the threat of user migration is enough to keep Web 2.0 sites honest, and counteract the aggressive tendencies of advertisers. This is the risk that MySpace and Facebook are confronted with as they increase the amount of commercial activity on their sites. If advertisers increase the level of annoyance, even worse than strangers asking to be friends, then people will look for new sites that get it right. It’s a bit like FM radio. Get the balance between songs and commercial chatter wrong and people will flee to a new alternative.

So my basic takeaway from MMF was: Will the new advertising that targets the audiences of Web 2.0 sites and services be seen as relevant and useful by that audience?

However, the most memorable part of MMF was a dinner talk by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winning Holocaust survivor, author and teacher. (His first book, “Night“, which I read after returning home, is the moving story of the loss of his family and his survival as a 16-year-old in concentration camps at the end of the Second World War.) He is a powerful speaker unlike most of those who are labeled as such. His voice is low, raspy and heavily accented and he speaks very slowly with distinct pauses. Yet I kept wanting to hear more. He began with a fable, a Yiddish tale about the search for truth that ends with a bittersweet message: “it’s okay to lie” — a funny thing to say to advertisers. His story prods us to change modes and become a kid listening to a master storyteller. We enjoy the story and feel something in our heart and wonder what it really means. If nothing else, Wiesel reminded us that life is much richer and more complex than what we normally let on to each other, especially at a business or technology conference. He closed his talk by saying that people ask him what’s the one thing they should learn from his books, from his teaching, and he responded: “Think higher and feel deeper.” At once an admonition and an aspiration, Elie Wiesel’s message was wonderfully relevant.

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