This morning, because I’ve been reading feeds about the triumphs of Open Social, and Facebook ads, and the migration of all advertising revenue in the future to social networks, I’ve also been thinking about myself, the user, and whether those ads really work. I know I will be in the minority here, but I’m going to say that these ads will be no more effective than previous methods of advertising.
Although this will expose me to criticism, I’m going to use the data point of myself as an example. I have been using Gmail since it debuted, and it gradually became my only email client. And yet I cannot tell you one ad I have seen on all the emails that have been served to me. My friend Michael Markman once sent around a funny email about the kinds of ads he received alongside his emails — grotesquely inappropriate. Even after his email reminded me that there actually WERE ads on my email pages, I never saw them.
This morning I decided to take a look. Next to an email asking for advice on how to transport a car across country (a post from a mailing list I am on) came a bunch of ads for cars and car transport. Why would I ever look at them, since I am not the person transporting the car, nor even someone who could answer the question posed by the list member. Next to an email from a friend trying to set up drinks, an ad for Ron Paul and Phillies for President. Even funnier, next to an email announcing that I had another Twitter follower, an ad for SpyDiagnostics.com. I guess Google ads thinks all my Twitter followers can be stalkers.
Advertisers are paying for this? I hope they chose the cheap keywords.
Then I took a deeper dive into my own behavior and realized that I’m not as oblvious as I thought. I actually haven’t been seeing the ads at all — rather than merely ignoring them. My browser is set to full screen, and the ads are off to the right. So is Twitterific, with its eye-catching stream of Tweets from friends, and GoogleChat, with the occasional interruption from yet another friend. Those effectively would obscure the ads even if I made my browser window smaller.
Facebook ads, on the other hand (bad pun) are on the left. By and large, they are prettier. The last one I got was for an LG mobile phone, which I noticed because I thought at first it was an iPhone ad. Most of the time, since I am outside Facebook’s major demographic, I don’t get any ads.
More important than the shortcomings of the ads or the algorithms that serve them is the fact that I have to be trained to "see" Facebook ads and Google ads. Because they are relatively new, my mind and my eye must be trained the way they were trained to see magazine ads or TV commercials. The "creative" will have to get better. It’s not all the alogrithm, stupid.
For example, until recently I was a subscriber to Vogue magazine. Like, I mean, I have been a subscriber since high school. That was a serious preference. Same deal with The New Yorker. I used to flip through the pages of content in both of them just to see the ads, because I assumed if it was in The New Yorker it was a quality product, and if it was in Vogue it was fashionable. I drew my tastes from them.
I now read both of those online. But I no longer see the ads.
This insight of mine must have some meaning for advertisers, at least until the Baby Boomers, GenX and GenY die off, because all of us were trained on TV, radio, and print ads, and trained to see the online world as either learning or fun and games. Or, best case scenario for the advertiser, as a repository of catalogues: J.Crew, Amazon, EBay, Buy.com.
For now I can only conclude that the brave new world of online advertising won’t be much different from the old world of advertising — ROI will be difficult to compute, and half the money will be wasted. Which half is still to be determined.