Monday, October 22, 2012

Tuning Out Online Ads

After Google reported disappointing revenue, Wall Street decided Google had a “Facebook problem.” Google ads, they said, didn’t translate well to mobile devices. For reasons that aren’t fully understood, click-through rates are much lower on phones than on computers.

This analysis, to my mind, overlooks a larger problem. Click-through rates are falling on computers too. It is not just a problem with mobile. Consumers are tuning out advertising in all interactive media.

In theory, people can disregard information just because, over time, they come to regard it as having low value. After years of reading irrelevant advertising messages, people eventually stop reading. But I think something else is going on here. It is not just that people are not reading the ads. They are actually not looking. They are intentionally blocking them out. This is not the result of lack of interest, but of active avoidance. It results from past bad experiences with ads. People avoid a repeat of these bad experiences by finding a way to not see the ads at all.

For advertisers, this is worse news than it might appear at first. After people have tuned you out, it is virtually impossible to get their attention in order to win them back. If people are not even seeing the ads in a particular place anymore, it doesn’t matter how clear or clever the advertising message is — it still won’t connect.

It is easy to imagine that everyone will have a series of bad experiences with ads in interactive media. Some ads are false, disparaging, infuriating, condescending. Google ads in particular can follow a target around in a way that could easily remind the person of stalking or harassment. These irritations don’t have to register consciously for people to develop a pattern of avoidance. Eventually, then, everyone will develop a degree of avoidance for online ads. And once learned, the habit of avoiding ads in a particular place may be permanent.

Advertisers would be humbled if they realized how thoroughly viewers can tune them out. I often see myself tuning out ads online, but I still notice, or I think I do, how many ads I am not seeing, along with their position on the page. But others may completely block ads out of their awareness. I spoke recently to a Gmail user who did not realize, until I pointed them out, that there were ads next to every Gmail message she read. She was so focused on her work that she was not even aware that there was other content on the same page. Similarly, I know that some of the readers of this blog have never stopped to notice the ads displayed in the blog. It is as if those parts of the page just disappear. No advertising message, however compelling, will get a reaction from a viewer like this. And because of the negative experiences people inevitably have eventually with advertising messages, this is the direction I believe we are all moving in.