Contextual Advertising is Still Klunky and Dumb

Antique Robots

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” – John Wanamaker

Of course we know that it’s more than half that’s wasted. Direct mail is considered successful if you get one out of a hundred to convert. The marketing team high-fives one another and everyone goes home for the day if you get one out of a thousand to convert on a digital ad. With radio and television, most often we don’t even bother to track conversion and simply take the number of eyeballs the ad passed in front of as a job well done.

The reason most of these ads don’t work is because of context. No matter how many flower filled fields with dancing women in white dresses that you show me, as a single man I am not going to be purchasing your sanitary napkins. I don’t care how much blue water you demonstrate it absorbs.

When your brand shows me an ad that doesn’t relate to me, it is an interruption and most likely an annoyance. You are wasting money to annoy me. But when I see an ad for something I am currently in the market for, suddenly your ad becomes of interest. In many ways I may not even see it as an ad, but treat it as content.

It’s for that reason that I am a huge fan of contextual advertising. After visiting the Radian6 website, I am met with ads for the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and the Dreamforce Conference. I am much more likely to view these things. I may even be pleased for the reminder of the upcoming conference.

I look forward to the day where the web of data I leave behind me is such that I am served up ads for a new computer around the time that my current one starts creeping towards obsolecence. That I’m shown ads for venues and restaurants in a far away city based on the airline tickets I purchased. That my lack of purchasing a new winter coat this year triggers the serving up of ads for a coat early next year.

But right now we are in early days and much of what exists in contextual advertising is klunky and dumb. It’s like the early days of keyword matching where ads for new cars would be matched against news stories of horrific traffic accidents. And so much could be solved if the ad networks knew two simple things:

  • Have I ever clicked on any of these ads?
  • Did I make the purchase?

I bought a new drafting chair from Staples. I booked a trip for my son and I to visit Disney World. I bought my son a quadcopter for Christmas.  All of these actions and the online researching before purchasing have triggered contextual ads to show up as I browse the web.

Why am I still being served up ads for office chairs? I only need the one. It just arrived this week. There’s not a chance in the world I’m going to click on any of those ads. Why is Disney still extolling me about the very deal I took advantage of? I booked that trip in October. It’s paid for. A done deal. I’m not going to book another one. Why am I being shown the same image of the very same toy I purchased repeatedly? It was quite clearly a one-time purchase and I’ve not clicked again on any of those ads since making it.

These ads are no longer a helpful reminder or a gentle nudge to get me from consideration to conversion. They are an annoyance. And in the case of Disney and the toy, came close to tipping off my son on impending gifts.

Along with purchasing the chair I picked up some notepads, pens and pencils. I browsed for illustration board and art pads and glanced at the graphics tablets. If Staples waited a week or two and then started feeding me ads for some of those consumables, there would be a much better chance I’d view that as pleasant serendipity instead of the annoyance at being asked yet again, “so ya wanna buy an office chair?

It would be nice if I were offered ads for other attractions and places to visit in Florida rather than the same Disney offer that ceased being of relevance to me a couple of months ago.

And after more than a month of not clicking on any ads for quadcopters it would be nice if they just went away.

I realize that rules around privacy and silo’d data-sets are the cause of much of this stupidity. But a stupid ad, clumsily presented, is almost more of a hindrance than the blind shot-gun approach we’ve taken in the past. Because it is so close to what we want but not-just-quite it ramps up the ‘creepy‘ factor. It’s mired in the uncanny valley where we are so aware that this is an attempt at serendipity that it fails to be serendipitous. It trumpets ‘we are watching you‘ louder than it suggests, ‘wouldn’t your life be better with?‘. So long as that hurdle can’t be crossed we will continue to throw away more than half of our dollars and the kicker is we will know exactly which half that is.

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