The Post-Advertising Future

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For all the talk over the past few years about consumers no longer believing what brands tell them, the shift in content and control away from marketers, and the prevailing power of social interaction as the mechanism for disseminating and using information…isn’t it odd that the only way social technology platforms think they can reliably make money is through advertising?

It’s Mad Men deja vu, only with different outfits and transistors instead of tubes.

We call it different things, of course, like producing ads without any motivational substance content, and getting consumers to react to them without actually buying anything engagement. We laud ourselves for getting better at targeting specific pitches to the optimum combo of personalities, time, and location, as if delivering a discount coupon at point-of-purchase was a novel idea. Tech platforms kid themselves into believing that consumers have asked for ads because of their prior digital behavior. Brands and consumers don’t interact because the latter wants to buy stuff from the former; rather, they have conversations about, well, usually whatever consumers want to talk about. This means the topic is often themselves.

Still, it’s all advertising, only now much of it is just plain bad, even if we try to cover-up the truth with different labels because the gurus who have helped name and shape to our times have decided it’s a dirty word.

The only place advertising still has any credibility is in the financial statements of public tech companies like Facebook (where ads accounted for 84% of its revenue) and Twitter (which is expected to collect an estimated $250 million+ from ads this year). For something that everyone else either hates or has simply written off, it’s front-and-center important for social tech companies.

Don’t you see a little dissonance here?

In fact, it’s presented as if exploiting ad opportunities is the best and most natural thing for these services to do, which I find surprising since it’s what killed MySpace and there’s absolutely no evidence that it can work, let alone be something that any user wants. This immense leap of faith is called monetization to make it seem rational and likely when it’s neither.

We talk about mobile uses with similar gibberish and certainty — Facebook, which makes most of its current ad revenue from advertisers trying to figure out how to make money on its existing platform, is getting hammered for failing to make money on a so-far wishful-thinking fantasy platform — since I can’t name a single human being who wants more ads on their phones or tablets.

At best, mobile is more “last click” advertising that’s most effective when someone has already been informed, inspired, and motivated to buy something. It could (and may) work its way up the sales funnel to become more of an informational source — I think consumers will “outsource” more of their opinions to their communities, and not even bother having opinions about brands until they need to make a decision at the moment of purchase — but I don’t think Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest are necessarily configured to provide that functionality. It may have nothing to do with proprietary services and instead be part of this augmented reality overlay that becomes an integrated part of our very sensory experience. That would be cool, actually.

So why are we talking about ads in the Post-Advertising Future in which we live?

Two things are probably going on at the same time. First, the social tech services don’t have the faintest idea how to make money over the long-haul, so advertising is their best and only hope. It’s an imperfect solution — since most users of social services are there to AVOID ads or at least sample branded info on their own terms — but maybe it’s the only game in town.

The second answer is that advertising is still important. OMG! Could it be that paying money to put stuff in front of people isn’t a fatally flawed idea? If not, then maybe it would help if all of the gee-wiz brainiacs spending tons of cash on social experiments reverted back to calling it advertising…which by definition would require them to think less in terms of creative ways to promote content, and focus more on making sure that stuff is relevant, motivational, and useful to selling things (and ditching the squishy words like monetization).

Maybe the big “aha” for the Post-Advertising Future is that brands still need to do all of the things that were standard in the Advertising Past: Prompt conversations that mean something, provide utility, are otherwise necessary and provide benefits, all with the specific and overt purpose of generating purchases.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

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