Live, From Inside the Gale of Creative Destruction

Talk about cognitive dissonance…

First, Mediapost’s Jack Loechner writes about a Forrester Report, The End of Advertising as We Know It, which was published earlier this year. Seeing as last week I starting ringing the death knell for advertising agencies, I though I should check the report out.

Problem One: The report was only available on Forrester if I was willing to plunk down $499. American. Which is – I don’t know – about 14 zillion Canadian. Much as I love and respect you, my readers, there’s no friggin’ way that’s going to happen. So, I go to Google to see if I can find a free source to get the highlights.

Problem Two: Everyone and Sergio Zyman’s dog has apparently decided to write a book or white paper entitled “The End of Advertising as We Know It.” Where to begin researching the end? Well, here’s one deliciously ironic option – one of those white papers was published by none other than WPP. You know I have to check that out! As it turns out – no surprise here – it’s a sales pitch for the leading edge cool stuff that one of WPP’s agencies, AKQA, can do for you. I tried to sift through the dense text but gave up after continually bumping into buzz-laden phrases like “365 ideas”, “Business Invention” and “People Stories.” I return to the search results page and follow a Forbes link that looks more promising.

Problem Three: Yep! This is it. It’s Forbes summation of the Forrester Report. I start reading and learning that the biggest problem with advertising is that we hate to be interrupted by advertising. Well, I could have told you that. Oh – wait – I did (for free, I might add). But here’s the cognitively dissonant part. As I’m trying to read the article, an autoplay video ad keeps playing on the Forbes page, interrupting me. And you know what? I hated it! The report was right. At least, I think it was, as I stopped reading the article.

I’m guessing you’re going through something similar right now. As you’re trying to glean my pearls of wisdom, you’re tiptoeing around advertising on the page. That’s not Mediapost’s fault. They have a business to run and right now, there’s no viable business model other than interruptive advertising to keep the lights on. So you have the uniquely dissonant experience of reading about the end of advertising while being subjected to advertising.

My experience – which is hardly unique – is a painful reminder about the inconvenient truth of innovative disruption: it’s messy in the middle of it. When Joseph Schumpeter called it a “gale of creative destruction” it made it sound revolutionary and noble in the way that the Ride of the Valkyries or the Starks retaking Winterfell is noble. But this stuff gets messy, especially if you’re trying to hang on to the things being destroyed when the gale hits in full force.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell. The tension goes back to a comment made back in 1984 from Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

In publishing, we not only have the value of the information itself, but we have the cost of wrapping insight around that information. Forrester’s business is industry analysis. Someone has to do the analyzing and there are costs associated with that. So they charge $499 for a report on the end of advertising.

Which brings us to the second part of the tension. Because so much information is now free and Google gives me, the information consumer, the expectation that I can find it for free – or, at least, highlights of it for free – I expect all information to be free. I believe I have an alternative to paying Forrester. In today’s age, information tends to seep through the cracks in pay walls, as it did when Forbes and Mediapost published articles on the report. Forrester is okay with that, because it hopes it will make more people willing to pay $499 aware of the report.

For their part Forbes – or Mediapost – relies on advertising to keep the information available to you for free, matching our expectations. But they have their own expenses. Whether we like it or not, interruptive advertising is the only option currently available to them.

So there we have it, a very shaky house of cards built on a rapidly crumbling foundation. Welcome to the Edge of Chaos. A new model will be created from this destruction. That is inevitable. But in the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of pain and WTF moments. Just like the one I had this week.

How Our Brains Engage with Online Ads

On Monday, I talked about how our brain found Waldo – how we pick a recognized figure out of a busy background.

Yesterday, I took the same principles and applied them to how our brain scans a webpage.

Today, I want to dive into how the mechanics of our brain’s ability to focus attention impacts our engagement with online ads.

The Role of Engagement

One factor above all others dictates the level of engagement we have with online advertising: are we looking for it? Intent is the spoiler in ad effectiveness. When we have intent that aligns with advertising that’s presented to us, the rules of engagement significantly shift in favor of the ad. I dealt with this at some length in a previous post, so I won’t rehash the topic here. However, in all that follows, it’s important to keep that in mind.

As I laid out yesterday, our intent will determine our information foraging strategy on a web page. We will have an idea of what we’re looking for, perhaps even to the extent of creating a mental picture in our visual cortex, and the attention focusing apparatus in our brain working together with our ability to quickly scan a page in it’s entirety through peripheral vision will help us “thin slice” (to use a term from Gladwell’s Blink) the contents of a page, mentally dividing it up into areas of greater and lesser promise. Clusters of information scent are important here to help guide our attention in the most promising directions, as determined by our intent.

Now, obviously the more detail there is on a page, and the more diverse it is, the harder this attention focusing mechanism has to work. Busy pages make us work harder than clean pages. That’s why we tend to get frustrated with them. I’m not sure this tendency is universal, however. Past eye tracking work seems to suggest that at least some of our visual preferences might be cultural. In China, for example, very busy websites seems to be the norm.

So, we have our peripheral vision scanning a page for relevancy, ready to swing the spotlight of foveal attention in the right directions. What happens now?

Conditioning in a Scan Pattern

When we start scanning a website, our foraging strategy isn’t a blank slate. Because there tends to be some commonalities in how websites are built, we have built up some universal strategies we use to find the most promising content on the page. The examples below from The BuyerSphere Project show how these strategies guide us through the first few seconds of interaction with a web page:


These conditioned patterns allow us to mentally divide up a page for easier digestion. This has significant implications for advertising placed on the page. Ads tend to occupy real estate that is outside this conditioned navigation path. They are usually placed at the top (the much maligned banner ad) or on the right side of the page. Because placement is fairly constant, we have become conditioned to expect advertising in these spots. This makes it a sort of “no man’s land” on most websites. Ads are seldom aligned with intent. They tend to interrupt our intent. So we try to filter them out. Ads start with one strike against them. We might scan them peripherally just to see if there are any relevancy “hits” with our activated “target” neurones, but if there’s no hit, we spend little time with them. The eye tracking heat map below shows the difference in ad engagement when an ad is placed in the top banner position versus a position in the middle of content.


Ad Relevancy

But, what if an ad is relevant? Thanks to Google and other content targeting ad networks, relevancy has been introduced into our ad targeting strategies. This has a significant impact. Enquiro worked with Google to try to quantify the impact of relevancy in a study we conducted in 2008. We gave respondents scenarios that simulated purchase intent and then showed them various websites. Some were relevant to the purchase, some weren’t. Also, some had ads that were contextually targeted and others had general ads which weren’t contextually relevant. The results, shown in the graphs below (again, from The BuyerSphere Project) were somewhat startling and counter intuitive.


While non-relevant ads scored higher on ad awareness (recognizing that there was an ad on the page) they scored much lower on almost every other metric. 3 times more respondents remembered the ad messages in a relevant ad and  5 times more respondents indicated that the advertised ad would make their short list of candidates. In “intent to purchase” the non-relevant ads actually performed worse than the control group (who saw no ad) and significantly worse than the relevant ad group.

How Hard Do Ads Have to Work?

In my post on the alignment of intent, I said that ads that don’t benefit from aligned intent have to work much harder to get our attention. Ads that are aligned with intent (search ads are probably the best example) can be much more subtle. This was shown in another study Enquiro conducted in 2007. We found that while more intrusive ads (i.e. video ads) did a better job at attracting our eyeballs, they didn’t do so well in convincing us to consider the advertised product. Which ad format performed the best? The lowly text ad, if it was relevant and aligned with consumer intent.


Let’s go back to our mental attention focusing apparatus and explore some of the possible reasons for this advertising dilemma: why do the ads that are best at grabbing our attention seem to be the worst at putting us in a positive frame of mind about a potential purchase (note: I have reservations about the research methodology here, which I’ll talk about at the end of this post)? Remember, we go to a webpage with a specific intent. Intrusive, interruptive ads have to pull out a bag of tricks to hijack our attention. The most effective of these play directly into the properties of peripheral vision, which acts as a type of early warning system for us. Peripheral vision evolved to keep us alive and warn us of potential danger. What signal is the most reliable predictor of potential danger? You guessed it – movement. Something moving in the corner of our eye is sure to get our attention. But it comes at an emotional cost.

The brain has a rather effective mechanism that allows us to put our tasks on hold if it believes we’re in danger. In effect, the prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of our brain – is bypassed by our danger circuits, routed directly into the amygdala and sub-cortex – the “animal” part of our brain. Movement in our field of vision gets us ready to flee or fight.

Now, you say, that’s ridiculous. Even the most annoying online ads don’t cause you to suddenly run away from your laptop. No, but there’s an element of proportionate response here. The brain also has a slightly delayed dampening circuit that assesses potential danger and shuts down the alarm if it proves to be false. In extreme cases (the oft-cited example of a garden hose mistaken for a snake in your shed) your heart stops racing, adrenaline stops pumping and your hands stop shaking. In mild cases (i.e. intrusive ads) it’s a much more subtle sense of anxiety and annoyance. The mechanism is the same, it’s the degree that differs.

Think about how annoying you find a particularly intrusive ad on a website where you’re there for a purpose other than to look at the ad in question. One of the key sins in usability is using movement in a page element which is not of primary importance in the page. The eye is continually dragged away from what it is trying to do. Yet, this is exactly what most sites do when they include rich media or video ads. Yes, the ads get our attention but in doing so, they almost always piss us off. The reason is that we resent being tricked into paying attention when our intention is to do something else.

Now, I said I did have quibbles with typical ad effectiveness metrics that we and almost everyone else uses in most effectiveness studies. The opinion we get from a respondent immediately after exposure to an ad is typically not very indicative of the longer term effectiveness of an ad. For one thing, it doesn’t capture the subliminal influence of an ad. Barring any compelling empirical evidence, it’s difficult to say what the long term effectiveness of an intrusive but annoying ad might be.

Tomorrow, I’ll pick up this topic again as we look at how our attention focusing plays out on a page of search results.

Wrenching Changes in Ad Revenue Models

This week, I’ve talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding online behaviors and our interactions with content, the fact that we don’t really think our way through online interactions, but rather navigate through instinct and habit, and yesterday, how different intents lead to different levels of engagement with ads. All of this has been to show how Rupert Murdoch and other publishers are seriously off base in trying to put walls around their content to protect their obsolete business models.

The Planting of Intent

But, as comScore Chair Gian Fulgoni commented on yesterday’s post, does all this mean that display ads have no value? Yes, we agree, ads aligned with intent, such as search and relevant text ads, are the ideal, but something needs to plant that intent in the first place. Something needs to create awareness, which sparks need and kicks the brain into gear to go seek information. In Gian’s words:

there’s another issue that needs to be addressed: not all consumers search for information via an online search query. They’re just not all that rational. As a result, using display ads can get an advertiser a far higher reach against the target audience. And that higher reach can cause the total sales lift from a display campaign to rival that from search – even if the sales lift among those exposed is higher in the case of search.

There’s also another even more important point that we need to consider: brand building. That needs to occur even when the consumer isn’t foraging for information in support of an impending buying decision. Otherwise the value of an individual brand name isn’t going to be as meaningful to the consumer when he / she is in the shopping / buying mode. CPG manufacturers know this well. Every week, their special prices (“temporary price reductions”) are shown in the local newspaper feature ads. Placed by the retailer but funded by the manufacturer. The consumer can pick and choose the products they intend to buy and where they will buy them (and, incidentally, store loyalty is not the norm). This information – delivered by old media still, but, I would argue, aligned with consumers intent to shop and buy – determines, to a great extent, the store at which a consumer shops and the brands they buy in a particular week. But the important point is that the CPG manufacturers don’t just leave it with running these types of feature ads. They understand that they need to be supplemented with “branding” advertising that they run themselves because they need to make sure that their brand value has been firmly established in the mind of consumers before they compare prices across brands at the shopping / buying stage. This type of branding advertising is delivered via TV, print and radio – and increasingly today, via the Internet. It’s a critical part of brand marketing, and I think it should remain that way even in today’s Internet world, because — as one of our clients recently said to me — “God forbid that price becomes the only determinant of consumers’ brand choice!”

I voiced similar opinions in a previous post, No Search is an Island. Search itself has a naturally limited inventory. If no one is searching for a term, there is no inventory to buy. This lack of scale and reach has been the single biggest limiting factor in search marketing. If you suddenly cut out all awareness advertising, you’ll eventually find your available search inventory dwindling in lock step. Gian’s points are well taken, and indeed, one of the biggest questions for me is how much residual branding value is derived from an ad that is noticed but not clicked. As I said yesterday, I think it depends on how pressing the user’s intent is. If they’re browsing content, my suspicion is that the residual value would be higher than if they’re on a focused information finding mission.

Differing Shades of Gray

As is most transitions, the truth is there there is no absolute answer here. One is neither right or wrong, black or white. What is happening is a shift from one type of behavior to another. The answer is gray, and each day, that shade of gray is gradually shifting more from black to white. Murdoch won’t suddenly find his revenue model shutting off one day. But what will happen (and there are dozens of newspaper bankruptcies to support my case) is that the revenue model will gradually erode. In fact, it has been happening for some time. As we switch our behaviors from a destination information economy to a just-in-time information economy we’ll spend less time casually browsing content and more time taking brief forays through search to find specific pieces of information. And when we do so, all the challenges in ad engagement I addressed yesterday will have to be dealt with. Murdoch’s revenue model won’t shut off tomorrow, but it will gradually melt away to the point where it’s unable to support the business. That is why there’s more than a hint of desperation in his rantings. He knows the ship is sinking and he’s lashing out at what he thinks the cause is: Google. Unfortunately, he’s lashing out at the wrong cause. The real cause is his reader’s changing behaviour.

Brand Building = Fence Painting?

The other point I would make about brand building is this: Gian is right, we need some way to build brands in public consciousness. But even the options for building brand are rapidly shifting. It used to be that mass media was the most efficient choice. It offered reach and frequency. It was scalable and could be measured in GRPs. The market was treated like a fence to be painted. What was the most efficient way to apply as much paint to as much area as possible? The answer, the biggest possible spray gun. It was a pretty simple equation: Area of fence X density of paint = complete saturation. The spray gun didn’t even need to be that efficient at painting, we just had to keep pouring in more paint. Which was fine, as long as the fence was all in one place. But now, the fence is scattered over an impossibly large area. There are fragments spread everywhere. Suddenly, the spray gun isn’t working so well anymore. We need a new approach to brand building, and we’re beginning to explore new techniques, such as tapping into social networks and word-of-mouth. It seems in today’s world, Tom Sawyer had it right..the best way to paint a fence is to enlist an army of recruits to do it for you.

You Can’t Put a Wall Around News

The challenge advertisers face now is trying to find a way to reach an increasingly fragmented market who is spending less time with traditional media and are increasingly seeking information in bite-sized pieces, rather than sitting down to a full meal. And that’s a challenge that traditional media, represented by Rupert Murdoch, seem unable and unwilling to face. Their answer seems to be to rant, rave and hope the whole mess will go away. If people are increasingly seeking information through Google and not looking at my ads, fine, I’ll just lock out Google and lock in my audience by forcing them to pay. Murdoch is skiing down the wrong side of the adoption curve. And, as Danny Sullivan pointed out in his Search Engine Land post, you can no longer put a fence around information and keep it proprietary, especially in the news industry. Breaking stories will break in hundreds of ways online – through Twitter, networks, blogs and news aggregators. Even if the Wall Street Journal breaks a new story, they can’t control it. People don’t care about the source anymore, all they care about is the information. Even if Google is locked out of Murdoch’s content, it will find it somewhere else and will index it. And people will go where ever Google lets them go. For this reason, I disagree with Danny about the viability of a mutually exclusive relationship. Google doesn’t need the Wall Street Journal, but I do believe that the Wall Street Journal needs Google.

So what about the deal with Bing? Is that the answer to Murdoch’s woes? After all, you still get search visitors and you control your content. Again, for all the reasons I’ve stated over the past week, I don’t think this is any answer at all. It may look good on paper to two companies that are entrenched in command and control thinking, but it doesn’t reflect the real world at all. And if Murdoch would take a few minutes to glance at the latest search market share numbers, even he might see why it doesn’t make sense to kick the elephant out of bed to make way for the mouse (okay..perhaps a small dog).

In the final analysis, we have people changing their information consumption habits, which is giving advertising a wrenching kick right in its revenue model. The dramatic success of search was indicative of the power and speed of this behavioral change. The successful model of the future will understand and embrace the reality of information foraging and will leverage the changing habits of people. The search part, aligning with consumers when intent is present, is the easy part to work out. The challenging bit will be to swim upstream and figure out the pieces that have to be in place to spark intent and put the mental train in motion. My suspicion is that mass solutions will no longer work. We’ll have to figure out how to brand build one prospect at a time, one relationship at a time. None of this is good news for traditional publishers, but hey, if everyone won in evolution, the world would be a much more crowded place.

Aligned Intent: A Different Ad Engagement Metric

On Tuesday, I talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding our online behaviors. Yesterday, I talked about how we navigate online based on habit and instinct, keeping our thinking to a minimum. Both of those behaviors are threatening  traditional ad revenue models. The very nature of engagement with advertising is undergoing a dramatic shift. Today, I want to talk more about that shift, because at Enquiro, we’ve seen dramatic evidence of it in our research over the past few years.

The Traditional Model

Let’s begin by exploring how advertising has worked up to now – the model that Rupert Murdoch is still pinning all his hopes on.

In the past, we used a “destination” based information gathering strategy. We depended on someone to gather the information and get it to us at a destination that would become a mental landmark for us. This was the model that gave rise to our traditional news industry. We trusted our favored sources to cover the world for us. It was their job to stay on top of what was happening, interpret it and present it back to us. Publishers developed editorial voices and we grew to trust those voices. We didn’t have time to cover every possible news channel, so we short listed it down to the information sources that best matched our interests and personality. We picked our favourites and trusted these few sources to keep us informed. These favorites formed the most visited locations in our mental information “landscape”.

Once we had our list of a handful of information sources, we would set some time aside every day to stay informed. It was a different paradigm of information gathering. We treated our sources as destinations and made the trip worthwhile by investing some time in it. We’re read the paper in the morning. We’d watch the news at night. We’d listen to news radio. In each of these cases, we’d take a discrete and substantial chunk of our available time and devote it to “staying informed”. There was no specific piece of information we were looking for. We trusted our information sources to serve us something interesting. Our intent wasn’t tied to any particular topic, although there might be sections that we favored (sports or business). Our intent was simply to spend some time with our favorite information source. Just like a trip to a physical destination, we understood that this journey would take some time.

This relationship, that of a favored source, then offered the published a willing set of eyeballs without any set agenda. The audience was there to browse through the content offered. That was the objective. And that objective allowed publishers, and through them, advertisers, to make some safe assumptions: the audience would be there for awhile, the audience had no other urgent priorities, and the audience could be safely categorized by the characteristics of the ideal audience of the channel. One could assume that the reason they favoured the channel was that they matched the target profile. All of this formed the foundation of traditional advertising as we know it.

The publishers job was to amass the audience. By doing so, they could then go to advertisers and deliver the audience. And it was the advertiser’s job to catch the audience’s attention. Again, remember, the audience had already set a significant chunk of time aside to spend with the publisher and the audience had no specific intent other than visiting their information “destination.” This mindset is critical to understand, because it forms the “before” state of the shift I’ll be exploring. The audience had to be distracted by the advertising, but the distraction was a minor derailing of our attention. Let’s dive a little deeper here.

Yesterday, I talked about the switching on and off our our neural autopilots as we do any mental task. Our attention and the full power of our brains only get focused when we need to. The rest of the time, we’re subconsciously scanning to see if there’s anything that merits our attention. The arousal of intent, the mental embedding of a clear objective, kicks the brain into high gear and causes us to focus our attention, including the full power of the frontal lobes – what we can consider the turbocharger of the brain. With those mental mechanics understood, let’s look at how we might browse a newspaper.

Newspapers, or any traditional information source, look the way they do because over years of trial and error, publishers and advertisers have discovered what it takes to catch a few fleeting seconds of a brain’s attention while it’s idling on autopilot. As we pick up the paper, there is no intent which has aroused the full power of the brain. It’s doing what it should be doing, idling as the eyes scan the headlines, graphics and other information cues, looking for something of interest that merits the brain kicking into a higher degree of engagement. What catches our eye depends totally on what we’re interested in. With no set mental agenda, when we look at a newspaper, a story on major crime, a business report on a company we know, a box score for a team we’re a fan of or an ad for a car we’ve been considering all stand a good chance of dragging our eye balls to them and jolting our brain from it’s semi-slumber. The typical display ad (at least, the effective ones) have been honed by years of experimentation to be very good at this. Their entire purpose is to stop the eyeball just long enough for a fragment of the message to sink into the brain.

The Just In Time Information Economy

Now, let’s look at what’s shifted. Through the ubiquity of information online and the reasonable effectiveness of web search in making that information instantly available, we’ve changed the way we gather information. We’ve moved from a “destination” to a “just in time” information economy. Let me return to our food foraging analogy for just a second to illustrate this.

When you shop for groceries, you probably have a favoured store. You trust this store because they have a good selection, the produce is fresh, the deli counter has your favourite cheese, the prices are reasonable, the location is convenient and the staff is courteous. This store becomes your primary food destination, just as a newspaper could become your primary information destination. For certain items, prices may be a little cheaper elsewhere, the produce might be a little better at an organic whole food store and the deli counter may be amazing at a little store you know across town, but it’s just too much trouble to go to all these destinations. You compromise and stick with your store, giving it your loyalty.

But let’s imagine that you could build a pick up window right into your kitchen. Through this pick up window, you could order any food item and it would instantly be delivered to you from any store in the world, right when you need it. No travel was necessary. The idea of a destination suddenly becomes obsolete. Food comes to you, just in time. What would this do to your foraging strategies? How often would you visit your favourite store? Perhaps there would be occasions when an item from your store was offered by your magic “food window”, and you might order it. You might even feel twinges of old loyalties. But the nature of the relationship has forever changed. You’ve become store “agnostic”. Now all you care about are the food items you order. And your intent has also changed. Previously, you went on a “shopping trip” for an hour to a store to pick up a list full of items. Your intent was focused on the store, not an individual item. But with your magic window, if you’re making a recipe and suddenly find you’re out of shallots, your intent is focused on the item you need, not the store you get it from. All you care about is getting the best shallots at the best price. It’s an important mental shift.

That’s what search has done for information. We care much less about the source of the information and more about the nature of the information itself. Also, we have shifted our intent away from the source of the information and to the quality and relevancy of the information itself. This has a profound effect on the nature of engagement with advertising that may sit alongside that information.

The Alignment of Intent

The Just in Time Information Economy has implanted intent in the minds of online users now, dramatically raising the attention threshold that must be bridged by advertising. Think of our mental process as a train. If the train is idling through a rail yard with no particular destination, it’s not that difficult for a hitchhiker (which is what most advertising is, messages interrupting you just long enough to hop on your brain for the ride) to jump on board. But if the train is going full speed towards a destination, the hitchhiker had better be a very fast runner. The Just In Time information economy has meant that many more visitors to online information sites are speeding express trains with a firm destination in mind, rather than than idling in a rail yard. We visit sites because we’ve come through a search engine looking for specific information. The site that hosts that information is secondary to our intent.

In the past few years we’ve done a number of studies of engagement with advertising that have yielded some surprising findings:

  • When it comes to ad awareness (participants remembering seeing an ad on a site) display and video perform best, search and text ads perform worst.
  • When it comes to brand recall (participants remembering the brand featured in the ad) display and video still perform better than search and text, although the gap is dramatically less.
  • When it comes to click throughs, search performs best, followed by text, display and video
  • When it comes to purchase intent, search and text are substantially better than display and video.

Ads that are relevant to the information they sit beside (as in Google’s AdSense network) also have this strange inverse relationship:

  • For ad awareness, non contextually relevant ads performed better than contextually relevant ones
  • For brand recall, it was close to even, with contextually relevant ads having a slight edge
  • For click throughs, contextually relevant ads blew the doors off non contextually relevant ones
  • For purchase intent, again, contextually relevant ads were the clear winner.

Why Ad Awareness Does Not Equal Ad Effectiveness

This is counter intuitive. If an ad is noticed and recognized as an ad, it should have done it’s job, right? According to the old rules, that’s all we ever asked an ad to do. But somehow it seems the rules have changed. Suddenly, ads that often don’t even seem like ads (after all, they’re just a few lines of text) are drastically outperforming more traditional ads where it counts, motivating a prospect to take action. We’ve tested a number of traditional best practices, including more effective creative, increased exposure both through frequency and more channels and this inverse relationship held: search and text outperformed flashing graphics, blaring video and looping audio. What gives?

The answer is the introduction of intent. By having intent planted in the minds of the prospect, by focusing their attention on an objective, the rules of interaction with ads has suddenly changed. When we have intent, we plant a mental objective which narrows our attention and focuses it only on relevant items that get us closer to the objective. Anything not aligned with that intent suffers from “inattentional blindness”. In eye tracking, we see this often has people scan a page, looking directly at an ad for several seconds yet afterwards swear they didn’t see the ad. The most famous example is the video “Gorillas in our Midst.” The unsuspecting are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed in the video. Once attention is focused, most viewers don’t even notice the man in the gorilla suit walking right through the middle of the teams. If you haven’t seen this, I just spoiled it for you, but you can still try the experiment with your friends.

If a visitor lands on a page with a specific intent, their interactions look much different than those with no intent. They’re laser focused on relevant content. They spend almost no time looking at content that’s not aligned with their intent, including ads. Often, a single glance to identify it as advertising (thus the high ad awareness recall) is the limit of interaction. And the more an ad looks like an ad, the quicker it’s eliminated for consideration. The visitor becomes blind to it.

But if an ad is aligned with intent, it ceases to be an ad. It becomes a relevant information cue, a navigation option, a link laced with information scent. It becomes valuable because it matches our objectives. The user evaluates it along with all the other relevant navigation options on the page. This is exactly what happens with search ads, and the more relevant a text ad on the page, the more likely this is to happen.

Why This Does Not Bode Well for Rupert Murdoch

Murdoch, and for that matter, everyone else who still depends on a revenue from a “Destination” based ad model, will lose in this transition. The ones that will win are those that effectively leverage the alignment of intent and the “Just in Time” Information economy. Tomorrow, I’ll walk through the specifics of why the “Destination” ad model is doomed.

Murdoch and Bing: The Sound of Two Dinosaurs Dancing

This morning in Ad Age:

Why Murdoch Can Afford to Leave Google for Bing

The author, Nat Ives, reasons that Google traffic doesn’t translate into revenue for Murdoch anyway. This is true, but the logical conclusion that you can afford to kiss this traffic goodbye is seriously flawed. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Yesterday in Search Engine Land, Danny offered his thoughts on “The OPEC of News“. He approached it from the flow of information and indexing cycle perspective, and I think he did a good job of hitting the salient points. From the mechanics of the search space, Danny’s right, but what’s more interesting to me is the human behavior that sits behind all this.

The biggest reason why this is a stupid deal is that it’s out of touch with where the market is going. I touched on this in a previous post, but I’ll expand on it this week in a few posts that will tie together Enquiro’s past research and other seminal research :

Today – The Primacy of the Patch – Why Information Foraging is the Key to Behavior

Wednesday – The Mindlessness of Web Search – How We Don’t Think Our Way through Online Interactions

Thursday – Engagement with Online Ads – The Importance of Aligned Intent

Friday – Tying it Together – Why Murdoch and Bing’s Logic is Fatally Flawed

Rupert, meet Reality. Reality, meet Rupert.

rupert_murdoch_tokyoRupert Murdoch’s rantings are so out of touch that they’re bordering on lunacy, or, at a minimum, stupidity. He’s mad that his old revenue model isn’t working anymore. Maybe, Rupert, that’s because we’re in a new era and people have changed their minds. It has nothing to do with search engines being kleptomaniacs. It’s people doing what they do..finding the easiest path to information. This boat has sailed, dear Rupert. You can jump up and down and stamp your feet, but the only people to really get made at are your readers. They’ve found a new way to get information, and unfortunately, it bypasses your monetization model. You are no longer in control.

Murdoch’s answer is to throw a subscription model in on all his publications and stop Google and other engines from indexing it and “stealing” his precious content. Hmm..let’s see now. The entire world navigates through search. Every day, billions of eyeballs go to Google seeking content. You have content. So what do you do? You lock Google out. And you try to lock customers in by hijacking their wallets and leaving them no choice. Let’s recap: Lock the world out and lock your customers in. Isn’t that what East Germany tried to do with the Berlin Wall? Let me know how that works out for you Rupert.

Murdoch’s not alone in this. Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thomson took Google’s Marissa Mayer to task for encouraging digital promiscuity. Apparently, Google has built a virtual “red light district”, threatening the stability of the sacred union of readers and struggling publishers. Again, maybe it’s because the readers aren’t finding what they’re looking for at “home”.

This denial of a dying industry is nothing new. History has repeated itself over and over again in discontinuous shifts in the marketplace. Yet somehow the behavior of the terminal industries never changes. George Bernard Shaw nailed it a century ago:

” If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”

I guess it’s understandable, really. We’re looking at evolution and when the environment shifts, dinosaurs can’t suddenly decide to become gazelles. Somehow, it helps to rant, rave and rail against the unfairness of it all. Oh..and perhaps it’s also beneficial to call the gazelles names like “kleptomaniacs”.


Techdirt has a gritty little post showing all the Murdoch owned sites that “steal” content as an aggregator. So, apparently it’s okay to be parasitic as long as you’re on the right side of the relationship.

A Tale of Two Houses

First published May 21, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I have a difference of opinion with Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore. Actually, it’s not so much a difference as a question of context. He believes there’s room for more visual branding on the search results page. I believe this is a potentially dangerous area that has to be handled very carefully on the part of the engines.

This issue came up during the opening session of day two at the recent Search Insider Summit, when I posed a question  two different ways to the audience. First, I asked them, as marketers,  how many would like to see richer branding opportunities on the results page. Almost every hand went up. Then I asked them the same question, but this time as users. Some hands went down immediately. Many others wavered noticeably, as the paradigm shift exposed underlying hypocrisy. Others remained resolutely high on the idea.

The reason for the mixed reaction was that, for users, the ideal search experience depends on the context of the situation. Visually richer is not always better. There’s some subtle psychology at play here. So let’s explore it in a story.

It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

Imagine we both live on the same street. In fact, we’re next-door neighbors. I travel a lot. I happen to know you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. So begins the story of My House and Your House:

Your House

In this story, the reason I travel a lot is because I’m a commissioned travel agent. I get paid if I book you on a trip somewhere. And you don’t know it, but I get paid a lot more if you go to Disney World. So every morning, I come over to your house and knock on your door wearing my Mickey Mouse ears, carrying in one hand a portable stereo blasting “When You Wish Upon a Star” and in the other a fistful of Disney travel brochures. Each day, I visit with a determination to book you on the next flight to Orlando.  Now, if Disney is in your travel plans, perhaps this isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds. But if two weeks in the Magic Kingdom sounds as appealing as the Bataan Death March, my neighborly welcome will wear a little thin. Sure, I got your attention, but you also listed your house for sale shortly after my visit.

My House

Now forget all of the above. This time, I travel a lot because I’m worldly, adventurous and wise. I’m also wonderfully informative. Over the backyard fence, you mentioned that you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. In neighborly fashion, I invited you over for a coffee and to ask me any questions about past trips I’ve taken, in case any of my previous destinations might be appealing. You take me up on the offer and ring my doorbell. We sit down and I ask, “So, any particular areas you’re thinking of visiting?”

“Hmmm, I’ve always dreamed of the Mediterranean. Perhaps the French or Italian Riviera?”

“Cinque Terra is wonderful, so is Nice, Cannes and Monaco, but don’t rule out Spain or Portugal. I’ve been to them all.”

A House Divided…

Think of your reaction, first in your house, then in mine. As you no doubt realized, your house represents typical advertising; my house is search.

And the context is different in subtle but important ways. That’s why it becomes dangerous when we start trying to combine the two. In my house, you’re engaged and curious. You’ll ask me what I love about Portugal, or why I didn’t recommend Cannes more enthusiastically.  And you’ll trust me more if you know you’re getting my objective opinion. After I know a little about your preferred destinations, you might be interested if I introduce you to my friend, the travel agent.  You would even find that helpful. You’re open to a sponsored message, as long as it’s relevant to your interests and fits into the rules of the overall experience.

All this gets to the context of my difference of opinion with Gian. Visual richness is appropriate if it’s relevant and welcome. It’s annoying if it’s intrusive. And that line would be in the control of the engines and the advertisers.

If I come to your house uninvited, my job is to convince you to open the door. But if you come to my house, my job is to inform and help. You came through the door on your own. The house we live in is a great place, but there are rules we have to live by. Otherwise, no one will come to visit us.

Live from Captiva: The Digital Divide

First published May 7, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Gian Fulgoni has a better view of the online landscape than most of us. As the chairman of comScore, he has access to a massive database that captures every click of online activity from over 2,000,000 panel members. So when it comes to spotting trends, Gian’s got a pretty good vantage point.

Online Branding for CPG

As you’re reading this, Gian’s probably giving the opening keynote at the Search Insider Summit  on Captiva Island in Florida. I’m not sure what Gian will be covering, but he did share a few slides with me and I’m sure they’ll make their way into his keynote.  They’re the results of a study that showed the relative effectiveness of online and television advertising in driving purchases of consumer packaged goods ranging from cookie mixes and pizza to toothpaste and deodorant.

Eighty-two percent of the online campaigns showed positive sales or unit lift, with an average lift of 18%. Further, short-term online campaigns matched the effective lift of long-term TV campaigns (9% lift with online, 8% with TV).

Consumers Don’t Differentiate, So Why Do Marketers?

What is interesting about the study to me is the artificial line we still tend to draw between online and offline marketing.  And when I say “we,”  I mean “we” the marketers, not “we” the people. The chasm between online and offline is slightly narrower than it was before, but I find true integrated marketing only exists in the sales hyperbole of agencies, with little evidence of it in the real world.  With the advertisers I’m familiar with, the online marketing department barely talks with the offline Marcom folks, let alone sits down with them to plan out an integrated strategy.

Consumers don’t do this. If a consumer is considering a purchase, she pursues the most effective means necessary to research the purchase. Offline awareness leads to online consideration. Online consideration leads to offline visits to a retail location. Offline visits can lead to online price checking. We as consumers jump back and forth across the digital divide with ease, yet for marketers, the chasm seems unbridgeable. Why is this?

Part of it is attitude. Traditional marketers ignored online until it was too late. Their tardiness left us digital folks free reign to set up shop, thinking it would be, at best, an incremental channel that would never threaten the main event. But now, just a few short years later, you’ve got studies like Gian’s coming out saying that online might just be as effective as TV in driving sales of potato chips and pop. Hard to fathom, but true.

Branding: One Search at a Time

Even more startling, lowly search seems to have some brand-building chops of its own, at least when measured at one critical consumer intersection, active consideration of a purchase. My company has done a number of studies for Google, in seven different product categories and markets from Australia to North America showing the brand lift of search. Guess what? Lowly search, described by some as the ValPak of online, consistently delivered brand lift numbers averaging in the double digits. And that was before consumers even got to where the real brand building happens, the manufacturer’s Web site. Just a search ad alone lifted brand awareness, brand affinity and likelihood to purchase. Not bad for a handful of words showing up somewhere on a results page.

I have no idea what the “buzz” of Captiva will be, but I suspect we’ll spend at least some time talking about this ridiculous divorce between online and offline. Ironically, it seems like the recession is finally bringing the two sides a little closer together. I don’t understand why we marketers are taking so long to get it. Buyers seemed to figure it out a long time ago.

Google: Bad Behavior?

It seems that every time I’m getting ready to go on a family holiday, Google decides to up the game with personalization. Two years ago on the cusp of a spring getaway they announced default opt ins for search and web history. This time, they’re siddling up to behavioral targeting, courtesy of that same personal information. In the process, they’ve recanted much of what they’ve said about behavioral targeting over the past 2 years. I have always said that of course Google was going to go down the behavioral targeting road. Why else would they be collecting the data? The official line of making your search experience better didn’t hold much water.

I’m torn on the whole question of behavioral targeting. As a marketer, I appreciate the potential. BT was the tactic that marketers were most interested in according to the latest SEMPO Search Market Survey. But as a user, I’m profoundly disappointed in Google’s tip toeing around the issue. I think it shows a more fundamental issue at the heart of Google’s culture, which has been rearing it’s head more often as of late.

The disastrous economy has created a split personality within Google.It seems that Google, once the brash, idealistic young university student out to change the world is now being severely schooled in the more pragmatic ways of that world. Google is growing up, and I’m not sure we’ll like what it turns into. It’s double talking, pulling the bait and switch, sacrificing ideals for cash and sometimes outright lying. In short, it’s becoming just like every other company in the world. The company John Battelle wrote about in The Search is rapidly disappearing. In it’s place is an online juggernaut that seems intent on keeping advertisers happy. The one thing that always set Google apart was it’s respect for the user. If you read the official Google press release on this, the carrot for the user is more relevant ads. Okay,that’s a stretch of epic proportions. You’re tracking everything I do, based on a promise to make my search experience more useful. You know what? My search experience hasn’t changed too much in the last 2 years. I haven’t noticed a huge increase in relevancy. But now you’re using the information I volunteered, giving it to marketers so they can serve me more ads? That wasn’t part of the original bargain Google. You violated my trust. And you did it to keep more revenue rolling in.

Behavioral targeting of ads was inevitable. Everyone knew Google was going there. So why were they so righteous (and so dismissive of other BT providers) in saying that it just wasn’t a targeting approach they were going to take? Not cool, Google, not cool.

No Search is an Island

First published February 12, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Today I am plagued by ambiguity. I’m happy and scared. Relieved and cautious. Excited and apprehensive. And it all has to do with search and how we use it. On one hand, I’m relieved that search seems to be the sole marketing channel that’s actually benefiting from the crushing economic pressure. On the other hand, I’m worried that we may be short-sighted in grabbing onto search as a life preserver in raging marketing waters.

Search: The Connector

My ambiguity comes from the unique nature of search. We consider search a marketing channel, and in recent times we’re treating it as such. But it’s not. Search is glue. Search is intent expressed. Search is a mirror of our dreams, objectives and fears. To treat search as a channel divorces it from its real role as an integral connector. And, as such, search is inextricable from not just the online world, but the offline one as well. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, it shows up in the search trends.

And therein lies the source of my internal turmoil. If you look at search as a marketing channel, the current move by advertisers down the funnel, driving towards more and more accountable advertising, is predictable and a good thing. Search is certainly effective and measurable. But if we look at search as the connecter between demand and fulfillment, there’s an inherent problem looming. As budgets dry up in creating awareness and eventually demand, search inventories will ultimately dry up as well.

Obsessive Optimization

I’ve talked to a few search marketers here at SMX West who are saying their clients are pushing them to drop generic terms and stick to branded ones because they convert better. Even as effective as search is, we can’t resist trying to pump conversion numbers even higher.

If advertisers are this obsessive about cutting all the fat from their marketing, it seems they’ve backed themselves to the very brink of a dangerous precipice. One more step and they’ll have reduced their marketing efforts to managing a paid search campaign for “I want to buy an Acme Widget online today and I have my credit card out.”

Everyone is focused on the thinnest possible slice at the bottom of the funnel, without worrying about priming the pump at the top. While it may bolster search revenues in the short term as budgets migrate in from all other channels, in the long term this shortsightedness will prove disastrous.

I believe there is a tremendous amount of optimization that has to happen across all marketing channels. I’m not saying that all budgets should stay put where they are. But I do worry about an obsessive focus on capturing late-stage demand, even if it is through search.

You have to develop your market and create awareness. Search doesn’t work if nothing is creating awareness. Those branded queries won’t suddenly materialize out of the ether. Marketers seem inclined to take huge pendulum swings in their approach, one minute tossing branding money around by the bucketful, and the next clamping down on anything that isn’t a sure conversion. There has to be a happy medium.

For Every Action…

Search is the last half of a cause-and-effect chain. If you just focus on the effect, sooner or later the cause will cease to exist. As search marketers, much as we gleefully accept the new budget flowing in from other channels, we have to understand the inherent integrated nature of search. If we accept the windfall in the short term, we’ll end up paying in the long term.

I’m personally thankful that search is the boat I’ve chosen to ride out this particular economic storm. There’s no place I’d rather be. But I think it’s naïve to ignore the macro effects that will impact search behavior. As I said before, whatever happens, wherever it happens, whenever it happens, it will be reflected in search. And as all other marketing channels begin to run dry because of budgeting cutbacks, that too will show in search trends.