Hyperlink: Advertising on the Information Highway

[Originally published in Venture by Roba Al-Assi, March 2009]

“Getting married?”, asks the small ad on my Facebook profile page, rather rudely. A posh, artfully photographed black car is smiling at me from the billboard across the street. Meanwhile, my television set is trying to convince me to spend “ONLY 1JD” to enter the draw for a million dollars.

Advertising is omnipresent. Unavoidable. Often annoying. Yet most of the time, it’s easy to tune off— we have had decades of practice. Our ability to effortlessly anticipate where ads will be makes it much easier to avoid noticing them.

On the Web in particular, anticipating the placement of advertising is almost second nature for the average user. Controlled by available technology as well as Web norms, a website’s grid and subsequent object placement is easy to predict. Users know that advertising spots are probably going to come in the sidebar or the header. This anticipation “plague” (at least for marketers) has a term: banner blindness. It has been proven time and time again that users almost never look at anything that looks like a banner, regardless of whether or not it’s an ad.

With the Internet continuously becoming a more important advertising platform, content producers and advertising networks are sweating away as they try to devise online advertising solutions that are both smarter and harder to tune out. Smartphones mean that the Internet is accessible at any time and any place, when TV and print media are not. Users are beginning to spend more leisure time online, chatting to their friends on Facebook, watching movies on YouTube, and reading articles on blogs. Yup, the Internet is where the advertising money should be.

One of the early solutions that revolutionized the field was contextual advertising. Using an automated algorithm, ads (often text-based) are placed depending on keywords that the user is currently viewing on a website, thus returning relevant results.

While Google Adsense has almost perfected contextual advertising on traditional content sites, it does not work as well with the human and interactive Web. Marketers are now resorting to “Sponsored Conversation”, which is more like a celebrity endorsement, except that it is bloggers, people with popular Twitter accounts, or YouTube stars who are getting paid to post about a particular product. It works well. For one thing, it’s not as easy to tune out as a banner, especially since the reader sometimes has no idea it’s an ad at all. Potential customers are also more likely to trust the endorsement of a friend over that of a distant celebrity.

But that’s just talking about traditional content, if 140-character tweets can be considered so. Quick advancements in technology mean that we’re wondering what advertising online has in store for us before the gurus make any announcements. In January, Google was granted a patent that suggests that they will start selling updated ad spots on Google StreetView, with an example of updating movie theatre marquees and store windows. Even better, augmented reality is taking off, and the potential is ridiculously exciting. Imagine a world where online geo-tags, user information and reviews are linked with a cellphone’s GPS system. Instant information about everything a user is seeing! Shops will be able to lure potential customers while they’re right on their doorstep with mobile augmented reality applications.

Advertising is finally moving beyond eye-candy and catchy phrases. It is becoming a unique cross between entertainment and information, trying to create buzz rather to get clicks. My current favorite example is gimmicky, yet so entertaining, effective, and futuristic that it is just the perfect conclusion. Try googling “Toyota IQ augmented reality”.

That’s where the future lies.

More Hyperlink articles:
It’s Time to Learn How to Surf
It’s Real Time
Start a Blog is NOT a Social Media Strategy