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The Allure of Text-Based Advertising

Posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2018 at 2:00 PM

Text-based advertising is nothing new. So why has it suddenly become so popular?

By William Dunkerley

What's new and innovative about text-based advertisements? When you think about it, the answer is nothing. Advertorials have been around for a long time. Along with them, I'm also including in my definition of text-based advertising everything from native advertising to content marketing.

These ad forms represent a genre that resembles or imitates the kind of content found in a traditional magazine, print or online. That traditional format for editorial content has stood the test of time for presenting useful and interesting information to readers.

What's Really New in Advertising?

But if advertising that resembles editorial content is not new, why has it become so newly popular and in demand?

Other trending forms of advertising actually do have something new about them. Take for instance pop-ups, autoplay videos, programmatic ads, search advertising, and even banners. If a generation ago you had asked publishers about these ad forms, they wouldn't have known what you were talking about. These approaches to advertising were spawned by technological advances and trends not even imagined back then.

Unlike the display ads in print magazines of old, there's no solid, reliable body of knowledge about the effectiveness of the new advertising innovations. That's not to say that metrics have not been available.

A Dearth of Reliable Metrics

Click-throughs and conversions are readily tracked. Many advertisers base their decisions on the data produced. But there are lingering questions about the reliability and significance of those metrics.

Click fraud aside, it is important to keep in mind that magazine ads historically have not been focused on simply producing a direct response. Often a consumer's decision to buy what is advertised is not based on a single impulse. Exposure to a company's ads over time can create a readiness to buy that escapes the click-through metric. Indeed, repeat exposure has long been known as an attribute of efficacious advertising.

It is easy to recognize repeat exposure when you are seeing a company's display ad time after time. Typically there are recognizable graphic elements and logos that are visible each time. That's repeat exposure. This advantage is lost, however, when the advertising is disguised to blend in with a publication's editorial content.

Learning from Past Display Ad Failures

So then why all the buzz about text-based advertising now?

Perhaps it has something to do with the limited effectiveness of display advertising in the digital age. It's been no secret that in many ways digital ads haven't met expectations. For example, back in the May 2010 inaugural issue of STRAT we reported:

"Advertising Age for January 27, 2010, ran the headline, 'Why Most Digital Ads Still Fail to Work.' The story goes on to list seven mistakes found in today's digital ads. They include excessive complexity, ambiguity, and meaningless use of techno bells and whistles. A PEW study of online users found that '79 percent say they never or hardly ever click on advertisements.' In February, Bokardo, a social media design blog, published a piece on 'Why Social Ads Don't Work.' The gist of it is summed up in one line that asserts it's 'because people are being social, not searching for something.'"

For a long time the ubiquitous use of banner ads contributed to the failure of digital advertising. They were convenient to code into websites, but they lacked attributes that are known to make ads work. Primarily I'm talking about size.

In the print era it was well known that larger ads outperformed smaller fractionals. Banner ads looked like fractionals and performed accordingly. Now, at last, the advertising community is coming to the realization that banner ads are underperformers.

Newer variants of the plain banners have now come into vogue: pop-ups, autoplay videos, programmatic ads, and search advertising. Therein may lie the clue to the newfound popularity of text-based advertising.

Annoyed Readers Driving Ad Format Changes

You see, many of the new variants have something in common: They annoy readers. If you are reading content, do you really want to be distracted by pop-ups that obscure the text you are reading? Or do you welcome autoplay videos that visually and aurally compete for your attention? And programmatic ads served according to an impersonal algorithm can present you with an array of material far afield from your interests. Who wants that?

The act of annoying consumers is not a great way of trying to sell to them. In fact, consumers have fought back, resulting in the advent of ad blockers. According to EverythingEquation.com:

"Ad blocking is changing the way digital marketers behave. It poses a major challenge. The best way for the industry to tackle the problem is to deliver compelling ad experiences that people don't want to block."

Aha! Isn't that the precipitant for text-based advertising? Isn't it born of the need to evade the dreaded ad blockers?

If that theory is correct, here is the chain of events:

With the disappointing results from banner advertising, the ad community moved flailingly toward more attention-grabbing forms of advertising. But these new formats annoyed readers, who thereupon found ways to block them. Then, to cope with the blocking, the ad community moved to text-based advertising to evade the blockers.

Problem solved? Not really. As mentioned earlier, text-based advertising is not new. Advertorials have been in the industry for decades. According to a 2006 study, "On average, advertorials do not outperform other ads in an issue." What's more, the study found that regular features attract more readership than advertorials, and that advertorials are less likely to be remembered than regular editorial content."

Summing Up the Text-Based Trend

Here's what it adds up to:

1. Native advertising and content marketing seem to have arisen from the floundering performance of various techno-inspired advertising formats that, in the end, annoyed readers. Audiences started applying countermeasures such as ad blockers and avoidance of sites laden with annoying ad gimmicks.

2. Advertiser attempts to get around the countermeasures led to the migration toward various forms of text-based advertising.

3. But little competence has gone into evaluating the effectiveness of the text-based advertising. Most of the reports I've seen compare it to the effectiveness of "display" advertising. But included in what's being called display advertising are ineffectual ad forms including banners, pop-ups, autoplay video, and programmatic ads. That's no kind of evaluation.

So what's a publisher to do? We're faced with advertisers clamoring for ads that imitate editorial. If we try too hard to dissuade them, they'll just go elsewhere with their business. What's needed is a gradual educational process. Media kits and sales presentations should include explanations to help advertisers understand what's at play.

Like the banner ad, text-based advertising will ultimately be discovered to be a suboptimal approach to advertising. Meanwhile, though, we'll have to deal as best we can with what amounts to a fad.

Some may remember the "Dot-com Bubble," a fad of the late '90s. Unbridled enthusiasm for internet commerce led to many indiscriminate investments based on inappropriate expectations that were not justifiable in reality. When the bubble finally burst, many big players either collapsed or went into serious decline.

Also legendary is the hula hoop fad of the late '50s and early '60s. The term "hula hoop" has actually become a metaphor for something that makes a big splash and then fades into obscurity.

Then there was the "pet rock," a 1970s invention of marketer Gary Dahl. It was a smooth rock reportedly taken from the beaches of Rosarito, Mexico. The rock was placed on a bed of straw inside a cardboard pet carrier with air vent holes and all.

Wikipedia says Dahl became a millionaire from the fad. But media reports of his 2015 death claim that he eventually came to regret his oft-ridiculed brainchild.

I wonder if the inventors of the problematic present-day ad formats will eventually experience similar twinges of conscience!

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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