Ally Stuart, managing director, EMEA at Sharethrough, offers advice for rebuilding consumer trust in an evolving digital landscape.
We walk around with an ocean of information at our fingertips, but for how transformative the internet has been, the core value exchange that underpins it is eroding. For free content to continue, brands need to see a return on their ad investment. Publishers need to make enough money to continue investing in producing meaningful content. And people need to feel the user experience and content they get is worth returning and seeking out more without installing an ad blocker.
This system is ultimately built on a foundation of trust. When trust is lost, the system fails. Ad fraud makes brands lose trust in their investment and lowers publishers’ yield and revenue. When publishers see lower yield, they have to pump more ads onto each page to survive. This makes the user experience worse, meaning trust is lost in the publisher and their content.
Brands fight for attention, publishers fight to keep the lights on, and consumers just want to be left alone. This is not sustainable. To rebuild trust, the industry – and especially advertisers -- need to take the following three steps.
1. Ads should fit in
It started as a joke suggestion in our office, but we thought the point behind it had massive implications. So we surveyed 350 millennials to see whether they would rather lose their phone forever, meaning they couldn’t ever get another, or their pinky finger.
A staggering 46 per cent of millennials would choose to lose a finger rather than lose the phone from their pocket forever. A phone is as essential now as a core limb. This says something about our changing relationship with media. The phone has become an extension of ourselves.
So how does this relate to advertising? Intimate technologies lead to people rejecting interruptive, foreign objects in favour of things that fit in. Modern media companies such as Twitter or Facebook would never consider putting a banner ad or interstitial in their platform. That’s an outdated monetization solution.
On mobile, interruptive ads are not just bad ads – they make people lose trust in the brands and publishers that run them. This ultimately makes them question the value exchange of the ad-funded internet at large. This is one reason why native advertising has grown so significantly over the past few years.
2. Respect People’s Data
Digital advertising and programmatic advertising brought about the opportunity to understand more about each reader, and the potential to tailor the advertising experience on an individual level.
From an ad tech perspective, narrow audience targeting is brilliant, first-party cookies are great, and knowing everyone’s location all the time is useful for proving footfall attribution. But users generally aren’t so keen on this. Research shows the majority of people in the UK don’t want to be tracked, most of them find personalized ads creepy, and almost everyone wants more control over how brands use their data.
Personalized advertising still has a place, but only if it is done transparently. According to a recent YouGov survey, about a third of the digital population doesn’t have an issue with personalized ads. They appreciate the value exchange and want their ads to be relevant. Of that section, there is a smaller segment of people who are open to opting in to personalized advertising, if it is done transparently.
So, what is the strategy for everyone else? Employing a cookie-based targeting strategy simply isn’t enough any more. Targeting only with cookies in the current world of GDPR, ad blocking and mobile cookie blocking means subtracting almost everyone on iOS, people who block ads and Android impressions with unmatched cookies. That leaves some android users, desktop holdouts and people who can’t work ad blockers.
In this world, content-driven publishers will thrive. Outlets as wide ranging as The Financial Times, CNN, Vogue and Autotrader have curated audiences. With or without cookies, advertisers know who those audiences are, and can use additional targeting signals like context to drive further relevance and granularity.
3. Stop misinformation
By ignoring which site an ad appears on, advertisers incentivize the propagation of fake news. By investing so much in social platforms, advertisers have lowered the revenue of editorial publishers that fund important, high-quality journalism.
There’s no proof targeting users anywhere they can be found improves performance, In 2017, JP Morgan Chase audited its programmatic investment and found it was running ads on about 400,000 sites. When it whittled that down to 5,000 sites there was no detrimental impact on the scale and performance of their ads.
The 80/20 rule definitely applies for audience targeting on open web. The top 1,000 name brand publishers – News UK, Vice, Guardian, Sky, Disney, MailOnline, CNN – not only have the same reach as the long tail, they also have something else unique: editorial voice, trust, integrity.
A 2017 study by Sharethrough and Qualtrics found premium publishers have something of a halo effect. Respondents consistently trusted premium publishers more than social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This was because they believed in the integrity of the information they got from these editorial sites.
People visiting these sites do so with a different mindset. Social is about scrolling through a feed, while publisher sites are destinations people visit for curated article content, editorial experience and a clear voice.
People want access to media at all times and have strong feelings about how their data is collected and used. And they value the content and editorial voice of premium publishers. Armed with this knowledge, there is a lot the ad industry can do to regain user trust.
Brands must make sure they make respectful ad formats that earn people’s attention and don’t steal it. People don’t always like being targeted as individuals, so they need to test complementary ways of finding an audience. Finally, they can invest more in the editorial web. We have a responsibility as an industry to keep quality journalism alive and editorial publishers provide access to a curated audience.
If the ad industry responds now, then we can maintain the ad-funded model for the foreseeable future.