Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When is Advertising Not Spam

Please step in and disagree with me. But personally I am really starting to feel an emotion when I see advertising that I feel when I see SPAM in my email inbox which is to say -- anger, frustration, and in some cases a sense of befuddlement... why is that brand wasting their money cluttering up my media experience? So I have been trying very hard to come up with a model that explains when advertising "works" and when it doesn't.

In the broadest sense, SPAM email messages are:
unwanted messages from unknown senders
which can also be a good description for advertising. Most of the time advertisements are by definition unwanted -- they are clutter or they are blockades between me and what I want to see or do -- whether in my real (magazine, TV) or virtual (web) environment.

But there are certain circumstances in which an advertiser can overcome either the "unwanted" aspect of their message or the "unknown" aspect of themselves as a sender. Here are some of the ways an advertiser can overcome the "unwanted" message problem:

  • INFORMATIONAL - provide (or link to) valuable information -- I may not have realized I wanted the information, but having it makes me feel better.

  • ENTERTAINING - make me laugh, or at least smile, or have a sense of wonder -- I'll likely forgive the intrusion

  • CONTEXTUAL - get the context and timing right -- such as an ad in search results -- you guess correctly that I am actually seeking the information

The unknown sender problem is a bit more complex and an understanding of this challenge can emerge from again comparing with email. Think about emails you receive from people and how you would evaluate their appropriateness based on the content of the email and the relationship you have to the person sending the message. Messages might be more beneficial (a party invite) or more costly (a solicitation for money, a request for an introduction) and you will evaluate these in the context of the social strength of the relationship. A message from a "best friend" might always be welcome, even if it contains a quite costly request. Whereas the most beneficial message from a stranger would likely be unwelcome (if not also distrusted).

The same calculation is true of brands -- you might know of a brand, like McDonald's, but hold it in low regard. Thus as solicitation to purchase cheap burgers might seem very unwelcome. But if you really enjoyed eating at McDonald's the same solicitation would perhaps be quite welcome.

An interesting option is presented by Retargeter to which I was recently introduced by Auren Hoffman of Rapleaf (more on Auren's really interesting business in a later post). Mechanically what Retargeter does is tag a visitor to your website so that later on, when that visitor is on a page with advertising on which Retargeter has bought the ad space, an ad for your company can be shown to that visitor. In this way you are showing an ad specifically to people who (by visiting your site) have expressed an interest in your company.

This can of course be taken to an extreme and I have not yet connected to Retargeter to ask how a company can limit the number of ads shown to any one person or the length of time after a site visit during which an ad might be shown. But by showing ads to a person who has proactively visited your site, you are almost certainly connecting in the short run with someone who has a strong interest in your brand.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Shouldn't a company spend money to raise awareness with people who DON'T know the company? Why spend money advertising to someone who has already visited your site? Actually for many kinds of businesses a company needs to build up awareness and be top of mind to ultimately lead a customer from an expression of interest to a purchase decision. Advertising to people who already have some awareness of your business can remind them of an option under consideration and thus shorten a sales cycle or raise your brand over a competitor.

I am very interested to hear of other examples of advertising that is not spam. My inclination right now is to strongly recommend against spending money on advertising and instead for companies to focus on creating meaningful connections with their markets. But I also accept that there are circumstances in which advertising "works." Defining those circumstances will become an important tool for companies to understand how to allocate marketing dollars between this one-way messaging and the more labor intensive (though usually more rewarding) two-way communication.


jonwreed said...

Ted, great stuff.

I'm not as militant about spam because my junk mail filters are working for me and I'm not a BlackBerry email person that would get upset about every email ping that wasn't legit.

Having said that, I agree with your definition of spam. I would add one for myself, which is: I don't consider it spam if I receive something that pertains to my field. For example, I'm in the field of SAP for most of my consulting. Therefore, if I receive an email of a product or service targeted towards SAP users, I don't consider that spam, as long as there is a clear way to opt out.

For me, the fact that someone took the time to segment a targeted message to me takes the edge off.

What really bothers me are the "phishing" type mass emails that hope I'm part of a fraction of people that are interested in erectile function pills or what have you. Targeted emails based on my industry commitments don't bother me and rarely come off as spammy to me, even if the information in the emails is not A+.

Just my two cents or so.

Jim Hirshfield said...

Reminds me of the strange phenom around the Super Bowl. Folks tune in (raptuously) to these commercials despite (in some cases) not being familiar with the advertiser. This hits on your "entertainment" use case.

I'm also reminded of the importance of relationship when I read this post. Just like it isn't spam if I have a relationship with the sender, I'm more receptive to advertising when I have a relationship with the advertiser. But just like friendship, that doesn't mean I want all my college buddies showing up unannounced at my house at dinner time.