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Are your adverts adding any value?

It's an ad, Jim, but not as we know it.

First, the “do I really want to read all this” overview:

  • Advertising, as we know it, is about to change dramatically
  • Yes, I’m talking digital, too
  • No, this isn’t about social media
  • I’ve kept buzzwords to a minimum
  • There’s science involved, and some sweeping generalisations
  • You absolutely need to know this stuff is happening
  • I only use the word “mobile” twice, and that was one of them
  • There’s a dodgy reference involving digital dinosaurs
  • There may or may not be a cute kitten involved. (There isn’t)

Other than the obvious business value proposition (or your own perception of your brand’s value to a consumer), what are your adverts actually doing to benefit your customers, or to interest prospective customers enough to convert them into actual customers? Probably not a great deal if you’re honest, right?

Sure, we can argue that a TV commercial announcing a big sale or a special offer could be relevant to a segment of the audience, and may even have a degree of value to some viewers, but is it enough to stop them in their tracks and inspire them to take action? Not likely. Is your advertising investment therefore delivering only a small return? Absolutely. This could be said for most marketing channels, from print and radio, to search, display and social. Even though, as advertisers, we’re now able to get our messages and offerings in front of the right people online through intelligent targeting and smart calls to action, there’s now more noise than ever to cut through, and the cost of doing so will only increase over time. So, even if you have identified your key demographic, determined their behaviour, produced the best creative and copy of your life, developed a killer offer, and managed to get hold of the budget needed to reach enough people to make it all worth the effort, one question still remains: is this message valuable enough to people that they’ll actually do something about it? Is it also valuable enough to inspire people to continue to take action, and share it with their friends? What’s so special and different about your kick-ass offering compared to everything else out there, and why would a person choose to share your message instead of the numerous others they’ve seen that day?

Here’s why this should be setting off alarm bells and making you ask what you can do about it: advertising changed. Did you notice? That’s ok, most people didn’t. Undoubtedly, many businesses are seeing success from high-relevance targeting and refer-a-friend type offers through social and email, but how can you get closer to providing actual value based on what a person wants, as opposed to what you’re trying to make them want? How can you flip this thing on its head to a position where customers and prospects seek you out, rather than waiting for the next offer or campaign? Even better; how can you create a sustained desire for your product or service, without having to scream your slogan or flash your logo every ten minutes? ‘Smart’ this, ‘integrated’ that, one-click purchase the other; is this just more advertising space to stick your logo in? Or is this in fact a Darwinian turning point in marketing, where the cleverest will survive, and the slow moving and self-defeating dinosaurs of digital will become extinct? This is the opportunity to get ahead of the field, and it’s yours for the taking.

What I’m alluding to is this: smart-ads.

By smart ads, I’m referring to what Brian Wong (CEO of Kiip) describes as a shift to “positive intermittent reinforcement to replace reactive marketing and annoying ads for brands to add actual value”. Nicely put, Brian. Brian founded Kiip to allow brands and companies to give real-world rewards for in-game achievements through mobile apps, and the model has advanced to brave new heights from there. If Kiip isn’t yet on your radar, it really should be. It looks to me like we’re finally seeing the beginning of the end for interruptive brand ads. The Kiip team seem to be breaking new ground here, and are looking at things like fuel brand rewards based on location when you’re low on gas. Their model of targeting “moments” is an interesting proposition, and is certainly worth a moment of thought itself. We’re talking behavioural re-targeting here, across thousands of customer touch-points.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the foreseeable future of effective advertising. Although we’ll probably have to stop calling it advertising pretty soon if this evolution is as successful as it looks to become.

In a recent post about purposeful engagement, I mentioned the philosophy of establishing your own story or purpose before launching into any branded activity; a philosophy that can also be applied to delivering continued value instead of fragmented offers. Let’s call it what it is; a form of gamification, but on a much larger scale than previously seen. If you’re not fully up to speed on gamification, but hear it mentioned in death-by-PowerPoint meetings (usually in the wrong context, from my experience), I can highly recommend a look at the work of Dr Michael Wu, Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies. Dr Wu’s well-respected and widely used methods are absolute-best-practice, and have helped deliver success for some of the world’s largest businesses.

To unpack the concept a little, think of it this way: it’s human nature to seek reward for effort, so why fight it when you can own it? When my fitness app tells me I’ve hit a new personal best for my local five kilometer run, and I get a message saying “Well done, champ! Look at you getting all fit and healthy! Here’s a free month on Spotify to keep you pumping those tunes while you pound the pavement”, you’d better believe I’ll either be sticking with Spotify, signing up as a new user, or switching providers if I’m using a different music service. Either way, logging in to check/create an account and redeem the offer certainly helps Spotify’s site traffic numbers. If I check-in at the gym twelve times this month and I get a free massage therapy offer from the spa next door, or a discount is automatically applied to my favourite supermarket’s shopping cart for health food purchases, I’m going to be redeeming it alright, and probably looking at some new health food products as a result. I’m also going to be building loyalty to these brands and business, because they “get me”, right? These tangible, relevant, timely offers, coupled with seamless fulfilment, are a recipe for success. There’s achievement and satisfaction happening on multiple levels here for your customers.

How about my local service station noticing that I actually drive past two other competitor fuel brand’s locations to fill up? There must be a reason for that. I probably do it because I think the fuel is better quality, or because I know they stock my favourite tasty chocolate snack and I can munch away on it in the car on my way home. All this information is readily available to businesses now through data, and if you’re going to give me a few of those delicious treats free, or throw a soft drink my way to accompany my snack from time to time, you’ve kept me as a customer. I’ll probably use your brand in other locations, too, maybe even telling my friends how awesome you are while I’m at it.

To sidestep purely commercial and material reward and value for a moment, there’s also huge potential in this for brands looking to achieve and maintain corporate responsibility objectives, as it can give consumers the choice to buy-in to a business engaged in positive ethical and environmental activity over a competitor that perhaps isn’t doing so great at not destroying the planet. With ever-increasing transparency in the commercial world, more and more businesses need to look at philanthropic strategies. Biz Stone, speaking at SXSW, hit the nail on the head when he asked the audience “if there are two identical sodas, and one supports a good cause, which one do you buy?” It’s obviously not quite as straightforward as that, but you get the picture.

Value doesn’t need to come in the form of a financial saving, or a single instance offering. Both can work, but think about what the real nature of that value is to the people you’re hoping will take action. Above all else, just make sure there is actual value being offered, even if it’s in the form of an exchange. You buy or use my product, here’s what I’ll do for you. The product offering is no longer enough on its own. We’re overloaded with choice and competitive messaging, so think smart, partner with the right brands for mutually beneficial outcomes, and add some validated science into the mix (with maybe a pinch of tech). Above all else, think like a customer; one who’s probably already out there looking for you to go the extra mile for them, and one who will allow you to finally justify all those hours you put in working to gain their loyalty.

In the evolution of ads, natural selection will favour the smart ones. So ask the right questions now, plan for the change, and get ready to be part of a better form of advertising for everyone.
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