We’ve weaned ourselves off banner advertisements, with a fifth of us using ad blockers in our internet browsers, according to research firm eMarketer. So-called “native advertising” online, where advertising is presented in a similar way to editorial, has failed to take off. A US study last year from Stanford University found native advertising is no better at getting us to buy than standard online ads.
“Consumers are very good at filtering out messages,” explains Lisa Du-Lieu, a senior lecturer in marketing at Huddersfield University. “If you don’t get their attention within the first couple of seconds, it just bounces off them.”
For that reason, brands are shifting their attention to platforms and formats that they know we are engaged with. “Advertising goes where the eyeballs go,” says James Whatley, an independent advertising expert, formerly of global advertising agency Ogilvy.
However, a large part of the user appeal of some of these platforms, such as WhatsApp or Alexa, is that they are currently ad-free. So ads encroaching on hitherto virgin territory could raise some hackles. Nevertheless, you can expect ads in places you might not have expected before. Batten down the hatches and prepare yourself for the advertising onslaught.
1 Alexa, serve me an ad?
Ogilvy’s 2019 trends report revealed how smart speakers will soon be the latest platform for their dark arts.
While such smart speakers have all kinds of bells and whistles, many of us use them as little more than glorified digital radios. “Localised advertising can be sent to that,” explains Whatley. “It isn’t an exciting thing, but for an advertiser it becomes attractive because you can do personalised, locally relevant advertising through what is a forgotten channel.”
By cross-checking your IP address, search history made through the device and its location, advertisers could soon send you hyper-localised advertisements interspersed in your ordinary digital radio content. Has your local Tesco ordered too many boxes of biscuits? Enjoy flash sales that will save you money as you listen along to the latest chart music.
Irritation factor: Huge! Cheesy local radio-style ads served up by Amazon.
2 Sponsored photo filters
This method of advertising is already encroaching on our screen time, with brands partnering with Snapchat to create custom branded lenses (augmented reality widgets that can transform you into a dog with a giant, unfurling lapping tongue, for instance) for the best part of a year. But 2019 will see it take off, according to experts.
It also enables brands to advertise directly to a hard-to-reach and pernickety demographic. “Millennials like things that are quirky,” says Du-Lieu. “Snapchat filters are just a way of pushing out the message and creating what’s called PBA: positive brand associations.” It’s also (comparatively) cheap: placing a custom branded lens available for anyone using Snapchat in London’s Hyde Park over the course of a day costs just under £850. If you’re Wall’s wanting to drive Calippo envy on a particularly hot day, such a small, localised outlay might make fiscal sense.
Such methods of advertising take advantage of the social element of social networks. By sharing our augmented ad with your friends, you’re unwittingly doing the work for the brand. “When users connect with a product on a cognitive and affective level, by thinking and feeling,” says Du-Lieu, “they push it out to their networks.” In other words: if you want something to go viral, make it fun.
Irritation factor: Minor, especially if we get to look like a cool dinosaur.
3 Stealth ads
Nudging users to pick their product over another, often in a subconscious way, is becoming the predominant way of an advertiser getting its message out there. Jay Owens of Pulsar, an “audience intelligence and social listening platform”, describes this as “shaping the decision architectures and choice offered to people”.
Amazon, as one of the major conduits through which we spend vast amounts of money, is leading the way in this semi-stealthy sponsored advertising. Analysts Piper Jaffray estimate that Amazon’s advertising business could surpass its mammoth web-hosting business by 2021 – in part thanks to what the advertising industry would call “sponsored skills” and “branded solutions” but users might describe as “sneaky”.
It could be as simple as suggesting a branded product when you ask Alexa how to get rid of that stain on your shirt, or slipping a particular brand into your Amazon shopping basket when you ask Alexa to order you new washing-up liquid.
Sounds like a dystopian future? It’s already here. Amazon has been rapped on the knuckles for stealthily plugging products by putting sponsored listings in among actual curated listings and making the text so tiny that you don’t notice.
Irritation factor: Massive. Like your toddler sneaking stuff into the shopping trolley.
4 In-Story ads
While you’re swiping through the blurry snapshots and video your friends took of their late-night party and posted to their Instagram or Snapchat Story, gird yourself to see some advertising.
The Story (a short video, customised with type, emojis and filter effects) has become one of the main methods of communication for many of us on social media, with almost every platform from Instagram to Snapchat and even YouTube adopting the format. In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg said 40% of Instagram users’ time was spent in Stories, and that on current usage patterns people would spend more time in Stories than on the main feed in Instagram during the first quarter of 2019. “As a result, Facebook is saying: ‘Let’s make sure we have lots of ad units to give advertisers to get the eyeballs that have moved,” says Whatley.
While users tend to put more rough-and-ready content in their Stories, brands are thinking carefully about their Stories content, taking advantage of the full-screen takeover. Such ads allow marketers to avoid a downside of publicly posting content on a Facebook wall or Instagram feed: any negative comments go straight to the brand’s direct messaging inbox rather than being seen by everyone.
That openness to slipping adising into Stories was considered one reason why Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger handed in their P45s to Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook board in September 2018.
Irritation factor: Potentially large, especially if you’re quietly catching up on friends’ stories in bed and are suddenly confronted by a bright, blaring ad for car insurance.
5 Sponsored WhatsApp
While the Story has become the popular broadcast method that social networks seem to be backing, the reality is that there’s an even bigger juggernaut that most users probably don’t expect to be so popular.
WhatsApp claim their status update is used by 450 million users daily – more than Instagram Stories, and about as many people as use Facebook and Facebook Messenger Stories and Snapchat’s entire app combined.
WhatsApp’s co-founder Jan Koum left the company, which is owned by Facebook, in April last year partly over arguments around advertising on the platform. Such a decision to integrate WhatsApp – which attracted users because of its strong encryption and detachment from the Facebook brand – more closely into the Zuckerberg-run family of products while adding on ads, could backfire. Users could follow in Koum’s footsteps.
All these social networks sitting under the single umbrella of Facebook open up potential opportunities for advertisers that Whatley believes will shortly be unlocked. “I fully expect advertisers will be able to hit a button and the same ad will appear on Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, Messenger Stories and WhatsApp status in the blink of an eye,” says Whatley. Whether users will also be excited by this innovation is moot.
Irritation factor: Expect a chat group about joining rival ad-free service Signal.
6 Ads that talk back to you
Google’s latest product for advertisers, called AdLingo, combines a chatbot with a standard clickable ad – or what the firm calls “real-time connections with your conversational assistant”.
The ad-cum-chatbot can engage you in conversation, and ask you specific questions based on what it’s trying to tell you. If it’s embedded within a display ad for a car company, for instance, it could ask whether you use it for commuting, cross-country travel, or the odd doctor’s appointment, then recommend a specific type of vehicle based on your requirements. If you were happy with the chatbot salesperson advice, you could then complete the purchase within the ad without ever leaving the page you’re on (ie not visiting the brand’s page or online store).
Whether the technology will transform the way we’re marketed to depends on its implementation, believes Jay Owens. “The ability to chat to a real-time human being who could answer your questions about sizing or whatever is actually useful,” she says. “Bots giving one of a short list of five generic factoids, I’m less convinced.”
Irritation factor: Large, especially if the AI level of advertising bots is of a similar level to customer support droids.