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December 21, 2009
Advertising After The Real Digital Revolution
I’ve written quite a bit about the effects of The Real Digital Revolution, that transition of the consumer decision cycle from Ad -> Purchase into Ad -> Google -> Purchase and how it permanently altered the role of advertising in our society. But that doesn’t mean advertising is going away. Just that it promises to look and feel very different.
What Advertising Cannot Do
Advertising can no longer clever language and use flashy imagery to mask a poorly designed product or service. That’s because at its core, Web 2.0/Social Media/Conversational Media (your choice) are word-of-mouth recommendations that have been transcribed and made searchable. The result is that all of a products faults are instantly visible to anyone with an internet connection and the ability to use Google.
This hasn’t always been the case, and so in the past, many conversations between ad agencies and their clients, when stripped down to their true meaning, went something like this: “Use your magic advertising words to make people forget that our product stinks. That’s what we pay you for.”
But that paradigm, still in play at far too many clients and ad agencies, ignores the fact that success at any word-of-mouth/web 2.0 type endeavor is defined by one single factor: make something people genuinely like. “Magic advertising words” no longer have any power in a world where everything can and will be fact-checked.
What Advertising Can Do
Advertising still plays a major role when there are several similarly acceptable options in a category. Let’s look at a situation where there are two minivans of more or less equal price. Both perform well in government crash tests, both are deemed fairly stylish (for minivans) and both have their share of loyal fans. This is where advertising can make a real difference, by creating a memorable brand image. It’s going to have to be a broader swath than what we’re used to carving out: the cool one, the safe one, the fun one—but we need to take into account how little consumers care to hear from advertisers about me-too specifics and copy points they can research and learn about themselves.
Here, as always, the end product needs to match what’s being promised: no pushing Twinkies as a healthy alternative to candy bars.
What Advertising Needs To Do
Offline advertising still tries to pretend the internet doesn’t exist. Sure, ads will throw a url down at the bottom of the page and TV commercials will throw one up next to the logo. But that’s about as far as they go. TV spots devoted to exclusively touting a new website or new functionality are few and far between; those referring to something other than a promotions-based microsite, even further.
But advertising needs to acknowledge that people don’t see the internet as monolithically as the industry does. They see the web as a multi-purpose tool-- everything from a virtual Yellow Pages to a virtual newspaper to a stand-in for television. These behaviors may take place on the same computer screen, but they have different drivers, motivators, time frames and degrees of openness to marketing messages.
It’s not about “storytelling”— that overused buzzword for multiple touchpoints-- it’s about acknowledging how the internet has become the default venue for so much of our day-to-day activity and figuring out ways to make advertising reflect that reality. Even something as banal as recognizing the fact that I was likely going to check out online reviews before purchasing the product would be a start.
Creating the emotional connections effective brand advertising requires will not be easy at a time when word of mouth is king and the ability to fact check ads gives consumers the upper hand. Much of the effort will have to come from brands themselves by creating a truly customer-centric culture and through engaging customers directly online via blog comments, Twitter and the like.
Ad agencies can and will play a role in the future by creating the image a brand can own. How they accomplish that is something for the next generation of ad people to explore.

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Alan Wolk, one of the most distinctive voices to come out of the creative side of the ad business, has staked out a unique space for himself and his Toad Stool consultancy. The wide-ranging appeal of Wolk’s common-sense approach to strategy, as exemplified by his “Your Brand Is Not My Friend” series, has made him a go-to guy for social media thought leadership, speaking and consulting.
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