Essay taken from Extract taken from Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future
Advertising has long been a contract. If you want the “good stuff” – Skins, GQ, Star Wars – it must be funded by the “bad stuff” – interruptions by freakishly happy, shouting people, spam and pre-rolls, and so on. But “good stuff” can be funded by more “good stuff,” like Lady Gaga in Diet Coke curlers, Gmail, and Nike+. It just takes a little more effort. Online advertising has helped make this happen and helped make advertising as a whole better. Here is a timeline of its development:
In 1995, I was twenty-two and Google was – negative three. I was using Photoshop 3, was two years away from my first dial-up connection, and didn’t have a mobile – because mobiles were attached to cars.
But these were busy years for the internet. They gave us the first browsers, the first email spam – by a law firm – and the first banner ad, which ran on the companion website for a technology magazine. It was a small leap from selling ink on magazine pages to pixels on magazine websites.
The year 1995 also saw the launch of Amazon, eBay, and easyJet, plus the first dating site in Match.com and the first social network in Classmates. It’s surprising to see the entrepreneurial and social foundations that would totally revolutionise advertising start so early.
Big business, these banner ads. They popped up over the “good stuff,” and when blocked, popped under them. Sneaky. They came with their own language – impressions (amount of times an ad is shown), cost per mille (CPM), click-through rate (CTR) – and a staggering awful “success” CTR of 0.2 per cent.
By 2000 Google, now two years old, launched AdWords and, effectively, search engine marketing (SEM). Adwords watched what was being searched and answered with contextual adverts on the fly, thereby ensuring a more appropriate ad message based on user need. Clever – and very sneaky. This use of context is one of the most powerful additions to today’s advertising.
However, to adland the concept was nerdy and unsophisticated, lacking the reach, gloss, and narrative of a broadcast model. Fair enough. The technology was still very new, and the thought of crashing your beautiful big idea into a 468 by 60 pixel, 12 KB flashing GIF simply wasn’t very attractive in any sense of the word.
Instead online advertising caught the imagination of the Entrepreneur, the Geek, and the Youth – and in the best case, all three in one person. It was full of opportunity and experiment. By 2000 we had blogging, Napster, and Hot or Not. The internet began showing us it had an opinion, an attitude, and a sense of humour. Welcome to the Dot-Com Boom, grand ambition, and even grander website build. We all had a Hotmail account. Facebook was still four years away. There was no iPod.
Welcome to the Dot-Com Bust. The internet moves fast. It simply wasn’t ready for such aggressive growth the first time around. Wikipedia, just born in our timeline, now tells me that the crash wiped out $5 trillion in market value of technology companies. However, this founding and spectacular failure did set the tone of the internet as a place of experimentation, possibility, and risk. Exciting. It also built the platform for tools and services, which were other powerful additions to today’s advertising. Meanwhile, online advertising doggedly cranked out the banners and probably invented the multiple-purpose unit (MPU).
Whilst the deep values of online society, sneaky intelligence (context), and service were being set, the internet rebooted. Tech advancement again led the way as infrastructure and rapid hardware/software advancements allowed online advertising to break out of its box. With the continued screwing of the established music industry via Last.fm and MySpace, alongside the first viral film of a chubby kid accidentally caught on camera wielding a broom handle/light saber (estimated views to date: over 1 billion), and the opportunity to escape to a Second Life involving clumsily bumping into things in bad animation, it all started to look like an interesting place.
The small company I joined around 2003 had an innovative microsite where users could leave video messages. It was full of short films of Japanese businessmen in meetings waving their hands – and weirdos waving their cocks. Not at the same time. YouTube was two years away, and don’t even mention Chatroulette.
Microsites were rich and agile and for the first time supported a very high level of finish and interaction. Often they were the first collaborative effort between ad creatives, designers, and the new blended discipline of creative technologist. For brands it stretched the places where they could live and influence. For people (when they could find them – search engine optimisation [SEO] wasn’t all that popular yet), microsites were deeply engaging and interactive experiences that were beginning to match the storytelling power and aesthetic of TV.
Video was a paradigm shift. The internet pipes were getting fat enough to shove film data down, and the “viral” phenomenon had begun, nicely demonstrated by our chubby Darth Maul earlier. Around this time I made my first interactive film, shot and directed in the basement of our agency. We created a site for the BBC that allowed the user to virtually feed a cocktail of drugs to a gurning, dancing clubber to teach and show – not patronise – teenagers about drug abuse. The interactivity was a new way to engage with this kind of message, the medium was the perfect way to target teens, and the execution was surprising, cool, and modern enough to share with friends.
In 2005 YouTube launched: dramatic chipmunks, laughing babies, people falling and/or failing, and Susan Boyle. I remember doing some prototype work on the concept of BBC iPlayer. Then the possibility of all that film seemed crackers. Today iPlayer shifts 12.5 GB per second of video, and YouTube has twenty hours of video uploaded every minute. YouTube is now interactive, and you can find HD and all of Channel 4′s content there. Youtube can also auto subtitle your film, which means it can search deep inside it. Wow!
BETTER 2.0: 2005–6
Hang on! We’re at 2005 already and no mention of Facebook. You’re right. Facebook launched in 2004 and was initially open just to universities. It really went public in 2006.
Somewhat pointlessly, (according to my dodgy maths)… Facebook had 9 million users in Sept 2006. By Feb 2010 it had 400 million.
391 million users in 1,278 days (3.5 years) = 305,947 new people have joined every day since the site’s public launch. That should tell you all you need to know about social networks.
Anyway, so the internet was now behaving itself and looked pretty doing it. The people came along in large numbers and did stuff. Stuff we wouldn’t have thought of. They got involved and changed everything. They downloaded (illegally), uploaded, rejected, accepted, commented, bitched, advised, and championed. They made friends, T-shirts, and films, and then shared them. Shared everything.
And online advertising? Whilst the possibilities atomised further via platforms such as microblogging, mash-ups, widgets, and co-creation, the role of advertising had become giving people interesting things to talk about and do. It gave them “stories” to be involved in. You can find a million essays about the “conversation of social media” online, so I’ll let them pick up the weight here. In short, be interesting, be useful, be open.
Around 2006 we worked on a brief to re-engage a young audience with a large radio station, telling them that the radio had great DJs covering all genres. Our answer was to improve the established text listings showing a person’s music tastes by providing a user-generated music “widget” that created a graphic statement on the person’s MySpace about his or her tastes. Underneath this badge were streaming radio players connected to the station’s ever-updating catalogue.
The users had already told us what music they liked in creating the widget, and so with that context we were able to serve a targeted radio player that accurately matched what users said they liked. Furthermore the users then showed off the DJs to their friends on their homepages, effectively doing our advertising with advocacy. It was part cool homepage badge and statement of identity within social networks, part tool that plays the music you said you like. The advertising was done afterward by use and experience. Show, don’t tell.
BETTER 3.0: 2006–10
In late 2006, Twitter launched to too many column inches and shoulder shrugging, with people struggling to see the point. The point of Twitter wasn’t about the brand or the 140-character limit. It was about the immediacy of the comment:
All those little things all those people are saying right now
the fact that it’s all contextual data that’s immediately captured
a snapshot of now
You can create all kinds of interesting things with that opinion and data. Brands began listening to social media to hear what people were saying about them, first passively and then tentatively engaging in the conversations and finally curating them. What starts out as a database quickly can become a fan base. Brands now actively harness the power of this chatter. Brand advocacy (people doing the advertising for you by telling their friends) has become another massive addition to advertising that the internet has brought to the fore. All online advertising now has to inspire, curate, and manage this…in public.
In 2007 Apple launched the iPhone. Mobile had long threatened to be interesting. It tracked exactly the same curve as the internet, just faster. The iPhone was a paradigm shift; context on steroids. Your smartphone knows where you are through GPS or triangulation, and because it’s on the internet, it knows a lot more than that. It knows what you think from Twitter, where you are supposed to be from your calendar, who your friends are from Facebook, and what you like from your online shopping. Furthermore, it also knows a lot about the world: what’s around the corner, when the train is coming, who a person is. The mobile is the bridge between the virtual and the real world – an augmented world. Smart is not the word.
What’s more, the phone is open and developed by millions. Apps have provided yet another platform for brands to engage with their customers with tools, service, and entertainment. In 2008 Apple launched the App Store. One year later the billionth app was downloaded! User-generated content (UGC) in overdrive + e-commerce. Not only was the internet and online advertising changing the very nature of brand communications, it was also opening up new revenue streams.
And the phone is just the start. Many more smart “things” will come. My running shoes are smart with accelerometers, my table talks to my beer via radio-frequency identification (RFID), and my car is helping me to be green by monitoring and teaching me to drive better. At the time of this writing, we’ve just linked the data from a racing F1 car live to the website, giving fans a unique never-seen-before insight into a sport they love. It’s a gift to the fans but also a software platform that changes the sport. It’s definitely advertising – just a different kind.
Online advertising has come a long way since 1995. From initially mirroring the old practices of publishing, the banner ad has grown alongside the cultural revolution of the internet to fundamentally change brands and advertising as a whole. Digital is now at the heart of all communication. Brands no longer seek a database; they seek and curate a fan base.
As the medium improved technically, it grew socially, forcing brands to discover new ways of engaging and behaving as the power shifted much more to the consumer. The social power and activity, the creation of tools and services, and the context provided by technology and data have all made advertising better. The information online has become a power source. Like electricity, it now plugs into and powers all kinds of other technology with intelligence: your friends, your location, your health, your last purchase, the weather, language translations, the exchange rate, and so on. Initially with smartphones, now cars and tables and eventually yourself, the technology and possibilities continue to grow – and along with it (online) advertising, but with “good stuff.”