The Democratization of Advertising

27 Jan ’06

As the world’s media moves online, advertising has of course followed in its wake – it seems that every new day sees a fresh attempt to penetrate the consciousness of another online audience with one commercial message or another. I’m not complaining – advertising is an essential ingredient in the diet of many online business models, and much of the innovation we’ve seen since the Yahoo! IPO, for example, simply wouldn’t have happened without it. But the growth of the blogosphere has me wondering whether the role of targeted advertising is about to change.

I’ve been noticing lately that over and over again the advice and information provided on the blogs of real people who share my interests and experiences are providing much more compelling information than any advertising that reaches me. Putting aside for now the question of branding, I’m finding that I’m repeatedly turning to blogs to find authentic and trusted buying advice from people who share my interests.

Which raises some interesting questions. With the world moving online and exponentially turning to blogs and other forms of personal publishing – podcasting, vidcasting, and whatever comes next – surely we are going to become less impressionable to the targeted pitch. Within seconds of being exposed to advertising I can now go online and find corroborating or contradictory first-hand evidence from an independent source. What hope does an Adsense ad have when I can quickly find real-world opinions about that seller or product, or a competitor? And in the blogosphere I don’t need to worry about sniffing out shill reviews planted in the Epinions of the world – a blog provides me with a blogger’s entire body of work, which I can explore to determine whether or not the source is to be trusted. And ultimately, if its search results provide information that competes for the users’ attention with its advertising, doesn’t Google’s search business suffer from an irreconcilable conflict of interest?

I see this as a democratization of advertising – the blogger’s influence over the process of search becoming more significant at the expense of the larger advertiser. Faced with two alternatives – my search results or the targeted ads and banners that surround them on the page – the choice for me is obvious – I’ll find what I’m looking for, or an unbiased opinion about it, in the search results and I’ll walk right by the ads.

So – I can quickly search, authenticate, and then investigate. This is vastly different than the world we lived in even ten years ago – an advertiser’s wonderland – a world that provided only a few trusted mainstream media sources of reviews, but otherwise left us to assess advertising on our own. Surely this is not good news for Google, which ultimately is about advertising, not search. Ironically enough, by helping their users quickly find relevant sites published by bloggers, aren’t they ensuring the demise of their own paid search model? And what about the other advertisers of the world – online and offline – what hope do they have of converting my buying impulse into their opportunity when I can quickly find real world experiences about whatever they’re offering?

Update: Mathew makes the very interesting point that this has Google self-destructively eating its own tail.

Update (2005-01-29): I’ve written a related post titled “The Democratization of PR“.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Stuart MacDonald January 31, 2006 at 22:27

Well. Isn’t that just terribly sad. And tremendously counterproductive, to boot. Brand-as-lofty-brochure-copy alone is an absolutely silly, silly use of scarce resources.

But the good news is that this kind of lack of authenticity almost always comes home to roost, in some way, shape or form. Usually in lost business or lost jobs.

— Stuart

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David Maister January 31, 2006 at 22:11

Yes, Stuart, yes. We *do* agree. but my observation of the world I know (professionals service firms) tells me that when firms start worrying about their brand they don’t in fact apply your insight and start figuring how to manage differently in order to get their people to behave differently at all “touch points.” Real world? Branding programs are things run by marketing communications companies for their clients, as a wonderful substitute for the client having to actually change.

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Stuart MacDonald January 31, 2006 at 21:41

I think you are on to something, David, though I don’t agree with the premise of focusing more on quality and less on advertising.

A Brand is the sum total of all customer experience at all touchpoints. Everything, soup to nuts. Every ad, every newspaper/blog mention, every human contact, every interaction with the product or service, everywhere. All of it. It all adds up, it all builds on everything else. So in reality Great Brands have to be doing *everything* well. And I don’t think there is really anything new there. With respect, the idea that good advertising can drive business success if everything other than the ads is lousy died some time ago, no? I mean, it might do a little for a while, but it won’t build anything of long-term value. So on the question of quality or advertising, I don’t think it is either/or. It’s both. Authenticity and projecting or “living” a brand’s value at all touchpoints just core to business success in this day and age.

— Stuart

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David Maister January 31, 2006 at 09:21

A hypothesis. If we as consumers can now check the experience of others and a company’s reputation, then doesn’t that force companies into giving great service to ensure their word of mouth is terrific. Isn’t this a fabulous development if it happens this way? But will it? How many companies will actually reason it through and focus more on quality and less on advertising? My guess is that the transition will take a long time – they will continue just to look for new ways to advertise, and quality and service will remain where they are.

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