I actually clicked on a Facebook ad. (And then I went ahead and bought the thing.)
I know. I’m as shocked as you are.
Yes. It’s true. I spent $700 after clicking on a Facebook ad.
Let me be clear. I am not an ad-clicking kind of guy. I’m not even a I-think-I’ll-try-eating-something-I-can’t-pronounce kind of guy. Or a maybe-I’ll-start-jogging-today kind of guy. I’m a man who likes things the way I like them. I don’t put ketchup on hot dogs. I don’t believe yoga pants are an acceptable form of pants. And I don’t click on banner ads of any kind.
But here’s the kicker: I’ve created several hundreds of those things. And after the countless hours of toil and tweaking that goes into bringing a client-approved banner ad to life, I still refuse to click on the dang thing. I know they are about pure numbers. I know that someone, somewhere will in fact click on the banner our agency has spent countless hours perfecting. But the only time I’ve personally clicked anywhere near one of those things is to get it off my screen.
But last week, I broke down after decades of relentless defense against them. Zuckerberg finally beat me into submission.
Way back in 2011, Solve Media, a company responsible for creating CAPTCHA tools, made a splash by releasing relatable stats on how likely you are to click on a banner ad. You’re 87.8 times more likely to apply to Harvard and get accepted than click on a banner ad. You are 279.64 times more likely to climb Mt. Everest and reach the summit than click on a banner ad. You are 112.5 times more likely to sign up for and complete Navy Seal training than click on a banner ad. Yes. Those are the real facts they shared. And yes, all of those things sound exactly like me. In other words, I was never going to click.
It’s been over a decade since I personally started scrolling through Zuckerberg’s infinite blue time suck. And nary a single ad received as much as a hmmm before disappearing down the scroll hole. But after years of sneaky, secret coding wizardry, Facebook has done what so many other sites have failed to do. They made banner ads effective. So effective in fact, that digital culture has accused Facebook of secretly listening to conversations to serve up ads targeted to users.
Now, politics aside, I’ll be the last one to defend big Marky Z. But there are plenty of devious and invasive tactics that hide behind the innocent banner ad (Facebook Pixel being the sneakiest behavior-tracking device known to modern humans). But if examined with a critical eye, a lot of the Facebook is listening examples can be explained through behavior and location tracking.
For instance, say I’ve recently returned from Zanzibar and I’ve decided to have coffee with an old high school friend who is into roller derby. FB knows almost a million things about the both of us. It knows that we’re in the same city, the same neighborhood and in the same coffee shop. It knows, since we’re friends on FB and we’re in the same shop at the same time, that we’re going to chat. It knows I just went to Zanzibar and had some crazy Zanzibar food and my friend just went to a local derby match.
Because our lives have become physically intertwined for a brief period of time, all of our tracked digital activity is about to come smashing together into one glorious smorgasbord of digital exposure for advertisers.
My friend is about to get a Hubble-barn full of new ads about Zanzibar and exotic travel – as well as the sensible work clogs I bought online last week. Whereas, I’m about to get invites to local roller derby pages, friend suggestions for the weird mouth breather we both knew from high school (whom I haven’t friended, but my derby-loving friend has), and some terribly trendy ads from our cutesy coffee shop competitors.
This is why Facebook is the second largest marketplace for digital ad spend behind Google, controlling nearly 20% of all digital ad revenue. It’s why e-commerce click-through rates have tripled in the last two years. Because banner ads are now serving relevant content. And it’s also why I spent $700 dollars on a kayak from a private retailer. Ye olde FB knew I’d been trolling Marketplace for YEARS looking for an inexpensive fiberglass kayak (which is a paddler’s unicorn, akin to saying a cheap Porsche). And while some cast suspicion and doubt on such tactics, I applaud this sort of ad intelligence.
It’s much more effective than the lonely puppy dog approach. You know, the approach that embeds ads from a website I clicked on five months ago onto nearly every page I visit despite any inkling of interest from me other than a random page visit. But while digital ads are reaching Skynet-smart proportions, the potential of the banner ad grows exponentially. What if a banner ad stopped being meaningless page noise and started bringing meaningful content into our lives?
Yeah, I said it. What if banner ads worked for good and not evil? Could a banner ad remind you that your milk is going bad while you’re at work? Or let you know your dry cleaner is ripping you off? What if a banner ad helped you find the cheapest dog walker on your block? Or found a birthday present for your Dad without having to ask? What if a banner ad did so much more than just sit there and stalk you?
The more banner ads understand us, the more tailored they become, the more they can address our actual needs rather than hypothetical ones. Do I think a banner ad should have access to my social security number or bank account? No. The boundaries of privacy demand some limitations of where digital tracking should and should not go. And we deserve to know and understand where the limitations of our privacy are in order to make an informed decision about what data we’re willing to trade for something valuable. But banner ads are quickly becoming so much more than ad space. And, if I had my way, they’d be intelligent sticky notes rather than digital gnats.
But until that happens, maybe I’ll go climb Mt. Everest or join the Navy Seals. Who knows? After all, I just clicked on a banner ad so I guess just about anything is possible for me now. Harvard, here I come.