The Difference Between Ads and Content

Casey Saran
Jul 11, 2017 · 4 min read

I’ve heard time and time again that we are exposed to thousands of ads each day. I don’t doubt that this is true, but I certainly don’t think about thousands of ads each day. In fact, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between an advertisement and content.

What is an advertisement?

Mad Man Howard Luck Gossage, also known as the Socrates of San Francisco, said “the real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” It doesn’t really matter if someone thinks something is an advertisement or not, what matters is if it interests them.

Individuals process advertisements that interest them similarly to how they process any other content. The information in the message is considered “worth knowing” and is filed away in the brain. This is the desired outcome of most advertising messages.

So perhaps one way to define an ad is by what it is not. An ad is something that doesn’t interest someone.

What makes something interesting? Or more specifically, how does something change from being thought of as an advertisement to being considered content?

Surely one way to make advertising more effective is to make it more interesting, but whether or not someone is interested is dependent on many things that are out of the marketer’s control. We can predict what might be interesting to someone based on their demographics, or what their friends are interested in, or what they have expressed interest for in the past, but these are all indicators; there is no definitive way to know if something is going to interest someone or not. This is just as true for the individual as it is for the marketer; people don’t necessarily know what they will be interested in in the future.

Take this example: When I sign up to receive the seasonal catalog from a department store and it shows up in the mail — thank you! But if that EXACT SAME catalog comes unsolicited, that thing is going directly in the garbage! The content of the catalog and the medium that I’m receiving it on are identical. In this case, the only difference between an advertisement and content is whether or not I asked for that catalog to come to my house.

The psychological effect of an “opt-in”

It’s much easier for human beings to be frustrated or annoyed with a 3rd party than to have these feelings towards themselves. When that catalog comes unsolicited, it’s easy for me to decide I’m not interested because I played no part in that catalog being delivered to my house. Not only do I not find it not valuable, I don’t even understand why someone would think this would be valuable to me. Someone else (or their algorithm) doesn’t get me!

If I asked for that catalog myself, I’m going to give my former self the benefit of the doubt and thumb through it. Individuals feel the need to be consistent with themselves. The mere act of opting-in to receive the catalog changed my perception of that catalog. What would otherwise be seen as an advertisement is now content to me, and as a result also more valuable to me (or at least perceived to be).

Digital opt-in?

Opt-in advertising is already thriving in digital environments. Publishers and brands are constantly trying to get users to sign up for their email lists, sometimes promising coupons or other perks directly to the subscriber’s inbox. Groupon enjoyed massive growth closely tied to the psychological experience of opt-in advertising. The impact of email marketing has lessened, largely do to filtered inboxes and the sheer volume of email that people receive, but this does not discount the psychological effect of the opt-in.

An up and coming category worth paying attention to in the context of opt-in is influencer marketing. Influencers create content and amass audiences who consume this content. Then they get paid to promote certain products, brands, services, etc. within their content. This is not different from the traditional value exchange, except that the user never experiences advertisements. The marketer’s message is contained within the content the user is opting-in to through engaging with that influencer.

Brands involvement with Instagram is entirely based on opt-in. Many brands have a carefully curated Instagram feed and follow base. Beats by Dre, for example, has nearly 4 million people that have opt-in to receive any content that they post. Users are raising their hands to receive content from brands that they care about and the best of these brands are careful to only post content that they believe to be valuable to their followers. There is a different level of respect for the user’s experience when the brand is dependent on the user’s satisfaction for that channel of communication to remain open.

Opt-in everywhere?

The opt-in creates value for every part of the value exchange. The user gets free content and a better ad experience, the publisher makes more money and has happier users, and the marketer increases the effectiveness of their advertising. So why hasn’t opt-in become the dominant form of targeting? I believe there are two reasons for this.

(1) Traditional methods of advertising do not allow for marketers to target individuals based on 1st party data. That said, as time goes on more and more advertising opportunities will be transacted digitally, paving the way for individualized targeting.

(2) The industry has focused on efficiency over authenticity. We can expect to see the pendulum swing back towards authenticity as marketers and publishers become more aware that the current value exchange is not sustainable.

These barriers to adoption will fade away, user opt-in will play a more front-and-center role in the evolution of digital advertising.

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