Consumers are Exhausted By Ads— But Could This Company’s Novel Approach Change the Game?

Kushaan Shah
Oct 15, 2020 · 6 min read

✍️ This piece was originally published as part of my new Substack newsletter, the Marketing Mind Meld. Subscribe there for weekly marketing reads!

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Photo by Serzio Arze on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about sponsored ads on social media.

How much ads suck. How can we make them less disruptive. How can we make them more bearable to the eager, impatient, internet surfing human.

But to understand where this train of thought around online ads comes from, let me rewind and take you back last week to a quiet sunday night in my apartment.

Fueled by half a Blackberry Hint and cold ramen, I was finishing up a design brief while casually binging a show that had gained some casual notoriety in the marketing world. A show called Emily in Paris.

While I won’t litigate whether Emily in Paris is particularly realistic, it’s a fun show. It’s a story starring Lily Collins as a budding Chicago-based influencer who travels to France to work at an agency and sway her stubborn French colleagues into doing absurd marketing campaigns.

For me, I was drawn by every inch of France — the freedom, the food, the perfectly symmetrical cobblestones, the outdoor cafe ambiance. It gave me a pretty consistent craving for croissants. It had reset my desire to go to Paris — and for that, I finally had to learn French.

Enter Toucan.

Toucan is one of my favorite new products on the market today — instead of an app like Duolingo, where you have to log in and intentionally set aside time to learn languages, Toucan integrates the language of your choice into your day to day web browsing.

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In essence, you’re learning a language by context — without even trying or going out of your way, you’re forced to learn words for the sake of your brain’s survival on a web page. It’s a cool concept — and having learned hundreds of words in the past week, a moderately effective one.

But what stuck out to me was not just the way Toucan approached language learning or the sheer volume of words it pumped out a day.

It was the way Toucan approached sponsored ads.

Toucan doesn’t just sell digital real estate or disruptive banner ads to businesses — it sells words.

It’s something novel — and something I believe could be the future of sponsored ads that work.

Why aren’t ads working today?

Before we get into the nitty gritty of why Toucan has potential, we have to step back and analyze the psychological landscape of ads today.

There is a lot of research around digital ads and the general apathy from humans in response to those ads — this apathy largely comes from three places:

  • Privacy and Intrusion: According to HubSpot Research, 91% of people in the study believe ads are more intrusive now compared to two or three years ago and 79% believe they’re being tracked. When prompted why they use ad blockers, more than 60% of users cited ads being intrusive or disruptive. There’s psychological research that even suggests the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for personal space, reacts as strongly to digital ads as it does to physical people being in our personal space.
  • Experience Disruption: Ever get excited to watch a Youtube video and immediately get put off by an auto-playing ad? You’re not alone. An impressive 82% in a study report that they have closed a web page because of an autoplaying video ad, and 51% of people say they think less of brands that use autoplaying online video ads.
  • Banner Blindness: Well documented for over 30 years, banner blindness is a psychological phenomenon that essentially causes visitors to a website to consciously or unconsciously ignore banner-like information, which can also be called ad blindness or banner noise. This is also evident in outputs — about 44% of the money spent on ads is wasted on ads that remain unviewed by website visitors.

With Facebook, Youtube and Google facing consistent skepticism around ad practices, there is little incentive to change. These three companies alone make close to $50 billion combined in a quarter from ad revenue, with Google making close to $130 a year (!) from ad revenue.

So the vicious cycle continues — businesses continue to deploy ads en masse, consumers continue to hate them, and the companies continue to profit. Rinse and repeat.

How do we make ads better? It’s a question with lots of answers, many of them that will continue to be explored through this newsletter — but for now, let’s return to Toucan.

What does Toucan do differently?

Toucan has a novel approach to sponsorship — an initiative it calls Own The Word.

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The process is pretty simple — you choose a word you want associated with your brand or business, and anyone who stumbles onto that word will get introduced to your business or brand.

I’ve seen it in practice a few times and found it fascinating — here’s an example from Mike Duboe, former head of Growth at Stitch Fix, owning the word growth. The word is Le croissance, frankly more badass than its english equivalent and also very similar to croissants, which I am once again craving.

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If you think about many of the reasons that people don’t typically like ads — the banner blindness and experience disruption — this ad experience turns it onto its head.

Your goal is to learn the word. Even clicking on that ad, I am able to use every function Toucan offers me — validating my understanding, sounding out the word, and flagging an error. There’s no flashiness or external banner forcing my brain into overdrive. It’s a simple sponsorship, anchored to a single action.

Intention is what favors Google ads over their counterparts in Facebook and Youtube — you may likely get an ad similar to what you’re searching — but it’s banner blindness that makes conversion from Google tough.

In the simplicity of Toucan lies its appeal. You don’t have to watch an entire ad or read through terms and conditions to learn — the less information available, the more your curiosity takes over. You’re less burdened by the cognitive overload of interacting with an ad and more inclined to check it out.

In Issue #2, we talked about the power of somatic markers in branding — brain shortcuts that cause emotional processes that guide decision making. We’ve sown a lifetime of associations with words. By allowing businesses and companies to own these words — we’re giving them an additional opportunity: to own the somatic markers that those words possess.

Imagine owning the word happy? or rainbow? or puppy? No matter what your brand is or does, it now gets to ride the same emotional coaster as someone thinking of those words.

So will Toucan’s word ownership initiative scale? Only time will tell. The main thing missing around this thesis is numbers and conversion rates for businesses that sponsor on Toucan — but as a young company without much of the dark light that has been shed onto large social media companies, Toucan has a lot of room to move here.

At the time of writing this, I’ve just claimed my first word on Toucan — and excited to update you all in a few weeks! Will also take any advice for how to properly change my job title to include the word croissance.

Want to claim your own word? Try it for only 0.99 here.

I’m currently a growth marketer at Livongo based out of the Bay Area and enjoy sharing insights around growth, careers, and personal anecdotes. I also like meaningless controversies (check out ranking of the best fast food fries) and spending my days finding the best Super burrito in San Francisco. All opinions are my own. Get in touch here or via @kushaanshah on Twitter.

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Kushaan Shah

Written by

Growth @Livongo • Bostonian • Fan of sports and quirky theatre • Marketing Nerd • Weekly reads http://mindmeld.substack.com ✍️

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Kushaan Shah

Written by

Growth @Livongo • Bostonian • Fan of sports and quirky theatre • Marketing Nerd • Weekly reads http://mindmeld.substack.com ✍️

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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