Advertising: Why Bother?

So the other day, I was looking for a guitar pedal – a digital delay with recording loop, and if it had some on-board effects, so much the better. This is kind of a specialty item – mass-produced, but you can’t get it an WalMart. So I googled some relevant keywords, scoped out the brands and products that came up, and spotted a brand I trusted from a previous purchase. I checked out some other options, but eventually settled into researching the product from the trusted brand.

On the product page for the pedal I was considering there was a short instructional/demo video featuring a musician from a band I like and one of the engineers who had designed the pedal. That pretty much sealed the deal – I could see that it did what I wanted, and more. To be sure, I looked at user reviews at a couple of retail sites (one specialty site, one general). From there, I went to a price comparison site to see what my options were. I didn’t purchase at that moment, but I could have.

And I did all this in less time than it takes the Chinese restaurant on the corner to bring my food. So, to recap, that’s:

  • Impulse
  • Brand-level research
  • Product-level research (to the depth of getting instruction from the product designer)
  • Polling user reviews
  • Comparison shopping
  • Where the hell is my Szechuan chicken?

Probably once or twice in that process, I was presented with a paid, third-party ad – I can’t say precisely, because I paid attention to ads exactly zero times.

Compare this with what the process would have been in 1990. I could ask friends about similar products they’d used, but I’d be limited to the small set of products they had experience with, and by their personal biases. I would probably have to learn about products from catalogs and mailings, assuming I had found my way onto a suitable mailing list – and even then, I’d only have access to information about a subset of available products. I could also have dug through the Yellow Pages, and if there were one or more retailers nearby that carried something like what I wanted, I could call or drive over and talk to a half-informed salesman who was going to steer me toward whatever gave him the best commission. I sure as hell wasn’t going to get any instruction from the product designer, and this wasn’t all going to happen before dinner was ready.

When’s the last time you used the Yellow Pages for anything? (I use them to clean paintbrushes.) Will a kid born today even know what the Yellow Pages were? Remember the old 800-page Sears and JCPenney catalogs – ever wonder where those went? When’s the last time you bought a new kind of product or service based solely on the ad copy, without checking reviews online?

I admit: I live in an urban, Internet-connected, tech-savvy social bubble. But even the most non-technical people in my life are using the Internet for buying, and – much more importantly, for learning about the products they buy.

Television ad revenues are tanking. The news is not much better online. Sure, we can blame it on the economy, but is that the only force at work? Check the chart in the link on online ad revenue – the growth rate was declining a year before the banking crisis hit.

Here’s my point: Whereas we were once almost totally dependent on paid advertising interspersed with our media to tell us about the existence of products, where to get them, and what they cost, paid advertising is now worse than useless for these things. We know that advertising has always been mostly posturing and lies, but when that was all we had, we dealt with it. Now we have access to actual information on price and user experience (much better organized than it was even ten years ago), and we’ve gotten very good at filtering out ads, using either our brains or technological fixes.

So what does get people in the door? I can say what worked for me in this case:

  • The company makes great products. It will become increasingly difficult to sell crap as more people learn to use online shopping tools. The customers you burn will out you in a heartbeat, and it won’t take me much longer to hear about it.
  • I had purchased from the company before, and it was good. The relationship matters. It is now trivial to find many, many other options if one company doesn’t do right by me.
  • They informed me rather than selling to me. Free videos with real information and instruction – not just rigged demos or canned endorsements – delivered by authoritative people such as product designers and power users go a long way toward helping a purchase decision.
  • They respond when I ask questions on Twitter and Facebook. If they didn’t, they’d risk losing me to a competitor that did respond.

Boiled down, that could be stated as: Engage me, and don’t suck. Attempting to pay for my attention only convinces me that you have enough money to buy an ad – and I automatically assume that the ad is a one-sided half-truth at best. But be excellent, evangelize, and engage people, and I’ll come sniffing around eventually.

So where are ads useful? No tool or evolutionary strategy ever goes away. You can still buy buggy whips if you’re so inclined (even if your best bet is probably to check your local fetish wear shop first).

I actually finally purchased my new pedal based on an ad – a vendor I’d done business with before emailed me about an insiders-only sale. Even here, though, the new rules trump the old rules – the discount wasn’t enough that I’d have taken it if I didn’t already have a good relationship with the vendor – and the ad didn’t try to sell me anything, but gave me information about a price break that I probably wasn’t going to get elsewhere. Also, it was not a third-party ad – it was a direct communication through a channel from which I can opt out.

I don’t claim to know what these observations mean in a global sense – I know that ad revenues are shrinking. I know I’m probably not a typical consumer. I know that I don’t need advertising to find, learn about, or acquire anything I want or need. I know that some of my favorite companies and performers eschew traditional ads and commercial channels in favor of engaging me and not sucking. I know that advertising isn’t going away anytime soon. I know that I see the new strategies working for smaller companies, and it’s not clear to me how they would scale for the WalMarts and Budweisers of the world, who seem to see the new strategies as next-generation astroturfing tools anyway (and will probably not stop sucking nor rush to embrace true engagement).

Mostly, I know how this informs what I want to do for my own projects – websites and software I’m working on. I know I do pretty well at not sucking, but also that I need to work more on engagement – both as a personal habit, and in terms of making time for it.

And I don’t know, but I have a hunch, that the future is probably not as bright as some assume for the advertising business and all its epiphytes – the targeters and optimizers and analyzers springing up everywhere now will help with advertising ROI in the near-term, even as they commoditize audiences, make the advertising market more efficient, and thereby cut margins in that business to the bone. They will eventually drive themselves to a steady state where the only way to compete is on price, at which time the whole business will be engaged in a race to the bottom. (That’s the commercial bottom, not the cultural bottom that ads are widely accused of pursing already.)

So go ahead, tell me where I’m wrong in the comments.

P.S.: If you were wondering which pedal it was: It was the Stereo Memory Man by Electro-Harmonix. It should be here Thursday, and shortly after that I plan to review it over at the GuitarCardio blog.

Who is the iPad for?

Techies and Apple fanboys make a lot of noise about the iPad, but this gem buried in John Gruber’s extensive and balanced review of the device tells the real story:

When you create a new page in Safari on iPad, text focus goes to the Google search field by default, rather than the URL location field. That’s a change from both desktop and iPhone Safari. I’m finding this hard to get used to, but I can see how this might be a better design for typical users. It makes the default search engine all the more essential to the web browsing experience, though.

By “typical users”, he means people who get to their Hotmail accounts by going to google.com and typing in “hotmail” – people who have only a loose and slightly warped idea of what the web is and how it works, and who are keen to maintain as large a degree of willful ignorance as they can while still being able to check their email and read TMZ. Makers of hardware, software, websites, and everything else having to do with computing (including Apple) have been making their wares to a standard that was originally meant to accommodate the sort of people who make computing hardware, software, websites, et cetera. Apple is probably the first company to take a viable stab at making a computing device for everyone else.

It’s what I’ve been saying all along: The iPad is for your mom. (I know, not everyone’s mom. And, actually, not mine. But you know what I mean.)