Sometimes the Best Solution for Online Advertisers is Choosing not to Advertise

Timing is everything. Jamie Clohesy of Rokt discusses how to make your marketing adverts relevant and more visible, without being intrusive and scaring away customers.

Wet asphalt gives the city landscape a hypnotizing look, reflecting the brilliance of advertising
Voice of the CustomerInsights

Published: October 19, 2023

Jamie Clohesy

Jamie Clohesy

You could have the greatest product on the market with access to the most loyal customer base and still fail to generate the kind of interest that maximises your return on investment.

If you search online for poorly-timed adverts, you will quickly descend into a rabbit hole of insensitive and ill-informed ad placements from recent years; including questionable fast food promotions, poorly communicated football kit launches, and cleaning brands whose ill-thought slogans border on sexism at best, and misogyny at worst.

While the content itself is usually to blame in the most high-profile cases, many more advertising mistakes arise simply because the timing of the content activation has been poorly judged.

When it comes to e-commerce, poor timing happens every day, taking on a whole new meaning in terms of revenue loss. Serving ads at the right time can mean the difference between make or break. In fact, more revenue can be made by carefully choosing which ads not to share, especially when customers are less likely to be in the buying mindset.

Less is more

Serving fewer, high-quality adverts via e-commerce platforms is where the industry needs to get to. It’s worth considering why this approach can be so effective and doing so means facing the elephant in the room: most people don’t like ads, especially when they’re online.

survey by Hubspot found that 91% of respondents agree ads are more intrusive today compared to two to three years ago. We’ve probably all experienced that uneasy feeling of intrusion while browsing online; it can be highly emotive, personal and powerful. No matter what the brand, a sense of intrusion will be off-putting to the consumer and highly damaging over the longer term.

We’ve come a long way

Before online advertisers give up entirely, we need to remind ourselves that dislike and distrust for adverts do not represent a change in perspective for the majority of consumers.

Until relatively recently, a general rule of thumb for online advertising was to try and make an impact and attract customers by relying on size and positioning to get your brand or product noticed.

Bigger may not have guaranteed better, but in the early days of online banners, display ads and pop-ups back in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, often the battle was about onscreen positioning and targeting.

Incredibly, some platforms are still using dated display ads and pop-ups.

This led to lots of frustrations for customers who simply wanted to view content.  Incredibly, some websites and platforms still seemingly haven’t learned the lessons and moved on.

We’ve since been through the initial era of paid search and pay-per-click but it’s hard to believe that Native Online Advertising was the first step in taking a smarter approach to online promotional content.

This gained momentum just over a decade ago (around 2011), with the premise that paid advertising content is suitably (and more subtly) aligned to the style of its host platform. It took its cues from the original native advertising of a century earlier where adverts were produced to blend into the native content of their host media.

The big question

There is a common question that online advertisers still come back to today: how can content be made relevant and more visible, without being intrusive and putting people off?

In the context of a world where the gap between advertisers and customers is seemingly growing – the same aforementioned HubSpot survey also found that 79% of consumers feel they are being tracked as a result of retargeted ads – it’s a question without a straightforward answer.  But if we want to improve the sentiment towards advertising, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Putting learnings into practice

The e-commerce industry will soon enter its fourth decade and we’ve amassed a huge amount of know-how, knowledge and technological achievement over these past thirty years.

Notwithstanding the traditional advertising industry that was established long before, with AI and machine learning taking precedence over traditional rule-based decision-making, there is still a lot that we have learned and can apply.

Focus on simplicity

Most people haven’t signed up to live in Times Square.  It can be lovely when you go there as a visitor but you do so with consent.  Consumers accept that advertising is a fact of life but this doesn’t mean they wish to be bombarded by constant promotions. The effective use of machine learning can paradoxically be harnessed to help make sure that online advertising feels less intrusive, less creepy, and more intuitive.

An e-commerce journey is far different from a journey on social media; a high level of service and simplicity should be the norm, just as you would expect in a retail store. This attitude can be transformational for any business.

Be relevant

Timing and relevancy are key.  For the retail channels (which now include many retailers via Retail Media) and advertisers, it’s about relevancy.  For the customer, it’s about simplicity.

Whether buying in person or online, there is a paradox of choice today which risks alienating customers and increasing consumer apathy.

For retail channels and advertisers, relevancy is key.

Making ads relevant means that they become aligned with the customer journey but also rely on available insights to judge the right timing for a personalised promotion.

Traditionally, people don’t like ads; this should be understood and embraced.  Make what you are offering relevant and as much a part of the existing content and the customer’s expectations as possible. Online devices should be smartly synced and promotional offers intelligently considered for each customer. Promotions need to be humble and unobtrusive.

Demonstrate the value exchange

This is key. Young people especially – those who have grown up with e-commerce and have never known an alternative option – are very aware that most companies are collecting data, and they expect a return for the insights they are willing to provide.

Consumers generally will share certain details such as their email or date of birth, so long as they are confident these insights will be used to make better recommendations.

According to a 2020 report by Forrester, 38% of consumers would give more of their personal information to sellers if it would make their experience better, faster and easier.  It is important that consumers are guaranteed something valuable in return for sharing data.

In summary, less is more, timing is key, and consumers will vote with their feet. But contrary to fears around online privacy and some common frustrations with targeted ads, online customer data can be leveraged responsibly to enhance the online purchasing experience.

The best e-commerce strategies and tools on the market today can provide recommendations that are entirely relevant to each customer, ensuring they are offered relevant suggestions and are even surprised and delighted by the suggestions made at the point of transaction, without a sense of intrusion.

The use of data and AI-powered analytical tools are the future of the industry but they need to be leveraged responsibly to bring customers on board.


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