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Are consumers tuning out online advertising? And does it matter?

Yes, but it's nothing new
Yes, but it's nothing new
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To anyone with a computer and connectivity, online advertising is physically impossible to ignore. Mentally, though, may be a different story.

An online discussion at the Advertising Professionals LinkedIn group worries that consumers "will simply tune out advertising online" and gives many possible reasons why. But there's also one big, unmentioned reason why that may not matter.

Why consumers tune out

One reason consumers tune out online advertising is that it isn't aimed at them – or any human beings, for that matter. It's sent by robots to robots.

Just as botnets have been used to create fake Twitter trends, they're being used to create fake online advertising traffic – fake traffic accounting for as much as 36 percent of all web traffic, according to a Wall Street Journal report. As a Slate story explains,

The fake traffic comes from botnets that click on shady sites that have been created solely to generate false page view impressions, gathering advertising dollars for site owners in the process. The scheme works because advertisers only pay for their ads to appear on a site, and not specifically for their ads to be seen by real people.

When the ads are actually targeted to flash-and-blood people, the targeting is often mindless. As the CEO of a shirtmaking company posted, "I recently had an email from a client asking me to find him a Rolex source, and almost immediately, I began receiving ads for Rolex."

Another reason for simply tuning out is most of the ads themselves. Admittedly, being able to communicate a compelling, poster-like message in the space of a tiny banner ad ain't exactly easy. But too many advertisers don't even try. "Online advertising has been plagued by spammy, irrelevant advertising for a long time," says front-end developer Erik Cervin-Edin.

I don't care about online casinos, social games or animated flash-based ads that get in the way of my online experience...I've been using Facebook for about seven years and I haven't clicked an add [sic] ONCE. Because they are NEVER interesting to ME. And that's the one place on the internet I would expect ads to be tailored to me. I don't know if [it's] the fault of Facebook's ad-market or poor marketing from advertisers.

Why it probably doesn't matter

Of course, all this anguished discussion assumes that the consumer tune-out problem is somehow new or unique to online advertising.

It isn't.

Back in the 1930s, long before ENIAC, the first mainframe computer, was a gleam in IBM's eye, mYoung & Rubicam commissioned a then-young researcher named George Gallup to find out what factors made magazine readers read ads. One of his findings was that in a typical issue, only about 46 percent of readers even saw that most noticed ad; this means that a majority of readers – some 54 percent – totally ignored it. (That's more than the 36 percent of online advertising directed to robots.)

He also found that of the 46 percent of readers who noticed the ad – i.e., saw the headline, picture and logo – only 10 percent (i.e., 4.6 percent of the total readership) read the body copy.

So consumers have been simply tuning out ads for a long time.

This is why radio and television commercials, for example, have had to air again and again and again and again and...well, you get the picture...just so listeners or viewers will notice them.

Both snail mail and email have incredibly high rates of messages being discarded unopened, but their respective costs per lead or new order are remarkably similar – $51.40 for paper mail and $55.24 for email.

And long before there was inane, mindless, obnoxious, sleazy, or just plain mediocre advertising on the Internet, there were tons of it on radio and television and in print media.

Simplistic metrics

Of course, most advertisers don't really know whether consumers are simply tuning out their online ads because they know how to measure only one thing – clicks. But, as a digital marketing specialist posted to the LinkedIn discussion, "[M]any advertisers use clicks as a metric because it's all they know or they just don't really understand how display advertising works. The latter is the bigger problem in my opinion because it can also limit an advertiser's understanding how their online shoppers behave."

People can see and eventually respond to your advertising without ever clicking through to your landing page or website. They can also be clicking on it just to get rid of it and go on to that news story or video they wanted to see in the first place.

There's more to human behavior in the marketplace than simplistic, mechanical computer algorithms can deal with.

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