June 27, 2012

Behavior Blindness

For years I've been writing about the weakness of the web as an advertising medium.

Throughout this period there have been intelligent, successful people who have disagreed with me vehemently. In fact, almost the entire advertising and marketing industry seems to disagree.*

It has been very confusing for me trying to understand why otherwise intelligent, perceptive people don't see what I see.
  • They know they never click on banner ads.
  • They know that 95% of their purchases -- the peanut butter and gasoline and milk and socks and cereal and tires -- have never been influenced by a web ad.
  • They know they ignore the invisible ads on Facebook.
  • They know they pay no attention to "branded content."
So if they know all this, why do they still believe?

Then it struck me. They don't know. They are unaware of their own behavior.

The "aha" moment came when I was re-reading a quote from The Economist that I used here a few weeks ago in a piece about the supposed death of television. Here's what the Economist had to say...
"....one of the oddest and most consistent findings of television research: that people seem unaware of their own behaviour. In surveys they almost always underestimate how much television they watch, and greatly overstate the extent to which they watch video in any other form."
I think this is what is going on in the advertising and marketing industry regarding online ads.

The data are irrefutable. We do not click on display ads. We do not notice banners. The only ad medium on the web we use consistently is Google.

But we are so swamped with hype about online advertising that we seem to have become blind to our own behavior.

We spend a crazy amount of time on the web reading all about our pet interests -- computers and travel and cars and restaurants. But we are seemingly unaware of the fact that web advertising has virtually no influence on the vast majority of things we buy every day.

As in so many aspects of life, we think we know what we're doing, but we don't.

*Although since I wrote this post, Sir Martin Sorrell has come out and said he thinks Facebook is a lousy advertising medium. Maybe I'm not the only idiot.


Guest said...

Here's another little gem from the Economist http://www.economist.com/node/21556625) all about the fallibility of experts in predicting the future.  As it explains 'the more prominent the expert ie the more they are quoted in the media, the worse their records tended to be. There is also an inverse correlation between the individual forecaster's confidence and the accuracy of their prediction'.   Admittedly this article does refer to political & financial experts, but one can't help think that the rule might apply further afield. 

Greg Satell said...


I'm not sure that you have this quite right.  For instance, you say that:
"They know that 95% of their purchases -- the peanut butter and gasoline and milk and socks and cereal and tires -- have never been influenced by a web ad."
That's accurate if you are using the census bureau's official number for e-commerce (there's another one floating around that puts e-commerce at 10% of retail, but I have no idea which one is right).  However, it doesn't take into account all of the coupling, especially mobile coupling (Wal-Mart, Target and Costco all have apps).
So while your numbers are accurate and I completely agree that many digital natives don't get the enormous scale and effectiveness of TV, I do think you are glossing over the fact that digital media is doing new things that traditional media never could.
- Greg

Chris Seiger said...

Bob, I think you OVERestimate how many of our purchases have nothing to do with online ads. I'd ratchet that up to about 99.9%.

After trying very hard and thinking for several minutes, I came to the conclusion that the last time an online ad influenced my purchase behavior, it was to NOT purchase something. If memory serves, it was some Gillette ad that took over a web page and annoyed me quite a lot.

When it was time to buy razors again, I was looking at the rack and remembered. And bought Bic instead.

Rob Hatfield said...

 Greg, Of course digital media is doing things traditional media could never do. That's a given. The point is it sucks as an ADVERTISING medium. just because an app helps you find a product you're looking for at Costco doesn't mean it sold you on the product in the first place.

Erin McMahon said...

"They know they never click on banner ads." 

Yeah, this rings true.

"They know that 95% of their purchases -- the peanut butter and gasoline and milk and socks and cereal and tires -- have never been influenced by a web ad."

"They know they ignore the invisible ads on Facebook." 

"They know they pay no attention to "branded content.""

Here, I have to take issue. Many people *think* (and will tell you) their purchases are not influenced by the advertisements (web, Facebook or otherwise) that they encounter, or that they aren't giving attention to branded content. But - my gut says (and probably plenty of research that I'm not bothering to locate) they're often wrong! 

I believe that - for the purposes of this discussion - influence is typically made up of a series of experiences, some conscious, some not, all of which cumulate positively or negatively over all at any given point. So the last experience prior to someone making a purchase (or taking other action) is not necessarily the most important one. Sure, it's nice when the click on an ad that goes to the online store is the last experience before purchase, but even when it is, it is unlikely that that ad was the ~sole~ thing that influenced someone to buy. All the prior experiences with that brand counted in the reckoning, too.

And I'd say the same for when people don't buy - or click. Just because they didn't click today doesn't mean the ad was without effect. Maybe they will buy tomorrow. Or a month from now. Or a year. We can't always know. We can (and should) do our best to measure things and gather what information we can, but ultimately, we can't KNOW what experiences (messages/points of exposure/etc.) contributed positively to influence someone to do something. Not by tracking clicks, anyway. 

I agree - some people are blind to their own behavior, but I can't discount the web as an advertising medium. What people say motivates or influences them and what actually does is not one and the same, so, as long as we know that people are spending so much time online, web advertising seems a worthy pursuit to me.

Tore Claesson said...

As i'm a shitty proof reader some words are missing and some mixed up here and there in my post below(or above?), but I hope you got the gist. Shite, i need a personal proof reader before I send.....

Greg Satell said...

Hold on, so a coupon in a newspaper is advertising, but one in a mobile phone (or a Facebook page for that matter) is not and doesn't influence your purchase?

Digital is now approaching 20% of total advertising budgets, making it the second largest medium next to TV.  Has everyone been duped?

Jim said...

But if you asked someone, maybe ask yourself, if you were aware of ads for certain products or could you name their catchy slogan and where did you see or hear that, they are most likely to be able to do so....i.e. I saw an ad for Toyota on TV and so on.  Can the same be said of on-line advertising?

If on-line advertising wants to move from impressions and clicks to awareness then so be it.I agree with the problem of measuring all forms of advertising. But to be fair digital advertising did set out to solve that and it is hasn't.

Rob Hatfield said...

I don't know if you can call a coupon advertising. A purchase motivator perhaps. So, if all digital promises is another way to deliver a coupon, then, yes, it works. Anyone can give stuff away. But to pursuade you to take an action, I don't think digital can match television, for instance. And I don't think it can build a brand.

In answer to your question: absolutely. Duped and hornswoggled. The lemmings are racing over the cliff.

Greg Satell said...

I'm not sure I get you.  Are you saying that advertising doesn't motivate purchases or that paying for space with a message designed to motivate purchase isn't sufficient to be called advertising or...

What are you saying?

timorr said...

And yet, isn't the point of the quote from the Economist that we DON'T know our own behavior? I'm not a big fan of Internet advertising, but I'm not so sure that I KNOW I never click on banner ads (Well, maybe that one I do know) or that I am uninfluenced by Internet advertising or that I ignore the ads on Facebook or that I pay no attention to branded content. I think I am probably influenced more by ALL forms of advertising than I realize. That doesn't make Internet ads a great buy, but it doesn't make them worthless either. The problem is that until we have a better way of "knowing," it's pretty pointless to spend a lot of money on them.

Erin McMahon said...

Hmmm, I'm not sure. I often do recall branded messages that I've seen online - not necessarily a tag line or slogan or anything verbatim - just the impression.

But - you're right - it is fair to say that a lot of folks over-promise when it comes to what online advertising can measure. ;)