Digital Environmentalism

“Your customers are more connected than ever before. And as a result are more informed, empowered, demanding, and discerning. Their expectations, preferences, and even values are shifting.”

The problem? We as an industry haven’t kept up.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in digital. Slow loading times, ineffective controls, spammy and repetitive ads, automated and impersonal experiences – each polluting our digital ecosystem – and each, if left unchecked, holding the ability to upend our digital economy.

Disruption in advertising is at an all-time high. But I believe it’s an opportunity for us and for our brands to author a better future.

It’s time for a little digital environmentalism.



Generally speaking, customers aren’t happy with the state of digital advertising.

68 percent describe online ads as annoying

33 percent find online ads to be intolerable

97 percent find online ads to be irrelevant

54 percent of display ads are not viewable

70 percent ignore online ads completely

60 percent of mobile ad clicks are accidental

54 percent don’t trust online ads

48 percent felt deceived by native advertising

Yet digital ad spending will increase by 13 percent this year and overtake TV spending in 2017.

The problem isn’t in the increased investment itself or even in the financial migration to digital. That all makes perfect sense given where our customers’ time is increasingly spent. The problem is that until we address the causes of the customer sentiments plaguing the statistics above, our additional digital spending may only exacerbate the situation.

The Internet Advertising Bureau issued a statement last fall on the topic, admitting that “we messed up.” They alleged that through the pursuit of “automation and maximization of margins,” we lost sight of the user experience – and the customer suffered because of it.

In the same vein, the inventor of the pop-up ad recently made a public apology. Now the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, Ethan Zuckerman confessed, “I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry.” He added, “20 years into the ad-supported Web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive.”

He’s not apologizing just for the pop-up ad. He’s apologizing for whatever role he played in the ad-tech arms race that followed.

Despite the amazing functionality it has introduced, a number of consumer issues still face ad tech. The most obvious are privacy concerns around the data being collected, ad fraud, and the often unnecessary file weight added to any given page, slowing our experiences and draining our batteries and data plans.

It’s really no surprise that we see ad blocking on the rise. With a 48 percent domestic increase in 2015, about 16 percent of U.S. consumers – 45 million people – are using ad-blocking software and actively avoiding our messages.

Rather than combatting this movement, I propose that we embrace it. Let’s instead consider what we’ve done to drive our customers to feel the need to block our ads to begin with – and then let’s fix it.



In 2010, Byron Sharp published a book, How Brands Grow, that uses empirical data to draw a number of observations that run counter to some of the more commonly held beliefs in our industry.

First, he claims that there is no such thing as brand loyalty. What we call loyalty is just habit, and our most “loyal” customers would shop our competitor under the right circumstances.

Next, he claims that our light buyers are more valuable than our core buyers. Time and time again, his models showed brands experiencing growth from increased penetration vs. frequency.

Finally, he claims that targeting is wasteful – valuable perhaps in helping us understand more about our audience, but wasteful in the sense that it limits us from reaching future potential customers.

These are all things that digital is particularly good at achieving, and at least in terms of growing a brand, he says they’re fairly inconsequential. Instead, he says we should focus on what he calls “physical availability” and “mental availability.”

Put simply, “physical availability” refers to a brand’s capacity to be easy to buy, while “mental availability” refers to a brand’s capacity to be easy to like, memorize, and recall.

Reflecting on the statistics above, as related to digital efforts, I believe our answer lies within “mental availability.” Brands have a tremendous opportunity in becoming easier to like, and I see that taking shape in a few key ways.



First things first: We have to reform the user experience. Let’s clean up our digital environment. Only you can prevent intolerable ad experiences.

In the same article mentioned above, the Internet Advertising Bureau proposed a four-step plan called LEAN, which they suggest would repair the broken user experience that exists today. This easy-to-remember acronym recommends that ad content be developed to be:

Light – limited in file size, with strict data-call guidelines

Encrypted – assuring user security with https/SSL-compliant ads

Ad Choice Supported – supporting consumer privacy programs

Noninvasive – supplementing vs. disrupting the user experience

I can think of a few other measures:

Frequency Caps – capping the frequency at which consumers are exposed to any given ad or branded experience to avoid overwhelming them

Volume Caps – capping the total number of ads or branded experiences on any given page to avoid unnecessarily cluttering and weighing down pages

Viewability Measurement – holding ourselves accountable to an acceptable level of viewability to avoid unnecessarily weighing down pages with ads unlikely to even be seen

Fraud Detection – holding ourselves accountable to accurate serving and reporting to preserve the credibility and integrity of the digital ecosystem

Transparency – ensuring that branded experiences are clearly disclosed as such to avoid perceptions of deception, particularly as the content we develop increasingly appears and behaves less and less like ads



Beyond the user experience, we should also turn our attention to the work. I see a few key ways we can challenge ourselves to not only create better ad content but also create content that in some ways can be better than ads. In turn, perhaps we can begin to enrich and beautify our digital ecosystem.


Provide Value

We are all starved for time. So much so that at any given moment, we face the decision to turn our attention to either Thing A or Thing B. Time has become the new currency, and we choose to spend that currency on the thing that offers us more value. But value comes in different shapes and sizes, including (but not limited to):

Utility – The Johnson’s Bedtime baby sleep app lets parents track their babies’ sleep patterns, offering diagnostics, 24/7 support, and lullabies. Being useful goes a long way.

Information – To promote the second season of Orange Is the New Black, The New York Times’ T Brand Studio published an in-depth exposé discussing the issues facing females incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. Readers were drawn into the informational nature of the subject matter, giving the series a natural way to join the conversation.

Education – The Home Depot has always been about empowering doers to take on more projects in their own homes, so their how-to videos and project content are a natural way to bring this valuable expertise to life in the digital space.

Entertainment – This one’s obvious, right? Sometimes we just want to be entertained. Think of virtually anything Old Spice, Dr Pepper, Red Bull, or GoPro does to keep their customers entertained.


Seek Relevance

As you read above, 97 percent of people say they find ads irrelevant. And if the interaction is irrelevant, it’s likely to be ignored. But there’s more to relevancy than you may think. Today, relevancy has become contextual in a number of ways, including (but, again, not limited to):

Relevancy to the Placement – GEICO has done an impressive job in the past year with their “Fast Forward” and “Unskippable” online video campaigns, taking skippable pre-roll head-on and not only giving users a reason to watch the video to completion but also often convincing them to click through and keep watching beyond the 30-second mark. Maybe insurance wasn’t initially relevant to the user, but because the message was delivered in a way that was relevant to the environment, the interaction and the brand became relevant.

Relevancy to the Moment – Mobile has fractured the consumer journey into hundreds of real-time, intent-driven micro-moments, each offering a critical opportunity to influence decisions and preferences. Whether it’s a “want to know” moment, a “want to buy” moment, or a “want to go” moment, our challenge is to be present and relevant when our customer needs us.

Relevancy to Customer Values – Sub-Zero continues to successfully connect with their customers by tapping into an area where their own values and the values of their customers intersect. By championing the importance of fresh food through the array of content in their “Fresh Food Matters” campaign, they remain relevant to the identity of their customers in a way that only they can.


Craft Emotional Narratives

If storytelling is the key, emotion is what turns the key and unlocks the door.

Research has shown that consumers primarily use emotions over information when evaluating brands, and their emotional response ultimately has a greater influence on intent than the content of the ad. So how the ad makes us feel can be more impactful than what the ad tells us. And when the Advertising Research Foundation took a closer look, they concluded that, across the various metrics, the emotion of “likability” is the measure most predictive of an ad’s likelihood to drive sales.

Dove has done it with empowerment.

Volvo has done it with awe.

TNT has done it with surprise.

And the Melbourne Metro has done it with humor.

There is power in emotion. Emotion means better storytelling. And great storytelling is unshakeable.


Embrace Experimentation

Finally, we have to keep experimenting.

The beautiful thing about the digital space is that it’s constantly changing – constantly revealing new and amazing ways to connect with each other and experience the world.

We just have to remain curious and willing to try things before they’re proven. If we fail, we fail fast and learn from the misstep. And if we succeed, we have a head start.

So, let your experimentation be customer-led. Pay attention to customer needs, develop grounded hypotheses, and explore the technology that you believe will help deliver on those needs.

New platforms bring new formats. And new technology brings new experiences. But it all brings us new creative opportunities. New ways to provide value, seek relevance, and craft emotional narratives. New paths to likability and to achieving the mental availability required to grow our brands.

This quote from Traction CEO Adam Kleinberg sums it nicely:

“Advertising doesn’t have to suck. We can tell great stories with digital. We can create marketing that provides value to consumers instead of hurting them. We can even leverage data to do it in an increasingly relevant and efficient way.”

On behalf of advertisers and Internet users everywhere, let’s each grab a rake, a broom, and our best creative ideas and start cleaning things up. Our digital environment depends on it.




Categories: 1000 ft. POV

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