Why Google+ should carry advertising

It’s curious how gun-shy digital networks are about running advertising. Facebook famously held off on traditional banners, inventing its own not-so-intrusive tiny promos at the side, and now Google+ insists it will skip ads. The most amazing restraint I see is the Facebook mobile app — imagine, with 350 million active FB users staring into smartphones, and Facebook holds off on monetizing that audience.

All of this indicates that consumers now hate advertising — why skip ads unless you’re worried it will degrade your networked product? Advertising works, of course (we plan it for clients), and traditional television media that carries advertising still remains king, with consumers watching 4 hours and 44 minutes of television a day on average in the U.S. But “watching” is an overstatement; studies by Nielsen and Pew show consumers actually do two or three things at once with TV or radio on in the background. In-home observations show that when TV spots appear, consumers pick up laptops, handsets or magazines, and attentiveness slides. Put another way, the typical consumer is exposed to about 160 30-second TV spots a day, and of course none of us really “see” or recall most of them. The radio industry has the same problem; data from new Portable People Meters, which replace the old diary journals to tabulate radio ratings by picking up signals embedded in broadcasts, show people tend to switch the radio dial as soon as radio spots intrude.

So new communication networks, trying to gain mindshare in this cluttered space of media options, are very careful not to diminish UX with advertising — almost comically so. Twitter could easily push ads into its stream (and is just starting to roll this out), but has been scared to death that degrading the Twitterer experience might chase users out of its network. G+ could easily provide personalized sponsored links at the right of its pages, but for now, says it will hold off.

Why the fear?
Advertising works; it educates consumers and drives billions into the economy. But at heart, consumers find it a pain in the ass and are migrating to new channels that avoid it. The danger I see is if marketers cannot influence you by clearly putting their messages in an ad box, they will try more nefarious routes of embedding the message into other content — sponsored tweets, paid posts, advertorial — that degrades the actual content we hunger for itself. You’re starting to see this with top bloggers bragging about Kmart shopping experiences or GPS gadgets that actually pay them for mention, and the result is confusion. Is the message true? Doe someone I respect like that product? Or is someone just putting their self interest ahead of mine, giving me a message that may not have meaning? The value of advertising is it clarifies the source of the message, allowing consumers to clearly judge the content by knowing it is meant to influence. A catalog is selling you; you know that; so you look and judge the material by its source merits. Alas, if marketers and people can no longer be clear about their intent to influence you, they may resort to trickery, subterfuge, embedded lies, and that form of pollution may degrade our experience far more than little ad boxes at the side of the stream.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on G+. Image by Jesse S.

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