Digital Pollution

a billboard encouraging people to Buy Buy Buy!

Internet marketing is targeted. In contrast to the 30 second network TV spot, the internet allows marketers to target messaging by medium, location, topic, demographic and a variety of other factors. Yesterday I tweeted that I want to be a firefighter when I grow up. Today I was followed by @firefighterjob in Twitter. Most of the ads that appear in Facebook as I browse around are local to me or specific to my interests. In fact, I spent some time convincing my dad that there are ads in Facebook at all. He had seen them, but he didn’t recognize them as ads.

But not all advertisers take advantage of these targeting capabilities. And not all web sites encourage targeted ads. Going from one web site to the next can be like going from New Hampshire to Vermont.

When you drive across the border from New Hampshire in to Vermont, the landscape becomes friendlier, more compelling. At least that is what visitors said to me when I lived there. Then I would explain to them that Vermont doesn’t allow billboards. And a light would dawn, and they would say “Yeah, you’re right. That’s nice!” is kind of like Vermont, in that respect. They have never allowed any kind of advertising that doesn’t fit in to the landscape. The ads that do appear don’t use color or presentation in a way that make them stand out from other content on the page. In fact, most of the ads appear along the right hand side, which is visually the least obtrusive real estate on the page. Google also seeks to make all ads relevant to a user’s query. Most other search engines have followed Google’s lead, but their progress has been slower than some of us would like.

Historically, Yahoo has been more like New Hampshire, allowing run-of-site ads that appear for all users, relevant or not. The good news is that Google’s approach generates better ROI for advertisers, and ultimately more revenue for Google, so Yahoo has been following Google’s lead and cleaning up of late.

What does this mean for marketers? Placing ads that are not relevant is digital pollution, plain and simple. It’s pollution we have taken for granted and overlooked, but that is changing fast. Google, Facebook and other sites are teaching us to care about the relevance of marketing. This means that marketers who broadcast ads regardless of user’s interests or intent face increasing risk. The risk is that consumers start to see those marketers as polluters.

The word “pollution” may sound strong. Can you really compare a ad to a plastic bag stuck in a tree? I believe you can. We spend much of our working and non-working lives online. We spend time with friends and meet our future spouses online. Why then should we allow our online world to be populated with valueless clutter?

The bad news is that there will always be polluters, but the good news is that there are a variety of marketing methods that do not pollute, and in fact those methods generally get better results with less investment. Rich media and viral ads can entertain and inform. Social marketing creates bonds based on mutual interest. Search marketing answers questions. Just as businesses are adopting no-impact and sustainable business practices in the physical world, they can and should be translating this behavior to online. Not only is it good citizenship, it is good branding.

Billboard graphic courtesy of Big Huge Labs’ Billboard Maker

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