How to Save the Internet

Brian Millar, is a founding partner of Paddle, a company that gathers data about audience’s tastes on the Internet.

Issue 45 | December 2017

What would have happened if advertising agencies hadn't changed their thinking when television came along? They'd have interrupted programmes to show you a load of posters. Viewers would have thrown out their TVs and gone back to the radio. Commercially funded television would have died and we'd never have got to see Bromans. Fortunately, the early advertisers embraced the new medium. They studied what people liked on TV – drama, sketch shows, documentaries – and made miniature versions of them to sell their products. Free-to-air television took off around the world, and we all benefited.

Then came the Internet. A generation of advertisers moved their comms online, but forgot the lessons of the past. If you look at Internet advertising (and that's a big if, as you've probably installed an adblocker and have a powerful capacity to ignore the stuff that slips through) it's essentially TV and poster advertising made small. The agency creates a TV campaign and then delivers a load of screen grabs for somebody to crop square for Instagram. Which is nuts when you think about it, because the Internet is an utterly different medium.

For starters, the Internet is more compelling. We never had to have legislation to stop people reading newspapers while driving a car at 70mph. Yet people would rather die than look up from their phones – if you don't believe me, cycle through London at 8.30 in the morning and watch people step into the street while scrolling through kitten pix.

Advertising simply hasn't kept up, and clients are noticing. Yes, digital advertising is still growing, but the smart money is pulling out. Last quarter, P&G cut $250m from its digital adspend. Unilever's spending is down by 59%. Brands around the world hit pause on their programmatic budget. There were a host of reasons for this: fraud, reputation damage and media kickbacks. But there is a larger problem as well.

The Internet is fascinating. Internet advertising, to put it mildly, is not.

And audiences are turning away: in the UK, 22% of people use ad blocking software. In the US it's risen to 40%. In really technically literate countries like Poland it's more like 80%. Clickthrough rates are dropping. Engagement with Facebook posts decreased by nearly 30% last year, according to Buzzsumo.

Last month, the Internet Advertising Bureau vowed to kill off the most obnoxious kinds of advertising, which was a start. But it's hardly a grand ambition, is it? At Paddle, we think there's a better answer to the dilemma facing advertising. Instead of asking, 'How do we make better ads?' we asked,

Why is the Internet so damn fascinating?

We asked this in an extremely methodological way, studying 5,000 people worldwide and merging those findings with really big datasets. We burned a few trillion cloud computer cycles and came to some rather startling conclusions.

1 There are only four kinds of content that people love on the Internet.

2 It's either funny, or useful or beautiful or inspiring.

3 Once you see the Internet like this, you can't unsee it.

4 Check your Facebook feed. See?

5 The most successful brands on the Internet create all four kinds of content.

This last point is critical. Classical advertising thinking says that we must, above all, have a single message, a single look and feel, a single tone of voice. Brutal simplicity of thought? Well, we have a brutal truth for the brutal simplicity brigade: your approach doesn't work online, and we have the numbers to show it.

Look at Elon Musk's Twitter feed. You'll find amazing shots of rockets doing impossible-seeming things, but scroll down and you'll see the same rockets crashing to the Monty Python theme tune. You'll see stuff about Tesla's relief efforts in Puerto Rico and countdowns to launches of new Tesla models. Beautiful. Funny. Inspiring. Beautiful. Elon Musk doesn't need to reduce himself to a one-dimensional, brutally-thought-out message bot. Tesla is now the highest-ranked auto brand in the US, and has barely darkened the door of an ad agency.

You don't have to be a giant to do it. Take Rude Health, a UK cereal company that's grown through great social media. They rant about big agriculture, run skinnydipping festivals, publish recipes and publish hardcore food porn. They're regularly voted one of the UK's top 100 brands. They've never done a conventional ad.

You'd think in the case of Victoria's Secret that sex would sell. However, there's evidence that their Amazonian models may actually be putting women off. Many of their biggest hits on YouTube are exercise videos and blooper reels. Their Instagram feed is often run by the models themselves, and mainly consists of them gurning in coffee shops, having heartwarming moments with friends and pets and being generally un-erotic. The more facets the models show of themselves, the less intimidating they become, and the more engaging the brand becomes.

Compare this to Clinique's Instagram, which is essentially press ads all the way down. You wouldn't follow a human being who posted packshots over and over again. But somehow Clinique's brand manager expects that we should.

Clinique is entirely one-dimensional. It's an approach that worked fine when you saw a Clinique ad once a month in Harper's or Cosmo; it simply makes no sense in a social media feed, or - God help us – when it follows you around the Internet, popping up in site after site.

On the one hand, it's understandable that ad agencies are sticking to their matching-luggage strategies. The promise of the Internet, that we'll all have personalised brand messages, comes a nasty cropper when it turns into a thousand different creative briefs. But what if you could create a tailored approach with just four briefs?

There are lots of ways to be funny, or beautiful, or inspiring. Our analysis broke each kind of content down into genres, like slapstick and black comedy, or ethereal and spontaneous beauty. We discovered that different audiences respond to different kinds of content. You may not be surprised to hear that men truly are from Mars and women from Venus. Broadly, younger men spend most of their time looking at funny stuff and older men are more into useful things, plus some potty humour. This is why your dad likes Top Gear. (No, we didn't include porn in our research, as it's of limited use to mainstream brands). Young women love beautiful things online, especially grandiose, epic things – cute stuff actually kicks in after the age of twenty-five or so. Older women look more for inspiration: social good, spiritual guidance, things that connect them to a wider world. Given even this simple knowledge, why would a brand like BMW create the same content to try to satisfy both of those audiences?

Advertising has funded the greatest invention of our lifetimes, making it almost free. The valuations of Facebook and Google assume that the flow of money from advertisers to publishers will continue. There are a lot of signs that it won't. In the meantime, the ad industry has been at the centre of one of the biggest experiments ever conducted. We now face a choice. We either learn from the results of the experiment, and change our strategic model to reflect what we know about the way content works online. Or we continue the way we are, sticking posters onto TV screens and wondering why everybody went pay-per-view.

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