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This will sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not: When it comes to advertising and the internet, user experience is the biggest opportunity that stands before us. In the last 20 years, we have seen the rise of a new medium that allows almost limitless new ways to entertain, inspire, inform and serve people. The internet lets everyone be a creator and a critic, a performer and an audience member, an individual and a part of a community — all at the same time.
And yet, user experience is also the great crisis of the marketing and media industries of our time as well.
Our runaway infatuation with new technologies and our desire to drive costs as low as possible has led to a form of consumer abuse in digital advertising. Frustrated consumers have responded by adopting ad-blocking software at alarming rates. By neglecting the founding principle of the internet — that consumers are in control — we have made advertising an outcast among the consumers we want to reach.
That’s because when we look at the tools at our disposal, too many of them define what we do in creative — simply because they exist.
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Creative technology has evolved because things tend to get vanilla and boring. Animated ads came from static ads underperforming. Then from animated ads, you get rich media with video and audio. And then from that came high-impact playable ads. But while the technology got more sophisticated, the experience for consumers hasn’t necessarily gotten better — and in many cases, it’s gotten much worse.
All of those started from a place of what we can do with technology. Creative technology has evolved to a limit that allows for faster creation and greater ideation, but it hasn’t evolved to the point that it can supplant creative professionals or human ingenuity. Worse, technology has defined what we do instead of what we should do.
During this year’s Super Bowl, much money was spent on funny commercials that took millions of dollars to create, let alone run. And yet the most successful commercial was the simplest one: A QR code bouncing around the screen. Why? Because it was different, it looked nothing like any of the other creative that’s typical for the Super Bowl, and it cut right through all that noise. The Coinbase ad wasn’t even a very targeted buy — but the very fact that it was different and novel made it work.
The Coinbase ad was low-tech (a little ugly but in a fun retro way) and genius — and takes us back to our roots when advertising was a source of inspiration and delight. A 2017 Nielsen study looked at 500 internet ad campaigns and found that when the creative is good, it’s an incredible driver of success: up to 89% for digital ads. That’s astonishing. Yet in the digital industry, we have gotten the story exactly backward, and we are paying a great price for that.
Related: How Much Should Entrepreneurs Care About User Experience?
Rather than making technology a necessary enabler of great consumer experiences and creatives, too many of us have put technology first, searching for more and more ways to automate marketing decisions, drive prices down, extract data and increase intrusiveness — ignoring the user experience and what consumers want.
- Don’t be overly disruptive to UX. Your creatives and messaging should be disruptive, but if your placement creates a negative experience, you can risk creating a negative association for your brand. Consider the context in which your ads will be placed and what users are there for. Native ads are a great tool; contextual targeting can ensure your ads aren’t inappropriate in their placement.
- Provide something unique. Your consumers are people. Think about who they are and what they value. Employ creative and authentic messaging to your brand that will appeal to the right audience. Employ interactivity with high-impact creatives, or even humor if appropriate.
- Consider how you’re applying creative ad tech. Creative professionals know that you don’t leverage ad tech just because you can — sound strategy and intelligent design have to lead. They can leverage the latest tools effectively by understanding when and how to apply them to represent brands effectively.
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This underscores what I believe are some basic rules for what makes great creatives in a world suffused with technology but inhabited by real people:
- Consumers are not a set of data points. They are living beings with intellect, emotions, ideas, wants and needs that must be understood to be served.
- Platforms are always changing. Social media, mobile, connected TV — the technology is always evolving, and our creatives must evolve with them. But it has to start with the consumer first, not just what’s possible with technology.
- Technology is crucial for meeting the new audience’s heightened expectations. But technology should enable creatives, not define it.
We need to get back to basics and put the user experience first — and this year’s best-performing Super Bowl ad was a great reminder of that. You can execute something with remarkable simplicity if it’s the right thing. A good idea and well-executed creative, when combined with smart media strategy, can generate performance and lead to a successful campaign, and this is especially true when integrated thoughtfully with all the bells and whistles that ad tech has to offer.
Now let’s get to work.
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