Ask almost any major brand if they would like to be associated with the drama, excitement and triumph of the forthcoming World Cup in Brazil, and the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’.
And yet only a very small group of elite brands will get to enjoy the privileges and benefits of being an official sponsor.
The benefits of this arrangement are immediately obvious for all parties. FIFA command enormous fees by creating scarcity. Brands get exclusive ownership of their category without pesky competitors to worry about. And the audience gets a distraction free environment so they can focus on the game.
The IOC has achieved the same outcome at the Olympics. There are just 13 top tier partners, each within their own specific category. Coca-Cola, for example, own the ‘Non-Alcoholic Beverages’ category, even though the IOC could easily have sold to Pepsi, Red Bull, Dr. Pepper, and every other soft drink brand.
There is no trackside advertising at the Olympics, which as we all saw at London 2012 preserved the audience experience. Instead, brands are integrated into the event experience (Omega timers, onsite McDonalds restaurants, Visa cash points).
Which begs the question – if the organising bodies behind the world’s biggest spectator events can manage to extract maximum value from world’s eyeballs without compromising user experience, why can’t the world’s leading digital publishers repeat the same trick?
You could argue the scale is not quite the same, but the top 1000 sites in the UK and US are doing seriously big numbers.
As I watched Andy Murray defeat Novak Djokovic to become the first Scottish men’s champion I couldn’t help but wonder how the experience would be if placed within the confines of some of our most popular websites. I suspect that rather than a subtle Rolex logo adorning the scoreboard (in a tastefully appropriate shade of yellow in keeping with other text) we’d instead be treated to looped tick-tock sound and swooping graphical clock hands obscuring the action whenever a player prepared to serve.
How did it come to this? When did big equal better? When did being obnoxious as possible become the best way to invoke positive emotions toward a brand, to stimulate interest, create desire, cause purchase intent?
I suspect it all happened quite by accident. That this was never the intended outcome. That it was a case of things just getting out of hand, one step at a time. That one day we’ll look back at the state of commercial websites in 2013 and bury our heads in our hands like our father’s did when shown evidence of their flared wardrobe.
The problem, of course, is that the value of online ads has been in free fall for what feels like forever. Those early banner ads in the top right corner earned a pretty penny for publishers that for the most part weren’t all that focused on their digital teams anyway. Any income they generated was a bonus on the year end report. And then, as print entered crisis mode, those banners in the corner had to work much harder to keep the ship afloat, which unhappily coincided with the rise of networks and programmatic trading and lots of other technology that promised a lot but seemed to mainly deliver greater choice for advertisers and less value for publishers.
That’s a gross simplification, and here’s another one. Most publishers saw the revenue from a banner ad fall by half, so they added another one. And then it happened again.
So now we have pages crammed with distracting ads that drive users into the arms of ad blockers. We have networks taking 50% of the revenue and pocketing publisher’s data while they’re at it, selling it on to the highest bidder at a fraction of its true worth. We have publishers throwing up their hands and accepting that they can’t claim a monopoly on the attention of any specific audience segment because the cookies show that Site A’s users also visit Site B, C, D and Z too.
But hold on just a minute.
While it’s true that people do indeed visit multiple websites on any given Sunday, this emphatically does not mean publishers offer nothing special that can’t be bought elsewhere.
On the contrary, the content quality publishers produce provides an environment that stimulates, informs and excites. The best writing has the power to engage and transfix in a way that might be likened to, I don’t know – a big sports event, perhaps?
Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the way people gaze into their screens as they engage with content on their favourite websites. Take a photo and you couldn’t tell if they were reading an in-depth investigation into a tragedy or watching England play.
Publishers do not own their user’s attention in a way they once did. They can’t argue the case that people are unlikely to leave the newsagents with a bag full of newspapers and magazines when everything is just a (mostly) free click away. But they can offer a unique opportunity to capture people when they are in a specific mindset. They can give advertisers a way to reach people who have an affinity for a publisher’s brand, who go back every day, people that currently ignore all those horrible ads.
As you may suspect, there’s an opportunity here. It’s there for the taking. The audience is waiting.