In many ways, we live in an unprecedented era when it comes to access of the media content we consume daily. Hidden beneath the perception that our options have steadily evolved over the decades, something far more fundamental shifted for the first time in the very recent past.

Yes, our content-delivery mechanisms have steadily evolved, from our great-grandparents sitting around a radio on Sunday night to TV, then cable TV, then videotapes, then DVDs, followed by web and mobile content. However, the relationship consumers had with their content remained largely unchanged for virtually all of that period. Specifically, large corporate providers offered us content, and we consumed what they gave us. They in turn gave us more of what the largest numbers of us consumed. And that was the extent of our influence on that content.

For roughly a century, that dynamic held firm, even as the delivery options made quantum leaps forward. Content creation and distribution was controlled by a powerful few, and the masses were largely passive voyeurs, able to choose from the available options but left out of the process of creating that content.

Then, somewhere around a decade ago, it all changed.

Digital was already a decade old in 2005, but so far, it had mostly held to the model of the magazines, newspapers, and TV shows it largely repurposed.

Then, in just the past handful of years, a profound new concept has exploded, seemingly all at once. Users realized they were no longer shackled to consuming the content provided by a few major vendors; they were suddenly freed to choose from a massive range of options. And better still, if they were passionate enough themselves, they had the chance to create their own content. And if the masses found it valuable enough, they had the chance at impact that had been totally out of reach before.

Device pile

It is inherently liberating, democratic, a creative meritocracy. A mom could post videos on YouTube of her son singing and dancing, and if it caught the right person’s attention, as was the case with Justin Bieber, a net worth of $100MM+ was possible almost overnight. Almost any musician could post music on social media and at least have a chance, when in the past they would have been reliant on the lottery ticket of hoping for a record deal.

Even those with no grand aspirations of a wide audience were hugely empowered. Social media and blogs meant that literally anyone so inclined had access to a digital pulpit, and everyone was invited off of the sidelines and into the game.

And this sense of empowerment is now so engrained that clearly none of us will ever give it up, even if we don’t always consciously recognize just how new and historically unprecedented it really is. We relish this power, demand it. The days of having to sit through a song on the radio that we don’t really like and waiting for the next one are gone. Spotify, Pandora, we create and choose the soundtracks of our lives in real time. Don’t like that song? Click, next! Rolling Stone magazine doesn’t give enough press to the awesome new band we just discovered? OK, I’m just gonna take the lead on a fan blog and make myself the de facto authority. Filling a void. Classic yet exhilaratingly modern.

Now, the next challenge looms: when will advertising catch up?

So far, if we are to be completely, bluntly honest with ourselves, it really hasn’t. While the entire content ecosystem basks in this new era of user empowerment, of choice, advertising largely remains defensively stuck in the practices of the past. We have numbers to hit, metrics to meet, budgets to spend.

As a result, we do largely what we have always done: we put our message out there, often on a large scale, without really listening to these suddenly no-longer-passive users we want so desperately to reach. We are still, as an industry, trying to push our content on our terms. And since, based on everything else that is going on with media, that is soooo last decade, it opens up a fascinating advertising arms race to determine who will read the proverbial tea leaves and lead the way in embracing user empowerment for advertising as well as media content.

Search is probably the current gold standard, and quite possibly the model around which those working to bring display into the future will need to base their solutions. Search, of course, is inherently user-driven. When someone searches for something, they are raising their hand, asking for help, seeking information. An ad that aligns with that very on-task, active process has a tremendous head start on success. There is a promising fledgling start-up called Google that can attest to this.

Beyond search, however, we have a nearly limitless separate pool of display inventory available, and predictably everyone involved wants to monetize that in any way possible. Networks emerged in the past 10-12 years to address that need through aggregation, then exchanges took it a step further through automating that inventory access, which added scale and efficiency, almost setting up a stock market for ad space.

Which is all great, with one glaring issue: how is the user we are all trying to reach better off for all of these changes?

Truthfully, they almost certainly aren’t better off. It may be great for advertisers and their agencies to be able to get lower-priced ad inventory through programmatic, but for the user, it really only deepens a longer-term issue: nobody seems to be listening to them. The exhilarating two-way exchange of their other forms of media is still a pure one-way monologue when it comes to advertising.

First, the ads are not more relevant for them, because the targeting is largely the same pixel-based targeting the industry has been relying on for many years. Advertisers continue to assume intent based on something the user did days or even weeks ago. As a result, as users we are routinely carpet-bombed with clumsily targeted messages for something we already bought a week ago, when we were actually in market for it. Or, in the event we are still in market for that product, we are still almost certainly not going to be in the same mindset at the moment the retargeted ad appears, meaning we get a running shoe ad while we are researching best local sushi restaurants.

And because that ad experience so badly lags compared with the control they have with the rest of their media, users feel a greater disconnect with digital ads. Users have no say in what types of messages they are exposed to or how often they see them, so they naturally begin to assume there will be no value in them and tune them out. And the industry only makes that worse by steadily increasing the volume of delivered ad impressions, now an estimated 50 ads per person per day.

It’s as if, as an industry, we’ve given up on adding value to the user and have simply resigned ourselves to ads becoming a disposable commodity, something with inherently limited value to be bought and sold at market like soy bean futures.

There is an alternate path, however, and it starts with the user. When advertising catches up to the rest of the media landscape and starts listening to the user – and, better still, empowers them to start telling us what they are receptive to learning more about and when they want that interaction to take place, then digital advertising will truly leapfrog into the future.

The great part is, digital media is full of brilliant, creative minds, and history shows that we will evolve and adapt, albeit sometimes more slowly than we should.

And it is already starting to happen. Some brands are taking creative routes to let their audiences create content and then using their power and marketing budgets to offer them a wider forum, combining the inclusionary benefits of social media with time-honored financial clout. Spending on social in general is spiking significantly.

Others, like my company, Infolinks, are looking at the conventional targeting practices of display and seeking new ways of improving the user experience. At Infolinks, for example, we do not use pixel-based data or historical data at all; we  choose instead to focus solely on what the user is doing on their current screen and the immediate referring screen as a way of better understanding the user’s interests and mindset at the moment we connect with them. Essentially, we let the user tell us what they’re in the market for and what they are actively researching, and only if we can add value to that task with a relevant message will we get involved and serve an ad. User-driven, opt-in advertising. Very 2015!

Surely it is also just the beginning. Digital media overall has never been stronger. And when you combine smart, fresh creative thinking with massive amounts of cash, which continues to pour into the ad tech category, exciting leaps forward inevitably follow.

Even more promising, the ad industry has a clear blueprint to follow from the larger media content landscape. The era of the active, empowered user has officially arrived. And all we have do is listen to them and welcome them into the creative process to achieve a connection and engagement level beyond anything we’ve been able to achieve in the past.

Who will win this digital arms race? Way too early to tell, but we do know it will be fascinating to watch and the competition will propel the whole industry forward.

On your mark, get set, go!

1 Comment

  1. Putri April 17th, 2015

    Hi John,
    Thanks for your post here. After I read your post today, I feel that I learn new point of view for Digital Era now. And like you said, that it will be fascinating to watch the whole industry forward. :)
    Thanks again, John.

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John Yearout
John Yearout is a digital media veteran, starting his career on the agency side at the dawn of the digital era on major brands like Microsoft and Sprint. He later shifted to representing top properties like The Wall Street Journal and several leading digital vendors before overseeing global sales in his current role as Chief Sales Officer for the leading real-time-intent platform, Infolinks. Yearout lives in the global hub of tech, the SF Bay Area, with his wife and three spirited, very tech-savvy kids.