Digital Advertising Has a Rich Frontier: ‘The Rest of the Internet’

Opinion: As an industry, we are increasingly ignoring 70 percent of consumers’ attention

In the U.S., people currently spend 70 percent of their time online browsing the open web, outside of social media and search platforms. But marketers currently spend more than 75 percent of their digital media budgets on social media and search, with analysts reading that figure at 100 percent for 2017 (Brian Wieser, Pivotal Research; Jason Kint, Digital Content Next). This means marketers currently devote a shrinking 25 percent to 0 percent of budgets to the other portion of time people spend online.

Where else would you ignore 70 percent? Imagine if a politician ignored 70 percent of voter priorities, a fashion monthly failed to write about 70 percent of trending styles or a radio station left 70 percent of the top hits out of its playlist. This kind of omission would be ridiculous. Yet, as an industry, we are increasingly ignoring 70 percent of consumers’ attention.

Spending a lot of advertising dollars on social and search does make sense. Spending your entire budget there does not.

Social media—the whole story?

The average American Internet user spends roughly 30 percent, or about two hours, of his or her daily online time on social media sites. That is significant time to be involved in one activity. But it is still only a piece of a much bigger online behavioral picture—one that offers significant untapped opportunity.

Then there’s the issue of accuracy. Social media provides advertisers the opportunity to target according to demographics, geography and granular interests—interests that social media users describe themselves. This would seem to create an unmatched resource: What could have more value than a profile a user self-creates?

However, a social media persona is a uniquely public and elective creation. People are nuanced and volunteer information selectively about themselves. A social media profile will likely impart a partial understanding and/or a view of how users want to be perceived. It will have overlap with actual behaviors and interests, but most probably not tell the entire story.

Another problem with social media? People get busy. Life cycle events—getting married, expecting a child, moving to a new home, etc.—are by definition hectic times. They also offer incredible marketing potential. And search behavior outside of the social media environment often reveals these new chapters well before our profiles—and social media actions—do.

In addition, even if people do manage to keep up with their profiles, updates and likes don’t tell the whole story. For example, an 18- to 34-year-old social media user may self-describe as “engaged to be married,” but where exactly is she in her road to matrimony? Does she have her dress? Her venue? Her flights for the honeymoon?

If a marketer only knows her through social media, the behavioral insight isn’t there to tell. She’s out on the open web revealing her priorities—reading articles on The Knot, looking online for fine china patterns and wedding bands and going directly to her town’s bridal store website to browse.

Which brings us to the issue of timing: Yes, social-media enabled demographics and self-described interests help an ad resonate, but in order to work, display ads (and social media ads are, essentially, display ads) have to show up with the right messaging at the right time in the prospective customer’s purchasing journey—something social media cannot ensure.

Ads must also arrive at just the right frequency to engage without alienating. Without a method to gauge the customer’s place in the journey, social media can mishandle this balance, as well.

Searching for qualified new customers, before they search

Search reaches prospects at an exceptionally valuable moment—when they are investigating a purchase. But like social media, search advertising leaves important opportunities untapped—specifically, the chance to reach qualified new prospects at the top of the funnel.

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