Blockchain and Other Emerging Tech Aren't Going to Save Advertising

Marketers need to stop using them as a Band-Aid to problems

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There is very little overlap between the number of people who want change and the number of people who are willing to change. Humans have these fantasies about white knight solutions in which something or someone rides in on a glorious steed and solves our problem in such a way that we are not required to change our beliefs and behaviors. Very few fantasies or fairytales end with hard work and people fundamentally changing their approach.

Right now, advertising is grasping around in search of a knight, and startups or emerging tech enthusiasts are more than willing to step up and play make-believe. Blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality, beacons and so will not save advertising. They are all tools, and it doesn’t matter if you have a pitchfork or Excalibur—when it comes to tilting at windmills, the result is still the same.

What will save advertising is consent.

Consent is one of the major themes of 2018. As our society grows and evolves, we are constantly trying to figure out how to establish relationships that are mutually beneficial. From #MeToo all the way to GDPR, the message is the same: People are feeling like their sovereignty of self is not being respected. People are demanding that interactions become a conversation, not just a one-way street with them being used or yelled at.

People are demanding that interactions become a conversation, not just a one-way street with them being used or yelled at.

Most advertising feels about as enjoyable as catcalling for the target; it is an entirely one-way affair with little regard for the level of availability or interest of the other party. Right now, both catcallers and advertisers are identifying their target market and assuming that the market they are targeting wants anything to do with them. Sometimes they are right, but more often than not the subject of said unwanted advance is not interested. As a New Yorker who lives in Manhattan, I have exactly zero interest in buying a car, yet I see no fewer than 10 car ads a week.

The traditional models of advertising are built around a consumer seeing the ads of a company that wants something from them rather than a consumer opting in and seeing ads that interest them. In a pretty expected response, most people hate ads and use ad blockers, get up during commercials or tab over to a different window, resulting in millions of dollars wasted by brands.

The vast majority of people do not like feeling used, shouted at or like a one-way street. Brands are not listening to consumers. Brands are shoving their agenda and message to a consumer to buy, use or consume whatever the brand is selling. At best, under the guise of calling it brand awareness or education, brands are convinced to waste huge amounts as they shout their message at a large number of people who are fundamentally uninterested in their product offering.

Most brands have become these shouty things that consumers don’t feel they can trust because all brands care about is getting people to buy them. There is little to no possibility for a dialogue or even a way to consent to a conversation because the entire interaction is about what is best for the brand, not what is best for the individual. At this moment in time, there is no real way for a consumer to say no to a brand and have it heard or respected. Until brands and platforms start listening to and respecting “no,” there is no incentive for the consumer to say yes or participate.

The reason that so many small brands see great returns from advertising on platforms like Pinterest with its buyable pins or Instagram is because they show a product consumers want. By listening and to their consumers and allowing their interests to drive the ads that are being shown an experience that feels educational or exploratory is created.

Pinterest and Instagram have changed the experience from being catcalled into finding the best examples of the things I want and showing them when and how I want them. As a result, I’m perfectly happy to do the low friction thing and buy through their platforms. They have taken the role of the ever-faithful concierge.

The difference isn’t a purely technical one. Blockchain, for example, is not a concept, nor is it a magical panacea. All blockchain is a type of database, a specific technical database structure. It has its advantages. There are things it is good at, but no one is looking at Microsoft’s Excel or Oracle’s SQL solutions to save advertising; the problem isn’t a technical one—it is a problem with the approach. That isn’t to say there is no role for technology in the solution, but a distributed database isn’t going to make a New Yorker want to drive a car or watch ads about a car.

What can and will change advertising is shifting the approach and starting to have reasonable conversations about what will actually allow and empower mutual benefit with the consumer.

Conversations like:

  • How can we use blockchain to better track opt-in/opt-outs to cross-platform provide ads the consumer is interested in?
  • How can we use blockchain to establish the time of purchase/conversion to limit ad wastage post-purchase?
  • How can we enable better just-in-time discovery?
  • Where and when are people opening or even looking to be advertised to?

Solving any of these pain points would allow a significant increase in the quality of the user interaction. The ideal solution to any of them may involve a technology-based blockchain, but the focus gets to be on solving the problem and not being attached to the “buzzword” solution.

Technology can and will play a major role in the development of those conversations, but technology is not the knight who will ride in and save advertising from the ivory tower. Advertising is going to have to walk down those steps and start having conversations, not yelling at people from up high.