Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Adjusting to the new normal: steps advertisers can take to weather the storm

By Ben Williams, Director of Advocacy at eyeo

The advertising community is at an impasse. On the one hand, the crumbling of the third-party cookie has led to some in the industry calling it the “death knell for digital advertising as we know it”. This is primarily because the digital advertising landscape grew from the third-party cookie, as it gives advertisers the tools they need to display their ads to the most relevant audience.

On the other, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has added further fuel to the fire with some reports suggesting that advertising spending is expected to significantly reduce over the next few months. Aside from the immediate financial implications, the pandemic is also likely to have an impact on how consumers work, what they buy, and how they interact with others.

With so much change happening in such a short space of time, we as an industry need to figure out how we can adjust to how we are reaching consumers with changing demands, on a considerably tighter budget. This is not as easy as it sounds, but there are few steps we should be considering; after all, the longevity of our industry depends on it.

Step 1: Pay greater attention to consumers, they matter more than ever before

The first and arguably most important step the advertising community can take over in the coming months and beyond is paying closer attention to the wants, needs, and desires of the consumer.

The web ecosystem is clearly in the midst of evolving to meet consumers on consumers’ terms. For example, we have just seen Apple take the final step in its journey to making Safari more and more private in its latest update to its Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) system, which allows the company’s web browser to block third-party cookies.

For context, this is against the backdrop of the new standard for data privacy that was shepherded in by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016, not to mention similar legislation popping up in specific US states, most famously California.

Are these changes surprising? Not really. Ever since Cambridge Analytica, there has been a rising understanding amongst the public of how personal data and private information is being shared for advertising purposes.

Advertisers will also need to recognise the pandemic will change consumers’ online behaviour further. It is likely to become even more value-focused and their preferences may start to shift to different, more essential products.

To a certain degree this is already happening, even if the initial beneficiaries are the usual suspects. In addition, evidence suggests that consumers now want simple and reassuring brand messages about COVID-19, not for brands to disappear.

The issue is we have not always been receptive to the frustrations held by consumers, and the considerable increase in privacy awareness followed the rise of ad-blocking users over the last few years; the parallel developments provide evidence to the frustration users have felt with the growing frequency of intrusive adverts and more visible tracking mechanisms.

The truth is that this simply has to change if advertisers are to survive.

As such, the first step for the advertising industry to adjust to the ‘new normal’ will be to understand what their audiences preferences are and how best to reach them. That is, bring the spotlight back on online audiences and identify them as people again, rather than just a pool of faceless cookies. For many, they will come to realise that consumers are now expecting both a meaningful and relevant experience on content, especially advertising.

Put bluntly, to survive this period of uncertainty advertisers just need to give ‘em what they want. The money will follow for publishers as the value increases for advertisers.

Step 2: Keep it simple; polluting webpages could do more harm than good

A further consideration advertisers should be making – which ties into bringing the spotlight back onto consumers – is placing a greater emphasis on quality over quantity.

Digital pollution – or the littering web pages with ads at the expense of a respectful user experience – has been and still is a common occurrence in the web ecosystem. However, not only are the demands of online users clearly changing, but also the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic means that advertisers simply don’t have the budgets to treat it as business as usual.

But an important trade-off has to be highlighted here. While consumers now want to have a respectful user experience online and their behaviour is likely to now become more value-focused, they will still spend money, especially online, and advertisers still need to communicate with them as a brand to keep that money directed toward their brands.  

Consequently, as advertising budgets continue to reduce, it will be crucial for advertisers to consider establishing a more balanced value exchange over the coming months. For example, by shifting to ad quality rather than focusing on ad frequency, this will not only allow advertisers to operate within their means as purse strings continue to tighten, but also respect the changing needs and values of the consumer by not disrupting their browsing experience.  

The end of an era? Think again.

Advertisers are rightly concerned about the ongoing changes to the web ecosystem and the implications of COVID-19. However, it is imperative they start to recognise these changes are in fact providing them with a window of opportunity to improve the way they operate and respond to changing consumer demands.

Put simply, consumers have been demanding greater privacy – including transparency, choice, and control over how their data is being used – for some time now, and the web ecosystem is evolving to meet these wishes. If advertisers are to both survive and thrive in this rapidly changing web ecosystem, any steps taken must not only recognise these changes, but also let them guide their decisions.