“People aren’t paying attention to ads.”
“Consumers are seeing too many ads.”
“Ad overload is hurting brands.”
When was the last time you heard someone in the industry make a claim like this?
Probably not too long ago. Ad overload is a staple of conversations at industry conferences and in op-eds. And, anecdotally, we have every reason to believe they’re right. Ad-free streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are on the rise, with newcomers like Disney+ and HBO Max joining them. Ad blockers continue to be some of the most popular mobile apps and browser extensions. Surveys have indicated for the better part of a decade that a large majority of consumers think they see too many digital ads.
But for marketers, precious little attention has been devoted to exactly how overloaded digital advertising is, and what decisions need to be made to ensure that ads are effective without being excessive. In other words, we know consumers think that they see too much advertising. We just haven’t done much as an industry on a granular level to figure out what that means.
The blind spot
This, in my opinion, was a big blind spot. So, the research team at true[X] looked at both standard and interactive video campaigns – over 1,000 in total – that run alongside long-form full episode streaming content on services like those from the Disney-ABC TV Group and other premium publishers.
We also looked at what drove brand lift when you dug deep on these ad campaigns. What were the exact parameters of the campaigns? And how did consumers respond differently depending on where they were in the purchase funnel? Our reason for taking this approach was that, when you analyze over a thousand digital campaigns, you start to see some patterns that might not emerge otherwise, and that starts to help answer questions that are tougher to investigate without the benefits of big data sets.
Here’s one: What’s the difference in brand impact if the only differentiating factor you’re looking at is the length of the ad? After all, consumers tuning out after a few seconds is a well-documented symptom of ad overload. Or is it?
We took a look at 15-second versus 30-second ads to figure out whether an ad twice the length resulted in twice the brand lift or if 30 seconds was starting to reach the zone of annoyance. It turns out that it’s a little more complicated than that.
By normalizing the data and arriving at a “general” brand funnel representative of hundreds of brands we were able to derive average brand lift gains. As it turns out, for the upper and middle funnel, doubling the length does double the brand lift. In fact, it more than doubles it at the awareness stage at the very top of the funnel.
However, when it comes to brand preference and purchase intent in the lower funnel, the improvement in brand lift is much less stark. What we can glean from this is that when a consumer is already familiar with a brand, even a relatively short spot can push them toward becoming a customer. This suggests that perhaps what’s most important is compelling creative, not just time spent with an ad.
There’s more we can consider, though. It goes without saying that the digital landscape bears a few key differences to prior mediums. Even in video advertising that bears a close similarity to TV commercials, we can require consumers to opt in or otherwise interact with ads before they advance to their content. This helps advertisers better guarantee that a consumer actually saw the ad, versus whether that consumer was off the couch and taking a snack break while commercials were running. (It’s worth noting that, while we have the ability, sometimes advertisers don’t take advantage of it.) A smart targeting strategy also means advertisers are less likely to need to cast the widest net possible, potentially generating waste by advertising to the wrong audience.
So, that being said, another factor we can look at is frequency of exposures – how many times does an ad need to be deployed in order to be effective? Even in digital, many advertisers are under the impression that more exposure equals more effectiveness. The reality is that it’s far more nuanced than that. When we looked at how frequency of ad exposure impacts brand lift, we found that it differed depending on which stage of the funnel the consumer was in.
At the top of the funnel, brand awareness improved steeply if a user was exposed to an ad twice instead of once, or three times instead of twice. But as the funnel gets narrower, that steep curve flattens to the point that increased exposure barely moves the needle when it comes to purchase, visit or watch intent.
Again, this makes a lot of sense and seems kind of obvious when you think about it. A consumer who’s already well versed in a brand won’t need to be reminded of that brand as much in order to be moved through the brand funnel. But these kinds of nuances aren’t always addressed in media planning, even in digital.
And either way, dialing back on ad frequency won’t help if creative isn’t up to par. We dug a little deeper into one campaign in particular. This retail campaign deployed two versions of its creative, each featuring different furniture products. It was an interesting campaign for a nearly-universally-recognized brand, but a division within it that isn’t as well known. So, we were curious as to what the results would be, and indeed, they surprised us.
The effect of each individual piece of creative by itself, exposed only once, was minimal when it came to driving brand lift. Showing the same creative multiple times, similarly, didn’t do much. But if a consumer was exposed to both of the brand’s ads? That delivered substantial impact throughout the funnel, ranging from an 8-point lift in awareness to 12 points in consideration to 4 points in purchase intent. This is called complementary effectiveness. The sum of the two parts is greater than each individual one on its own.
When it comes to the power of devices, we sought to understand whether the smaller screen and the intimacy of a personal mobile phone would be more influential at increasing brand sentiment compared to the larger-profile, bigger-screen viewer experience of a connected TV. Traditionalists maintain that TV is king as it commands the living room. “Next- gen” marketers believe mobile devices command our attention in ways no other medium ever has – and that this necessarily delivers more effective branding.
All things being equal, connected TV appears to deliver significantly more impact for brands when it comes to driving behavioral intention: likelihood to purchase, visit online or in-store and watch in the case of entertainment.
What all this tells us is that consumers’ receptivity to the amount of advertising they receive differs depending on where they are in the purchase funnel. It also depends on what the creative looks like and how it comes to them. When they’re early in the customer journey, they’re conducive to receiving the same message more than once. However, as you approach that crucial consideration phase, less is often more.
Ad overload is real. But all too often, advertisers’ and publishers’ reactions have been all-or-nothing. They’ll pull back on ads across the board. Or they crank up targeting in a way that focuses so much on the consumers most likely to buy that it neglects the very real need to build a brand outside of that immediate market.
A smarter and more thoughtful way to address ad overload would take into consideration where a campaign’s target audience lie in the customer journey and whether elevated frequency and full length 30 second spots of a single ad might be better replaced with well-coordinated creative.
While we have evidence that “the bigger the screen, the greater the impact” holds true, this shouldn’t take away from always aiming to deliver the right messaging to the right audience at the right time. In digital, we have the tools to optimize creative messaging for brand impact. We just have to put in the work.