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Marketing Doesn’t Need To Break The User Experience

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wrapped up recently, and I heard an interview about it on public radio (I  know, I know . . . but I can’t listen to ESPN every second, can I?). In the interview, the host spoke to a marketing professional who was at CES about the challenges faced when appealing to audiences who are watching TV (possibly on a DVR or from Netflix) and surfing the internet at the same time. The conversation inevitably touched on how marketing professionals are doing their best to develop a relevant “sponsorship” model in an age when users choose virtually all of the content – including the ads.

It got me thinking about a speech I made at the University of North Dakota a few years ago. I predicated that Facebook and Twitter would look a lot different in just a few years once they decided that they would have to actually make money. We’re just starting to see the ugly truth in that prophecy now. It seems like every Facebook “update” now comes packaged with some way to make Facebook money. Since we’re all pretty sure that the company will go public in 2012, this isn’t too surprising, but some of the “sponsorship opportunities” are becoming a little much. Do we mind the small ads on the sides of our screen as we look over the day’s posts? Not really. Do we really want them in our news feed? Not so much – but that’s not going to stop Facebook from putting them in there in 2012.

Whether it’s more ads on Facebook, sponsored Tweets or “spokespeople”on Twitter (thanks for telling me about your favorite energy drink, Ms. Celebrity!) or your favorite TV show spending ninety seconds discussing the car they are driving (White Collar is notorious for this), some kinds of marketing are obvious while others are not.

I think we’re starting to discover that it’s not really about choice (after all, almost no users would choose to have ads if they could avoid them and still get their content for free), it’s about volume. When any media outlet gets greedy and starts to overload themselves with selling messages, users / viewers get turned off. We’re willing to live with that short ad before our video starts to stream, but don’t make us watch three of them. When the media outlet crosses the line (with too many ads), users find other options. The key is to ensure that your messages don’t interfere too much with the user experience. In my mind, Google is one of the best at this, as is Apple.

We’ll see how things play out, but it seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same.