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Mary Meeker is right — most online ads suck

Let's list them in order of awfulness.

Kleiner Perkins partner Mary Meeker spoke about the quality of digital ads during her annual Internet Trends slidefest at Code Conference.
Asa Mathat / Recode

At last week’s Code Conference, Mary Meeker unveiled her annual Internet Trends Report, and buried within the 213-page deck were some very interesting stats about online ads and why they don’t work.

You don’t have to be a millennial to know that the ads on your phone suck and that no one watches them. According to Meeker, via a report from Unruly about millennials:

  • 93 percent will consider using ad-blocking software
  • 81 percent mute video ads they find irrelevant
  • 62 percent are put off by a brand that forces pre-roll viewing.

But it’s not all bad news. Millennials are 112 percent more likely to share online ads they like than any other demographic, and 23 percent more likely to enjoy ads they find relevant.

So what should marketers be doing to get consumers to watch their ads?

It’s actually very simple. We need to make better ads and target them for mobile.

The addicted user base on mobile provides marketers with a huge opportunity. Americans are more addicted to their smartphones than anything ever. A recent study released by Deloitte found that Americans collectively check their smartphones upwards of eight billion times per day.

We touch it and swirl it in our fingers and press the buttons, often for no reason. We are never alone in public anymore. We sleep with it by our side.

We are addicts, and it’s not just the millennials — it’s all of us.

But today, mobile ads aren’t very good

Today, the average mobile experience consists mostly of four ad-unit formats that range from horrible to so-so.

Let’s list them in order of awfulness:

The tiny banner ads on your phone: Does anyone really think you can read the brand name on these?

The pop-up: In one quick move, this ad unit will make people dislike your brand and the site they are on — all at the same time!

The pre-roll: Surely you know it is pretty easy to look at the pavement while this re-edited TV ad rolls by in front of the clip you actually want to see.

The in-feed ad: The now-standard social network ad experience is the best of the bunch, but scrolling by these video ads — with the sound off — isn’t hard at all.

Is it really surprising, then, that digital ads on average generate lower response rates than direct mail?

Can this be right? The physical junk mail you get and throw out is often more effective than digital advertising.

Distribution methods and formats are stabilizing

The smartphone is now settled science. The screen sizes may vary a bit. The app designs may vary a bit. But, overall, the hardware and software formats are set.

People stare mostly at content from their friends or their favorite publishers in a vertical feed, mostly in some app, and the content itself is "atomized" in that feed.

And the winning platforms like Facebook, Amazon and Google have lots of users, and lots of data on their users, so you can target your ads on these platforms effectively and at scale.

From a business perspective, this is bad news for publishers that don’t own big platforms or a TV network, as Tony Haile from Chartbeat so very capably describes in his recent posts on Recode.

But all this is good news for marketers

So, is the ecosystem finally in place for the digital marketing we have been promised for so many years?

  • Lots of people are looking at the same thing.
  • They do it all day long.
  • There is standardization and accepted formats.

This sounds a lot like the TV market — but mobile gives us the opportunity to be even better than TV.

And the answer is creativity

We now have a chance to take this incredible audience and deliver high-quality, creative messaging to exactly the people we want to reach — and who actually want to be reached.

But marketing on mobile will continue to underperform and annoy users until we realize the solution is staring us in the face. As Meeker aptly put, ads need to be authentic, entertaining, personal and useful. And it needs to be all in a non-interruptive ad format. Now it is just up to us as marketers to deliver.


Steve Ellis is the co-founder and CEO of WhoSay, the leading celebrity and influencer content-marketing company. Ellis co-founded WhoSay in 2010, and oversees company strategy and operations. WhoSay works with more than 2,000 celebrities who use its invitation-only platform and applications to manage their relationships with fans across all social and mainstream media. Previously, Ellis was founder and CEO of Pump Audio, a music-licensing marketplace that connected production and agency buyers in television and advertising with a community of independent musicians. Reach him @WhoSay.

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