Advertising Through The Years: The Evolution of Attention

Traditional advertising has done one thing really, really well over the past 70 years. It’s stolen attention. What I mean by that is, advertising was created to take time away from content consumption and shift it to brand/product awareness. Think of it this way: back when we used to watch cable TV, what would happen every 7 minutes or so? A slew of television commercials that lasted for 4 to 6 minutes

As you were reading an article on Forbes.com what would happen as you scrolled down? A thumb stopping ad for BMW that took up your entire computer screen. If you were reading an interview in Sports Illustrated magazine 25 years ago, what happened as you turned the page? A full page ad that took your attention away from the content you were consuming. The same thing happened if you were in your car 30 years ago, listening to Howard Stern. Suddenly, you’d hear an ad for prime ribs–even though you were a vegetarian. We used to encounter countless ads from various places that had varying degrees of applicability to our lives. But social media and streaming services have started the process of changing the game entirely.  

Think about it. How much cable television do you currently watch? Can you name even one close friend who doesn’t subscribe to a video streaming service? Studies show that close to 70 percent of US households have a TV/movie subscription, so even if you have a friend that uses cable, it’s likely he or she is using Netflix as well.

via GIPHY

Don’t believe it? This year, Netflix racked up more views on their platform than viewers of cable and satellite TV combined. Although I haven’t done the research myself, I live by common sense and by paying attention to culture. The growth potential of HBO MAX, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, etc and Hulu is alarming or exciting depending on what side you sit on. Conservative estimates show that up to 30 percent of households were “cord cutters” ,meaning they turned away from cable altogether, in 2017. That was in 2017, now let’s think about that number in 2021. 

What does all this mean? It means that television commercials are in major friction against the market. Collectively we’re watching less TV and we’re spending more time on our phones. Entertainment has continued to evolve, and with it, so has human attention. With this in mind, it’s key to understand a few pieces of information.

Number 1, this is not a childish phenomenon. Yes, the pandemic accelerated cord-cutting, but this isn’t a new trend. Social media isn’t just for teenagers–in fact, there is no “social media”. There’s just media–a media landscape that has changed rapidly. Today, more than 80 percent of each generation uses social media. Meaning, your GenZ kid is just as likely to have a social media presence as her grandma. The internet doesn’t care if you believe me or not, it doesn’t care if you’re not willing to learn its language. It will move on without you. Therefore, your marketing strategy needs to evolve. 

Number 2, influencers are the new editors in chief. You, as a marketer or business leader, cannot underestimate the importance of internet culture. That doesn’t mean that the traditional way of advertising has died, and you should forget about old methods that may have worked in the past. It does mean that you can’t afford to write off these new creators who are disrupting your space. DoggFace208 is a perfect example of this.  Through the years, Ocean Spray has spent millions upon millions of dollars to grasp less attention and cultural relevance than DoggFace208 garnered in 1 minute. Side note, kudos to Ocean Spray for jumping on to that attention and adding to the narrative (I’ll go further in depth on that cultural moment in a later article). 

As I mentioned before, traditional advertising steals attention from what the consumer actually wants to consume. Advertising execs do this with the hope that the consumer might want to buy or be aware of what he or she is selling. Take that and flip it, now you’re giving time to a consumer who you know will want more information about what you’re offering. Look at the big picture and understand what’s happening in social media. Most platforms give us a single stream of feed dynamics. People are consuming content from many different parties (individuals, brands, publications, etc.). If a brand were to understand how to make content or how to team up with influencers to create far more native and contextual content for that stream, they would have a far greater upside.

When a TV show goes to a commercial, you can feel it. When you integrate a marketing campaign, whether you’re doing it yourself or you’re working with an influencer, it can be a little more seamless. That is the point. What does this look like in real life? Collaborations and sponsorships with influencers; supporting the things and people adjacent to the target audience you want to reach.

Above all, you have to realize that the market decides what’s impactful now, not executives in a boardroom. Customers have always decided what they like, but television commercials and radio ads haven’t given advertising execs a feedback loop. They did not provide quant and qual metric. These metrics, created immediately within a social media environment, shape insights for social media marketers that can be used to educate brands and produce more effective messaging. The comments section matters, which leads me to my next point. 

Number 3, you might want to hire a post-creative strategist. You need someone who is willing to understand everything: the platform, the target audience, and how it relates to what you want to do. This person is going to be a key member on your team, the one who informs your content strategy. The PCS is a person that recognizes where the attention is and where it could go. 

Post creative strategists pay attention to the comments from the creative that you put out. This allows for 20 percent of everyone’s creative team to just be creative. Now, they can create solely to receive insights from the consumer. Whether it’s strategic and you made the content specifically to get insights about questions you have, or if it’s the serendipity of a volume of comments that you read when the intent was to just build awareness around your product–you now have this rich feedback loop. Somebody whose business is about being ears for your brand is completely imperative. We live in a world today where the majority of brands focus on their mouth, i.e. what they say. Using social media as a consumer insights tool is imperative, hence why the PCS matters so much. However, 99 percent of marketers aren’t thinking about this role.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that the media landscape is constantly evolving.

Effective social media strategies aren’t built overnight. They take patience, humility, and an abundance of empathy. You have to give something back to your community, find value in providing entertainment or information–you have to give something of value in exchange for the time that you’re taking away. For example, I’m very stressed with making sure this was a valuable 7 minute read for you. To summarize, you have to ask/earn their attention, rather than demand it. 

This might sound scary, and counterintuitive to everything you’ve been taught. But, you’ve got to make it about them. Once you approach your content strategy with the mindset of giving, rather than taking, you’ll be ready to provide so much value to your end consumer.

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