Scheduled Inconvenience is a Superior Experience

I got a lot of feedback from my last post about advertising practices on Podcasts, which you can read here.  After some more thinking about the topic, I realized the real issue, almost regardless of media type, is one of scheduled inconvenience versus surprise inconvenience.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that something that is unpleasant or less-than-desirable is more tolerable when you have already mentally allotted time for it.  Some examples:

  • A car repair.  Knowing your car needs to get service, and scheduling that service, is far less of an inconvenience mentally than your car unexpectedly breaking down and needing a tow and repair, even if the latter is less expensive than the former.  In the case of a scheduled repair, you had already braced yourself  for the time, expense, and hassle of getting to that appointment and picking your car up later.  Your car breaking down, forcing the repair on you, is a surprise, and is out of whack with your expectations.  The result?  So much more stress and unhappiness.
  • Traffic .  There are times when we can almost always count on traffic being there — rush hour, afternoons during weekends, the Sunday of a holiday weekend — no surprise that there are other people on the road.  You know this going in, and while the drive might be miserable, you already factored it into your trip and your expectations for the experience.  However, there are times when you don’t expect traffic — very early in the morning on a weekend, or very late at night, when usually traffic is very light…. and then BANG! — someone screws it up for everyone, and traffic is a mess.  Those are probably the most stressful kinds of interruptions, because they were not planned for, your schedule gets thrown off, and what was supposed to be a fairly smooth, quick trip, is now that much longer.  Those are minutes of your life that you will not get back.

My thought is that now most things fall into the “planned/unplanned” category now that humanity has shifted into the information age.  We have expectations set that we will be able to control our consumption of information, food, resources, art, etc. on our schedule.  A football game is too long to watch?  DVR it and skip the commercial breaks (and there goes that media spend on old-sytle ad slots down the drain).  Love talk radio?  Download a podcast, or better yet, an audio book…. or even your favorite show, right to your iPhone/iPad/Smartphone, etc.

The old commercial format, the commercial break, whether it is visual or auditory (e.g. a live read on a podcast that interrupts a conversation) is on the old model, the model where the consumer didn’t have a choice.  We don’t live in that world anymore, and I am increasingly convinced that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.  Content providers and advertisers are going to have to think of new ways to get their marketing/branding message out, because to consumers like me, a commercial break, or a live read ad spot in the middle of content, is about as jarring as a car breakdown or a sudden traffic accident.  We’re so angry at the interruption, we can’t focus on the message, and that advertiser does not get results for their spend.

I would categorize these as old-style Interruptions:

  • Commercial breaks
  • Pledge drives that cut short content (looking at you, NPR affiliates — shame on you for cutting shows short to beg for more money — instead, you lost me as a listener vs. your podcasts)
  • Popups/Popunders
  • Prerolls without session capping
  • Online Banners that expand or play audio without user initiation

So what’s left?  PLENTY!  In fact, there are a wide range of ads, many that are rich media or beyond the norm, that consumers accept and will accomodate in this era of new media:

  • Prerolls with session capping and/or a skip button (a la YouTube)
  • In-show or in-game sponsorship — e.g. the main character just happens to be drinking a Coke/Pepsi/Other, or the product is featured in other subtle ways (like a billboard in the backgroun)
  • The web version of the above — skin takeovers.  They are commonly accepted as high-impact, low-nuisance ad spots that not only send out a dominating marketing message, but are actually aesthetically pleasing in some cases.  Look for more of these kind of paid sponsorship placements to eventually become a large portion of the inventory, and have behavioral targeting.  You could cap on a per-session basis, and get a great tangible and intangible result.
  • Sponsorship logos and positions — most obvious during sports events, but applicable to other kinds of programming as well
  • Lumping commercials into long segments to leave other content segments completely commercial-free.  As I mentioned in the last post, Howard Stern and Joe Rogan do this, as do other folks.  It works pretty well for both.
  • Informal segments where nothing is sacred — Rogan is especially good at this.  Some of what he says about his products are backhanded compliments, but if anything, this seems to reduce audience resistance to the product, and allows him to keep credibility.  By keeping it in tune with the general tone of the show, these segments really just end up being the show itself, rather than something the user skips in order to get to the “real show.”
  • Banner Ads and other static sponsorships — most web users accept that there will be advertising on the sites they use.  As long as it is not interfering with their ability to enjoy site content, they really don’t mind it, and behavioral targeting makes banners even more applicable to the individual user.  Subtle is better.
  • Rich media ads that require user initiation — Sometimes rich media ads really are what the consumer wants.  Movie trailers, product demos, interactive games — as long as the user had a chance to opt in, rather than have it forced on them, these ads will meet with a receptive audience.
One extra note regarding the above — in terms of prerolls/TV spots, if you are going to do one — do a funny one.  I have a special place in my heart for a good funny commercial, and those are some of the only ones I won’t fast forward through, if they are funny enough.  20 years later, I still remember some very funny commercials Alaskan Airlines used to do — that’s real branding impact!  So if you are going to annoy your audience by stealing 15-30 seconds of their time, you had better make it funny.  
So those are my thoughts for now — I look forward to other comments and feedback from readers.
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Thoughts on Podcasts and Advertising — Considerate Commercial Breaks

One of the first things I did when I got my first iPod back in 2005 was start downloading podcasts.  Podcasting was a big buzzword then, and everyone was feeling out the possibilities around podcasts and how they would change the free content model.  The big flaw with Radio was that it could not be paused, and in a Tivo/DVR/Youtube culture of “entertainment on my time, my schedule,” radio was already fading fast, with the exception of niche markets like Satellite radio.

I loved all of the free content I got from the available podcasts, and stopped listening to radio.  No more listening to NPR pledge drives every 6 months, no more awkward commercial breaks in the middle of conversations, and a whole bunch of new content that terrestrial radio could never offer on such a niche level.  It seemed natural that this was one of the new ways content would be distributed and consumed — on demand, free, and mostly commercial-free.  What DVR’s are to visual content, podcasting was and is to audio content.

In the intervening years since then, much of the English-language programming for  terrestrial radio has collapsed or gone elsewhere.  Popular talk show hosts have retired, gone to satellite radio, or taken their show to the world of Podcasting, where the audience is smaller, but where you also have less regulation (no FCC policing you for content), a broad distribution infrastructure from partners like Apple (through ITunes’ podcasting support), and a format that users have embraced.

As the podcasting world has matured, we are starting to see big shifts in how podcasts are used , and how sponsors choose to become involved.  Right now, I find myself listening to a lot of comedy podcasts by stand-up comedians like Joe Rogan and Jay Mohr, both of whom  directly attribute higher attendance at their live shows to the popularity of their podcasts (both regularly are in the top 10 on ITunes for most downloaded).  At the same time, both hosts are very honest about their struggles to find sponsors and about their approaches to integrating those sponsors into their shows.  This is where it gets interesting, and gives those of us in the industry an early glimpse of how advertising and content interrelate.

For instance, Joe Rogan does all of his sponsorships at the very top of the show, before he even starts the show theme music.  It is done in a very casual, informal, conversational tone, and can be very irreverent.  While his guests are welcome to comment during this part of the show, and/or become part of the ad, Rogan is very careful to always note that this is the commerical part of the program, and to add in disclaimers to that effect.  What is interesting is that as he and guests sometimes lose the thread of the commercial and go into side topics,  these segments go way longer that he usually intended, sometimes as long as 15 minutes, a long stretch by any means for a commercial segment.  Yet for many of the listeners, myself included, these long rambling segments are often just as good as the show, almost seamless in terms of how they mesh with the content we are listening to.

Meanwhile, Jay Mohr’s podcast, a fine show as well, uses live reads in the middle of content, often stopping a guest mid-conversation to insert a 1-to-3 minute segment from a sponsor.  I don’t know about other listeners, but I find this absolutely maddening, as it is one of the main reasons I left terrestrial talk radio as soon as I had a way to carry mass amounts of audio content with me (e.g. the iPod and iPhone).  As a consumer of free content, nothing is more annoying to me than a break in the conversation, especially one that cuts off a guest while they are just getting to the good stuff.    So with Jay, I really do get irked when he does this, because it is an awkward way to shoehorn in a sponsor during an otherwise honest, heart-felt conversation.

What I liked about Howard Stern’s show back when he was on free radio was that his show had the flexibility to defer commercial breaks and lump them into big breaks so that he wouldn’t lose momentum in a conversation.  Joe Rogan’s show does this as well, but even more so, and as a result, you can often forget that the commercial segment is just that, and not some deeply personal conversation you are listening to.   The retired Tom Leykis, on the other hand (and also a good host — all of these people I am mentioning are/were at the top of their game) almost religiously stuck to the commercial break schedule, and it used to drive me nuts how he would lose a good conversational thread or call just to get to a break.  The irony here is that Stern, and Rogan, have commercial breaks that are, on aggregate, as long as any that Jay Mohr has (or Leykis had), but are packaged in a way that is more palatable, and respectful, to users and how they consume the content.  Case in point — I have never fast-forwarded past Joe Rogan’s commercial segments because I didn’t want to miss any part of the show, while on Mohr’s show, I have often skipped them, because they are fairly boilerplate, usually the same copy week-to-week, and so obnoxiously out-of-place that it actually lowers my opinion of him when he does them.  Sad but true.

This is a key point — in the new advertising model for new media, the commercial breaks of television and radio are something that will go the way of the dinosaurs.  Google/Youtube clearly is aware of this — while they do pre-rolls, they give the user the option of skipping after 5 seconds of watching, and they would never dare interrupt your video clip mid-stream to blast another ad at you, because they understand that an annoyed consumer these days is not fertile soil for a marketing message.  It is much better to get them while they are in a good mood, get the message in at the beginning, and to respect the sanctity of the content.  There are a lot of ways to get to this level — you can cookie and frequency cap users on a per-session basis, you can offer the option to skip the commercial after the first few seconds, but you give the user some sense that their time is respected, and that advertising inventory is respected and cultivated there, not just blasted out wholesale.

Not all sites adhere to this rule — many do run pre- and post-rolls with content, but without the option to skip.  Without naming names (after all, I work in the online world and need to stay in the good graces of future employers), there are sites I used to go to religiously that I have abandoned because I literally do not have the time or patience to waste 30 seconds of time each time I want to watch a video clip.  It’s a short term gain/long-term user loss to advertise this way, and is much like the much-maligned popup/popunder ad — eventually, it just was too annoying for its own good, and backfired on the message it was supposed to carry.  People blocked them or stopped going to those sites, much as I have stopped going to destinations that don’t offer flexibility with commercial placements that are anything more than a simple banner (think annoying ads with sound on by default, or expanding ads that are too easily triggered and have no close button).

These days consumers have way too many places to turn for content to put up with sites or programs that can’t keep up with how and why they listen to that content.  I know that Jay had a long history of co-hosting or being a long-term guest on radio shows, and I think he is still in “radio-days” mode of how he works the show.  Radio and Television are both pretty fixed in terms of how long programs can go, how long commercial breaks are, and how many breaks there are per show. In fact, until he finally got out of some of those habits, Mohr used to do time checks on his initial episodes, something almost asinine to do on a podcast.  But that’s how ingrained some of these old models are, and how folks think about marketing when faced with the challenge of how to monetize new content — they fall back on what worked.  Unfortunately, it isn’t working as well anymore, and it can really cheapen content when done wrong.

The postscript to this, and perhaps a future blog posting, is that this is still pretty virgin territory for advertisers, and it is vastly underutilized.  Programs like Rogan’s and Mohr’s (or Stern’s, or Carolla’s, etc.) are great in that they hit a very dedicated niche audience and brand that audience repeatedly — that’s why they do the show in the first place!  It builds demand, loyalty, and popularity in a very short time, something advertisers highly covet.  Yet most of the ads I hear are for non-mainstream companies.  I think Mohr’s Pepsi ads this Summer were some of the first Fortune 500 company ads I have heard on a podcast, so kudos to him.  I think very soon, looking back, marketers are going to realize what a steal a media buy is on a popular podcast.  More to come on this topic later, I am sure.



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E-Reader Demographics – Current Trends Buck Stereotypes

A big part of Advertising and Marketing is understanding the user base of any particular channel you are using, whether it is online, radio, television, etc. As tablets and e-readers (which tend to be tablet-sized) toy with the idea of creating ad spaces targeted at the demographic that uses them, it is worth digging into who these folks are, or at least dispelling some of the preconceptions we have around this demographic.

At the blog Pricenomics, Rohin Dhar has some interesting views on e-Reader penetration and whether it truly is something the “cultural elites” have adopted as the next step in reading. Before digging into the facts, his assumption was that e-Readers would be most prevalent in cities with a high cosmopolitan factor — In fact, he was wrong, and found out that Middle America was far more likely to own a reader.

I have found this to be the case as well with my close acquaintances and coworkers — if anything, the more literary a person is, the more they seem to be attracted to the luxury of having or owning a book, rather than thinking about it from a pure practical standpoint (the book is the content, not the container it came in). It’s almost akin to driving aficionados preferring manual transmission over automatic. I myself have given up on print versions of books, refusing to cede over any more of my small personal real estate to storing books I will never read again. I prefer being able to get a book right away, always having it with me (on my phone’s Kindle software, which is my choice of e-reader), and having a pretty flawless reading experience that way. If anything, I find I read books much more quickly on the small iPhone screen on Kindle.

Maybe the real way to look at it the issue is to view e-reader audiences as being synonymous with technie audiences in general — You will have some early adopters, and then the usual adoption curve for everyone else, but it’s not book-related demand, it’s about tech-related demand. If anything, I would think book readers might be more conservative, and thus less likely to adopt, than the average person.

The data seems to bear this out, but also the exception to this — a popular, “trendy” device like the iPad, which is also an e-reader (albeit a very overpriced one for just that activity) does seem to pull disproportionately from Apple/Mac fans, which (in my experience) do tend to be from the literati/Artsy side of the aisle. And as Rohin priced out, iPads have stayed relatively high-priced compared to e-readers, which have gone down steadily in price, almost in sync with the adoption curve timing for most new electronic devices. I think penetration has a long way to go, but the fact that iPad pricing remains so high is not just because of the later introduction — demand is strong for iPads. So iPads might be great for targeting that specific, “elitist,” demographic, but not e-readers as a whole, which are probably closer to the mean in terms of what user base they reflect.

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