Mood Is Online Advertising’s Missing Piece

by Illuma

From flat Earthers to Infowars, one thing that’s clearer than ever right now is the persistence of popular delusions. Even though by all rights we should be living through a golden age of information, it’s our ever-persuadable nature that shines through.

All of which means that advertising, the ultimate persuader, should also be flourishing: since the emergence of programmatic in 2005, many predicted an end to wastage and a new dawn of effectiveness. With ads hyper-relevant to the individual, who would in turn welcome – even learn to love them.

But the most hardened ad tech cheerleader would admit things haven’t gone as predicted. An over-reliance on retargeting takes its share of responsibility. Some claim it contributed more than any other factor to the growth of ad blocking. But also, the unrestricted nature of a third-party data market that is only now starting to face closer scrutiny. Most glaring of all though, major brands like P&G have pulled online spend with little negative impact.

Is keeping faith in programmatic starting to look like the ad industry’s own popular delusion?

Orthodoxy And The Madness Of Ad Tech

Personal, behavioural or micro – whatever you want to call it – targeting is so intrinsically linked with the idea of advertising online, any alternative approach almost looks like blasphemy.

The funny thing is, the idea of micro-targeting is so logical, I would completely understand your wish to see me burnt at the stake for suggesting anything different.

Your faith is especially understandable given the human need for belief systems, and ordered explanations, not least in such hectic times. The issue is, as a species, we humans are resolutely anything but logical – and impossible to compartmentalise with any accuracy. Programmatic, at least as it’s practised in 99.9 per cent of cases cannot account for that.

In its simplest form, personal targeting is a system of categorising people – demographically, or as ‘intenders’ for various products. It’s a system of absolutes, inherited from the pre-internet era, where our online lives are anything but. Flitting between a host of moods, and even identities as we fulfil different tasks, from work, to entertainment, to product research, to any number of others – even within a single day. As we shift between different contexts, and more importantly, content, should we really be focusing on fixed identifiers based on past actions, or rather those real-time moments?

From Historical Segment, To Current Mood

Let’s disregard for a second the privacy and latency questions that come hand in hand with tracking every visit to every site, made by every person. What about the likely effectiveness of placing those people into segments, according to past behaviour, assumed rules and our own subjective definitions?

Ditch all of that for a second. Now what if instead of crowbarring people into historical pigeon holes, we could instead tap into their current mood. Quite simply, and cleanly. No personal or 3rd party data involved.

It’s by no means simple – clearly, or everyone would already be doing it, especially post-GDPR. But the fact is, people enter different moods depending on the content of the page they read. And believe it or not, our specific mood, in that specific moment, makes us more receptive to certain other messages. Students of marketing academic Byron Sharp might also recognise what I’m talking about as ‘mental availability’. It’s about right message at just the right time. The irony being this is what segmentation always promised, but equally, will always struggle to deliver.

An Industry Awakens

Few would argue that certain pages perform well for certain ads at specific moments in time. What was missing up to this point was an understanding of what really motivates that with any accuracy. But all the evidence now points to customer mood being the defining factor.

But how do you tap into this? Whether you call it real-time contextual optimisation (not recommended, it’s a mouthful), or a way of prospecting naturally/organically/ethically in-flight, it seems we’re not the only ones who’ve been focusing on this area for a while.

Long at the forefront of broadcast innovation, Channel 4 has announced a new product, matching ads with relevant “positive contextual moments” within programming. Not just matching cooking products with the Great British Bake Off, but with any programme in which cooking takes place in a positive context. According to tests, the results are impressive – with brand recall doubling.

Look around, and you soon realise that a focus on current mood in advertising, as opposed to pigeon holing based on past activities, is far less common than you might expect. A piece in Campaign by Meg Carter from as far back as 1997 is as detailed as analysis on the subject gets. It quotes Graham Bednash, now a Marketing Director at Google:

“People say taking into account ‘environment’ is important, but they’re not doing it. It’s a matter of understanding that an ad in one environment will be perceived differently when seen in another.”

It’s fascinating there was discussion around this subject 30 years ago. But only now is it rearing its head again, in a very different, connected world. As a variety of factors, from GDPR, to major advertisers pulling back on spend are surely contributing to a growing interest in new approaches to online advertising.

What about in another 30 years – will we still believe in personalised targeting? Or will it be remembered, like flat Earth theory, as another popular delusion of the 21st century? For the first time since the birth of programmatic, that doesn’t seem like such a mad idea.