When Online Advertising Actually Works

Telemarketing is one of the most ineffective forms of advertising. Hello? Yes? I'm cooking dinner, why would I want to buy something? How do you know I'm even remotely interested in your product? Online advertisements like text ads and banner ads are slightly different. I usually buy things online out of convenience so the venue is good for advertising. There is also a lot of information about me online — web server logs tied to my user cookie, purchase history (i.e. Amazon), etc. This scares people who are paranoid about identity theft but if you're not paranoid, all that information is a godsend for both the the advertiser and the user.

Why do we need ads anyway? What would life be without advertising? Would we no longer buy stuff? Everyone [in my culture] buys stuff: toilet paper, organic squash, tickets to a concert, etc. Obviously we don't need ads to buy the stuff we want and the stuff we need, but they can help us find what we want and can help us make better decisions. Sadly, online advertisements rarely help me find the stuff I want and I'm surprised by that. Is the technology too difficult to deliver relevant, informed ads?

The most relevant advertising I've experienced was while using Gmail, Google's email service that crawls your conversations and delivers ads and other content based on what you chat about. I think this is genius. For example, I collect a lot of records (45s, LPs, etc) and just the other day I got an ad in my sidebar for Sleeve Town, a site to buy extra record sleeves from. Sure I could have google-searched for "buy record sleeves" but I like the fact that this information came to me with no direct effort on my part. Call me lazy but I like when other people make my life easier.

Despite the Sleeve Town ad, I've only seen a handful of relevant ads on Gmail and thus don't pay too much attention to them. I've seen an even lower relevancy rate with Ad Sense, Google's service that serves ads based on webpage content. Seven times out of ten, the ads have one or two keywords correct but do not offer me anything worth clicking on. Still, I think the relevancy strategy is smart and I'd be a happier Web user if the advertising world figured out how to do this well. As you can see below, I'm experimenting with Ad Sense on my own site now and have placed the ads in a position where — in theory — they will only succeed when 1) a user has read an entire article and 2) an ad is relevant enough to the article. I'd be curious to hear recommendations for similar ad delivery networks that might work better than Ad Sense. I haven't researched it much but I'm sure there are some out there.

Facebook has an interesting feature where you can click a thumbs down (or thumbs up) icon on any ad and say why you think the ad is stupid or irrelevant. I was watching over my girlfriend's shoulder yesterday as she went on an ad killing rampage. She gave the thumbs down to six ads in a row because they were all silly blurbs about celebrities or weight loss. Then one popped up that looked sort of interesting, an ad about taking some kind of brain quiz; she shrugged and left it alone. But didn't click on it.