The Speed Squeeze

Adam L. Penenberg
Media, 10/2006

WE ARE ALL HOOKED ON SPEED. AS A SOCIET, we suffer from attention deficit disorder.

Work, play, family, friends, media, and marketers clamor for our attention. The more there is to do, the less time we have to do it.

To adapt we have perfected the art of multitasking. At work, we surf the Web on company time and instant-message friends during staff meetings; at home we order books from Amazon while we watch CNN, prepare dinner, and help our kids with their homework. We pay bills online in darkened movie theaters and post blog entries at the beach. We text-message friends as we run after taxis, and cruise social networks while we wait to board airplanes. Whoever said “Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once” never owned a BlackBerry.

Speed has an impact far greater than making our lives more hectic. It forces marketers to experiment with new ways to get their messages out and empowers consumers by letting them control their relationship with advertising. The most successful ads are the ones that don’t seem like advertising.

The upshot is we are about to enter a new era where the old rules don’t apply: Scattershot ads aimed at a broad swathe of people without a targeted message only alienate your audience.

A lot of marketers will fail. On the other hand, where there is crisis there is opportunity, and the ones who recognize this will reap the benefits.

Of course, it’s not just our lives that are on fast-forward. The proliferation of cable news networks means that the dissemination of news is both instantaneous and ubiquitous. The broadband Internet has revved up the flow of digital information. Consider this: When Bill Clinton took the oath of office for his first term as president, there were 50 Web pages. Now there are more than 50 billion.

Entertainment-on-demand means never having to wait for summer reruns. Portable MP3 players enable consumers to hear their favorite songs wherever and whenever they want. Digital cameras take the wait out of processing photos, and online photo-sharing communities allow us to share images almost immediately. Snail mail has fast become a quaint anachronism. Even the earth is spinning faster, by a second a year, according to scientists.

Our media habits are prolific and diverse. We are media consumers, creators, distributors, and critics, often simultaneously. But reading blogs and news sites, downloading music and video, cruising MySpace, creating and maintaining blogs, and participating in video-game virtual worlds takes time. Posting videos to YouTube requires drive and determination. Getting to the next level of a favorite video game requires persistence.

As a result, we are forced to make choices: If I post to my blog, I might not be able to keep up with “American Idol.” If I read a magazine, I might not listen to my iPod or perfect my first-person-shooter video game skills. And if I actually watched all the commercials that run as an almost unending stream on TV, I might not have time to learn all the functions crammed into all the new gadgets I buy  such as the personal digital assistant equipped with address book, calendar, camera, alarm clock, MP3 player, digital recorder, wireless phone with text messaging, voicemail, and Web access, all of which require PC connectivity.

We make choices about our media consumption all the time. We sift, filter, and ignore. Even turning it all off is an option. And this poses stark challenges to marketers. When there were just three TV networks, a handful of magazines and newspapers, they had a captive audience. One ad on “I Love Lucy” could reach more than a third of the television audience in the 1950s. Today marketers use words like “fractured” or “fragmented” to describe this new media landscape, where there are hundreds of channels, thousands of publications, Web sites and blogs, and a million places to put ads.

It is, in short, the niche-ification of content, a premise put forward by Wired editor Chris Anderson in his recent book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. When it comes to media, billionaire tech tycoon Mark Cuban dubs it the “Long Tail Marketing Effect.” Cuban observes: “As the number of media and entertainment alternatives grows, so does the competition and cost of moving to the head.” The question is: How can marketers cut through all the clutter to get their message across to consumers who are increasingly hostile to having their time interrupted?

Until recently the strategy involved saturation: TV commercials, radio spots, Internet banner ads, billboards, posters, direct mail, e-mail, and spam. Just when you thought the world couldn’t get any more cluttered with pitches, marketers discovered other niches. They send ads, promotions, and opt-ins through our cell phones and PDAs. Radio stations cram two-second jingles between songs.

In New York City, where a movie ticket costs $11, consumers endure nearly 30 minutes worth of ads before the flicks even start. Marketers place ads in restrooms and above urinals. US Airways said it would carry ads on airsickness bags. There are ads running while we’re on hold waiting for tech support or scheduling a dentist appointment. Return Path, an e-mail security firm, estimates that 95 percent of all e-mail is spam.

As a result, media consumers deploy ingenious methods to parry this marketing barrage. Matt Weiss, an attorney in New York who specializes in fighting speeding tickets, owns three TiVo set-tops and brags that he never watches commercials. Instead he records shows that he begins to watch 20 minutes after they start. That way he can view an hourlong show in 40 minutes, commercial-free. “There are only 24 hours in a day, and I try to squeeze as much out of it as I can,” he says. “Most commercials are not relevant to my life. In fact, most are downright boring or redundant.” The only time they’re interesting, he says, is during the Super Bowl, when they’re fresh and entertaining, and watching them is a sport in its own right.

Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer of Veracode, a security firm headquartered in Burlington, Mass., bought a Motorola DVR that has a 30-second skip capability he programmed into his remote so he can fast-forward through commercials. He also employs ad blockers on his browser. “This helps pages load quicker, and they look better without moving garish crap on the screen,” he says. Wysopal isn’t just averse to wasting precious time; he also actively resists corporate control. He simply doesn’t want advertisers, TV networks, or Web sites dictating what content he can consume or when.

Brian Martin, a freelance computer consultant, goes one step further. He downloads TV shows and movies off the Internet from BitTorrent sites like Mininova.org (he calls it “ghetto TiVo”), where commercials have been stripped from the files. And award-winning Bay Area science fiction author and satirist Alexander Besher believes “anyone who clicks on an Internet banner deserves to be sent to Abu-Advert Ghraib.” His solution: Simply tune out advertising. Which is what many of us do.

And this, maintains David Schwartz, founder of New York-based Radius Marketing, is completely natural. “How many times have you gone home from a commute, left your office after interacting with tons of people, and have no idea what you just did?” he asks. “Your mind is good at canceling out what is not germane to your life.”

That tendency might explain why many people don’t even see banner ads on Web sites. They just see what they want to see: the news story they want to read, the video they want to view, the information they need to get the job done. It’s a form of selective vision – a way of filtering information when the senses are overloaded.

Schwartz believes this dynamic is part of an evolutionary process. First advertisers advance the science of advertising, discovering all manner of ways of reaching us. Then consumers become expert at shedding messages they don’t want to hear. In essence, it’s a media version of an arms race.

First advertisers broadcast TV commercials considerably louder than the shows they interrupted. The remote’s “mute” button effectively circumvented that ploy. Ten years ago, banner ads on the Internet achieved click-through rates of more than six percent, Schwartz says. When consumers figured out what they were, they stopped clicking on them, and now the rate is as low as .03 percent for animated banners.

Marketers littered cyberspace with pop-up ads. Web-savvy consumers responded by learning to use pop-up ad blockers on their browsers. Radio stations packed more commercials into each hour of programming. And as playlists on commercial radio grew mind-numbingly repetitive, listeners migrated to iPods or satellite radio. Sleazy marketers turned to spam. Internet service providers purchased the latest and greatest spam blockers, while consumers tweaked their own e-mail filters.

So how can marketers rise above the clutter? First, advertisers need to create ads that offer a value exchange. Give people a reason to interact with ads and promotions on TV, or to click on or download them via the Web. In other words, advertising needs to be more interesting, engaging, and entertaining. As Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

“Anything that causes the audience to be grateful for entertainment means they are more likely to pass it on,” says Colby Atwood, a newspaper analyst and a vice president at Borrell Associates. “Everyone likes to be the one to share something interesting with their circle of friends.”

Eric Valk Peterson, managing partner of the New York office at Agency, likes the approach of the online magazine Salon, which offers a free day pass in exchange for watching a brief ad. “You are almost paying people to watch your ad,” he says. “You have to target the right ads with the right services to the right people. Above all, be respectful of the audience and their time and intelligence.”

For Andrew Keller, associate creative director for Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, all the media chaos creates opportunity. Keller was part of the team that created the Subservient Chicken campaign for Burger King, which became an Internet phenomenon and helped sell a whole lot of chicken sandwiches.

“The acceleration of society gives us the opportunity to talk to people looking for something new, and our job is to engage them and create new things at a speed at which they’ll be relevant,” Keller says. That means creating ads so witty or intriguing that people will want to TiVo them. This is precisely what Crispin has done with its latest “Sublyminal” TV ad campaign for Sprite, which packs so many seemingly nonsensical images into 30 seconds that you have to record it just to figure out what’s going on.

“Instead of fighting TiVo, it says ‘DVR-ready,'” Keller says. “Pause it, stop it – there is cool stuff in this to freeze and study.” Crispin also created the recent Volkswagen Passat Low Ego Emissions campaign, which mocks drivers who buy other types of cars because “Daddy never hugs me,” or “because I’m compensating for my shortcomings.” As with all of its campaigns, the agency also creates immersive online experiences to entice consumers to form a bond with the product.

This value exchange isn’t limited to providing cheap entertainment thrills. Because creating a connection with a product takes a commitment, what people really want is for marketers to reach them at the moment they are ready to buy something – and leave them alone the rest of the time. Think of it as the consumers’ version of the just-in-time delivery supply chain deployed by the tech, retail, and manufacturing sectors. Done right, it’s a tremendous business opportunity. In fact, Google owes its $117 billion market cap to catching people when they are actively looking for something in particular. So does behavioral marketing, which by 2008 is expected to exceed $2 billion a year in spending, according to eMarketer.

In the end, perhaps the most important ancillary benefit of speed on the consumer zeitgeist is simply quality. Marketing used to be a one-way communication: An advertiser made promises on behalf of a client, and consumers either bought those promises or they didn’t. Now the balance of power has shifted to the customer. If dissatisfied, she can spread the word via her own viral marketing campaign – by blogging about it, posting to discussion threads, writing negative reviews on Amazon, or simply by e-mailing friends. And bad digital word-of-mouth can be devastating to a company’s sales.

“No amount of advertising can save a bad product,” Borrell’s Atwood says. “People are more cynical today, and the Internet makes it so easy to shop. You can Google a product for reviews and comparison-shop based on price. There isn’t much slack on quality and price anymore. It’s all been squeezed out.”

Speed may make our lives more hectic. But for consumers it’s also empowering. And marketers had better take note.

Copyright 2006 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)