Many of us in marketing face a serious dilemma – we appreciate advertising when it helps us reach our target audience, but we don’t always appreciate it when we’re the target audience.
I see examples of this all the time, with an increasingly large subset of my friends — even those who work in marketing communication — eager to avoid advertising. When I’m traveling in someone’s car, for example, it’s rare to hear commercial radio, with phones plugged into auxiliary jacks or satellite radio becoming more common. Print publications seem to get much less attention these days, as it’s become more likely that news breaks on the web long before we read it in the morning paper. Many people I know recently dumped cable in favor of Chromecast and Netflix. And it’s a rare friend who doesn’t hit the “skip” button when ads run on YouTube.
That helps explain why I’m intrigued by Ello, a new social network designed, as its founder Paul Budnitz has said, to be “purposely very simple.” At the heart of Ello’s commitment to simplicity is a decidedly anti-marketing bent.
As the site’s manifesto says, “Your social network is owned by advertisers. Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold. We believe there is a better way.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this as something we’ve heard before. After all, nearly every major social media platform grew up ad-free, until the prospect of new revenue led to ads, sponsored content and other attempts to get the attention of users making their way into the news feed. What Ello represents, then, isn’t so much a revolution but a reminder — a reminder that most people don’t visit social media sites to be marketed. They log on to connect with their friends and seeing ads is something they consider to be, at best, a necessary evil.
Even as it speaks to a growing audience distaste with the intrusiveness of advertising, however, Ello faces two considerable challenges. First, not only hasn’t it generated any revenue—it hasn’t revealed any plan to do so. That may be noble, but it doesn’t seem very sustainable. Second, a crowd draws a crowd. In other words, people will be likely to go where there’s a critical mass of other people. And while Ello’s growth thus far is laudable, with estimates of more than 30,000 sign-ups per hour, it’s not in the same league with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest, and may never be.
There’s a good chance, therefore, that we won’t see a mass exodus from ad-supported social media sites to the likes of Ello. Nevertheless, marketers should pay attention. As a growing number of people look for ways to interact with their friends without interference from ads, we have to resist the urge to do what we’ve always done. Connecting with today’s audience demands a different approach, where we act more as peers – helping people solve problems and find content that inspires and delights them — rather than acting as hucksters interested only in their wallets. Does that pose serious challenges for many brands? Absolutely. But that means those willing to do something different may have a decided, lasting advantage.
So if you’re serious about your business’s future, it may be time to say goodbye to the old methods and say hello — or perhaps “Ello” — to a new model. It’s not just what your audience wants; it’s what they’re starting to demand.