It can be said that all millennials hate two things: Being called millennials and watching commercials. Ad-free streaming services have inspired Generation Z to cut the cord in droves. Many would sooner go find a different video to watch than sit through an unskippable twenty-second ad, and one poll suggested that 74% of Netflix users would ditch the streaming service if it introduced commercials.
Why are these whipper-snappers so allergic to marketing? There are a variety of reasons, but here are three of the big ones:
First, advertising upsets the flow of browsing and consuming. Sitting through a ten-second beer commercial before getting access to ten minutes of totally free content might seem like no big deal until you remember how agonizing ten seconds could feel back in the days of the dial-up modem, watching helplessly as that page you clicked slowly, slowly loaded. “Eh,” you’d think, “Maybe I don’t really need to know the name of that guy from that movie.”
Second, unexpected ads feel like an invasion of personal space. When you watch NBC on television, you are a guest in NBC’s home. NBC is in charge of when you see content and when you see ads, or what’s on now vs. what’s coming up next. You can only choose whether to stick around or pop in next door to see what CBS is up to. When you watch streaming services or browse the internet, however, you are the program director. You call the shots of what appears on your screen and when. So when you say “give me a banana” and the response is “sure, but first, let me tell you about apples,” there is a feeling that your trust has been violated.
Third, shady pop-ups have conflated ads with scams in the minds of consumers. We’ve all made a blind click on a Google search results page only to have our browser window is filled with blinking red text, warning us: “DO NOT LEAVE THIS PAGE, YOU HAVE A VIRUS!” You know you’re being lied to, but you still feel menaced, and so you click back or maybe close your browser window altogether. When a full-page ad suddenly covers up the thing you were trying to look at, it doesn’t matter if what’s being advertised is a Russian phishing scam or a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, you’re still going to feel anxious and like you need to get it off of your screen to protect your security.
Those are all examples of why traditional marketing approaches are alienating to millennials, but let’s take a look at three successful, non-traditional models, and what we can learn from them.
1. Reward-linked in-app ad content
Let’s say you’re having an especially intense Candy Crush session. You finally take down that level you’ve been banging your head against all week. Feeling unstoppable, you click on the next challenge only to find you now must wait ten minutes for your lives to recharge. At this point you have two options: put your phone in your pocket and try to live in a scary, device-free world while anxiously checking the time to see if you can go back to your game yet, or – hey, what’s this? Watch a thirty-second ad for a free play? Come on, you know you want to…
People respond positively to this kind of advertisement because it’s honest and transactional. Nothing is being sprung on the user; there is no feeling of having your digital space invaded. The rules of engagement are clear. Even better, it helps to foster a powerful association in the consumer between the product that’s being advertised and the need that’s being met. It’s a little bit like receiving a free sample of Woolite in the mail, except somehow it arrives right into the palm of your hands right when you finished loading the washing machine only to find that you were all out of Tide.
How else could this model be used to reach consumers? Maybe the user-base of Netflix hates the idea of watching ads, but what about people who haven’t subscribed yet who want to check out an episode or two of House of Cards? If they felt like they could “buy” some of that premium content by volunteering to watch a couple of minutes of ads, many would jump at the chance.
2. Native advertising
So you’ve clicked on the thirty-second ad because you gotta crush those candies. You’re ready to sit back and watch a commercial, but the commercial never starts. Instead, you’re dropped into the middle of a demo for a different game. Instructions pop up on the screen, “Place a turret, quick, the invading army is coming!” Sure, your play session has technically been interrupted, but you’re still gaming. This is a form of native advertising: branded content that closely resembles the product that surrounds it.
One company that has been using this technique to great effect is Gilmet Media, a upstart podcasting network based in New York City. In addition to making a high-quality product (Gimlet programming routinely tops the charts on the iTunes podcast rankings), their approach to ads has been turning a lot of heads. This is largely thanks to the work of their marketing director, Nazanin Rafsanjani. The ads that she produces are like great podcasts in miniature: they feature professionally edited interviews with employees of the sponsor or customers who use the service. They are unafraid to work with a full emotional pallet – some of the ads are sad, others are funny. And what more, the ads almost never repeat. This week’s Ford commercial is going to be a new story from last week’s, so skipping it means you’re actually missing out on content.
The obvious downside to this model is that it is extremely work-intensive.
3. Sponsored reviews
Okay, that sponsored demo of Clash of Arms: War Edition was fun. You made it through the agreed upon 30 seconds, and you’re free to go back to playing Candy Crush any time you like, except now you’re in the mood to blow up tanks and helicopters. But do you really want to pay ninety-nine cents for the full version? How do you know if it’s worth it? Sure, there are a lot of five-star ratings on the app store, but they just say uninformative things like “Cool game I like it.” If only there was some way for you to see the full version in action while getting the opinion of someone you know and trust.
Enter the sponsored review. A majority of the top YouTube channels do some version of this. Twenty-seven million people are subscribed to Pew Die Pie’s channel because he makes them laugh and because he is open and honest about what’s going on in his life, making him feel more like a friend to his viewers than a celebrity or an entertainer. When he recommends a product, the people watching take it into consideration the way they would if a family member made the same recommendation in casual conversation – even though Pew Die Pie is up front about the fact that the video has been paid for by the sponsor.
The headache of this model is that you have a lot less control over the messaging. The content creator is going to demonstrate your product and talk about it in an off-the-cuff way, not read your pre-written ad copy word for word. But now you have something that resembles a consumer report more than a commercial, and this kind of hybrid between content and advertising could really clinch whether a customer decides to buy your product.
Millennials are more than happy to be marketed to when they feel like they are getting something in return, when it the ad feels like a natural extension of their content rather than an interruption of it, and when they seek out the sponsored material themselves to help make an informed purchase.