Apr 17 2014, 3:23am CDT | by Forbes
Before their buzz was usurped in the past year by so-called native advertising that’s designed to look like editorial content, engagement ads were touted by some as the next big thing in online advertising.
The idea was that an engagement ad would prompt people to play a game or contest, take a survey, or watch a video, thus engaging them more deeply in a brand’s message and at the same time proving that a real person actually spent real time with the ad instead of actively ignoring it. But despite the notable efforts of Google, which has been heavily promoting its takes on the format, engagement ads haven’t captured the fancy of marketers quite as much as Facebook’s news feed ads or Twitter’s promoted tweets.
That could start to change with the appointment today of a trio of marketing and media heavies to the board of a quirkily named engagement ad company called true[X], a 7-year-old company formerly known as SocialVibe. The new directors at the company, which is based in Los Angeles New York, are Jonathan Miller, former AOL CEO and most recently CEO of News Corp.’s Digital Media Group until 2012; James Murdoch, Fox's co-chief operating officer and younger son of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch; and Mich Mathews, until 2011 the chief marketing officer at Microsoft.
In exclusive interviews, Miller and Mathews, who each have been investing in media and advertising startups lately, said they view true[X]‘s engagement ads as at least one way to make online ads more effective, like television already is, for brand or image building. Starting with Google’s search ads and expanding in recent years to display ads targeted “programmatically” by automated ad technologies, online ads have largely been aimed at getting a customer to click a buy button as fast as possible, not to create brand affinity or a consideration to buy down the road. ”If you look at the online ad world, the promise of engagement, targeting, and trackability sounds great,” says Miller. “But it hasn’t met its promise. People are blind to the ads.”
Ads such as true[X]‘s and Google’s TrueView ads, a format used on YouTube that allows viewers to skip the ad, he says, are about “clear and measurable engagement. This is a format that media planners will include in their planning.”
Mathews, who says she got a good return on the ads when Microsoft worked with SocialVibe awhile back, also thinks engagement ads generally are about to take off because they offer at least some of the ability to craft a narrative that TV ads do. “We’re at the tipping point,” she says. “If you get enough publishers interested, it can scale” up to become a prime format online.
What’s more, the format looks familiar to TV advertisers, says Joe Marchese, true[X]‘s CEO. “What saves advertising on the Internet is the commercial break,” he says, and that’s essentially what engagement ads offer.
Not least, Marchese thinks engagement ads can help mitigate the rampant problem of ad fraud. After all, if you’re actively engaged in an ad, it’s unlikely you’re a bot faking an ad impression, at least until the Singularity arrives in a few decades.
True[X] faces potential competition from Google, but at the same time, it could work alongside the giant to push the format. “True[X]‘s engagement ad format and Google’s share a lot of similarities,” Marchese says. “It makes a lot of sense for an advertiser to be able to be able to run engagements across both networks. Our technologies have been developed to allow that and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw one very soon. Consumer-initiated full-screen engagement should be the standard.”
For true[X] to succeed, it will need get a lot of traction with publishers and advertisers alike–which is, of course, the reason Marchese is welcoming these well-connected media and marketing folks to his board. But it also needs to get traction with users. It’s not yet clear whether people want to engage this deeply with ads online. Nor is it clear whether advertisers will create compelling engagement ads that will persuade them to do so, or whether they simply repurpose TV ads in the same way that hasn’t really worked on the Web.
Plus, it’s never easy for a relatively small company, let alone a large one, to define a new format. And there’s no guarantee that true[X] will be the main company to benefit if and when engagement ads do achieve the status of an industry standard. “Not everything is figured out,” concedes Miller.
For now, Marchese is playing missionary for the notion that ads like these could change the widespread negative attitude toward ads especially online. “This ad model could save content on the Internet,” he says. “The Internet needs an ad model that’s built for quality rather than quantity of content.” That much, at least, is surely true.
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