First published in Research World January/February 2011

Jesper Åström

The advertising world has traditionally been dominated by creativity based on an idea. As we move into 2011, advertisers and creative directors are challenged by a changing advertising climate.

People simply don’t trust advertising anymore, and as the access to a social web is broadening, online customers get information from sources other than the companies who sell them products. As advertisers, our job shifts from telling a compelling brand story, into finding ways in which we can give users the tools to tell their own.

At the same time, media buyers are not really ready to buy into the complexity of available possibilities. It is not comfortable to buy something you do not understand. Modern advertising does not punch you in the gut, but its results do.

Viral Advertising
Five years ago I was working on my first viral campaign. This was back in 2006 when e-mail was still considered to be a fairly fast type of communication. At the time I had no clue that there was something called viral marketing. We thought we were working on a smarter form of spam where we made use of user engagement and thus their mail servers to get under the radar of the fast evolving spam filters. Also, it was illegal to spam people and hence we needed a way in which we could get commercial messages to people although they had not opted in for it.

Five years later, I find myself in a position where I get invited to conferences to speak about what we then could not even mention in a client meeting. Exploiting social relationships for commercial purposes has become common practice. On Facebook alone, I can find all I need in order to prepare a campaign with all the socially viable incentives for a user to feel a sense of value without me having to give a dime in discount on the item.

Advertising Research
As advertisers, we rarely talk about the research ‘behind the scenes’. It is simply too difficult to sell science in an industry dominated by gut feeling. However, social psychology has taught us that there are diminishing returns to scale with regards to influence, and that some people are self-interest driven whilst others are more altruistic and reciprocal. Behavioural economics has, amongst other things, taught us that people like to select the better of two comparable products. Statistics and regression analysis have taught us how we can increase our sales based on what our competitors are marketing.

In the realm of advertising through social media, this knowledge gives the people who implement and encourage it great advantages. It is no coincidence that Facebook is the largest social network out there. They were early in adopting the idea that people like stuff that their friends like. Their key to success in the first three years was based on the notion that people would see which of their friends are on Facebook when joining, and then invite those who were not. This simple check and invitation was enabled through the simple click of a button that connected Facebook to already existing data and address lists available on your webmail or computer.
It is no surprise that one of the most successful retailers online has built their success on recommendations. has rarely pushed their prices as the main reason for purchasing through their online store. They rather say “people who bought this, also bought this”. It is neither a surprise that they are amongst the first established retailers to connect their purchasing process to Facebook.

If you have connected your Amazon account to Facebook, you get the recommendations based on what other people with similar purchase patterns do on However, you also get the input of what purchases your connected friends are likely to make. Taking into account that proximity is one of the strongest influence parameters, this surely has its effects on how we purchase at Amazon.

On a web where the amount of data and our knowledge of how to use it is not a scarce resource, we should see advertisers adopting and integrating this into campaigns. However, we do not.

Creativity rules
The fact of the matter is that research and data are complicated to grasp. In an industry dominated by creativity, the mere notion of having to abide by rules puts people off. Yes, there is an infatuation with diagrams that show the client where in the industry their brand is located in relation to other brands within the same industry. However, once pass the initial benchmark, there is little to no interest in how they can use behavioural studies and research to their advantage. My guess is that they perceive it as too much of a hassle.

This might be a provocative assumption, but given the lack of interest in exploring the obvious potential of tools and resources so readily available, it is the only rational conclusion I can make.

Time and again, studies show that people do not trust advertising. In an industry preoccupied with trying to figure out what the next big thing is, I am quite surprised that we do not take a few seconds to analyse how we can improve our methods and work towards building trust. The future of the industry relies on it. If we cannot adapt to the changed circumstances, then the results and budgets of our clients will.

It is perhaps positive that the ethical debate of how the available data is used has come further than the actual use of it. However, if we as advertisers do not explore the ways in which we can use the tools available to give voice to others, my prediction is that we will not have much to do in the near future.

Jesper Åström is the Digital Director at HONESTY in Sweden