How we can close advertising’s biggest gap

AOL's David Shing on how companies can bring more empathy to advertising


As far as the advertising industry has come in the area of UX, audience experience, and creativity, there’s still a hole that remains. That hole has a name: empathy.

Smart marketers agree: advertising should be all about understanding what it feels like to walk in an individual’s shoes and what motivates that person to give a creative concept more than just a cursory glance. So how can companies bring more empathy to their ad campaigns? This will be a collective creative and analytical effort, requiring strategic input from brands, agencies and even consumers themselves. Most importantly, we need to be self-critical and assess our efforts with an objective perspective. Let’s get to it. Here’s what needs to be done.

1. Make consumers the focal point of every interaction online.

Aim to offer 5X more value to your audiences than you’re seeking to take away.
What we should be doing is creating a value exchange, giving our audiences something they genuinely want and need, and then they take that, add a layer of themselves around it, and take that piece of content on a very personal journey. They make it their own.

Let’s take a lesson from the film industry—from script writing, in particular. In script writing, a good script has been described as one that can “walk on its own two legs”. You’ve got to create dialogue that takes care of itself once the parameters have been set.

This is also the key to empathy in advertising. We should be creating things that have a life of their own and travel with people on an emotional level.

2. Use technology to make “niche” the new “mass market.”

As an industry, we need to evolve past the low-hanging fruit of mass appeal and start to look at the niche. This need stems directly from needs that the ad industry sees among younger generations—resistance to the broadcast style nature of media. Audiences want messages tailored to their unique needs, in the moment.

The industry is clamouring to find more immersive technologies to help increase engagement, which has lead to a focus around virtual reality. But there are challenges here.

The technology has been around for 10 years, but only now advertisers are getting into the game. But we need to ask ourselves why? It feels like most people only experience VR for 10 minutes at a time, instead of the hours and hours people spend with their phones. Phones have crossed that boundary into something deeply personal. Something deeply empathic.

Without a doubt, the advertising ecosystem is on the cusp of something new—very new. Advertisers need to explore this new terrain, creating immersive, creative experiences that reflect the motivations of their target audience. This is the difference between innovation (change) and invention (create).

The key here?

We need to understand what is it that compels someone to step into the VR world and stay there. Now, VR is still an expensive, time-consuming process. I’m fully aware that brands will always look to the path of least resistance: they will always do something they understand first, rather than trying to find meaning as they go.

Immersive experiences are the future. It’s the advertisers who take their first steps and explore this ecosystem with an inquisitive mind that will pave the future.

3. Empower audiences as creators and critics.

So whether it’s the billboard ad or the TV ad, these are creatures of habit. But our audiences have moved on. They’re now the creators, the critics and the shoulders their friends stand on to reach above all the noise. Why would they want to have a one way conversation with a brand, when they can have dozens of conversations with people who share the same world view?

Because of the apprehension around diving into a new space, and I totally get why, you’ve got to justify the means before you reach the ends. And those ends aren’t defined yet, which is scary.

But there’s a whole generation of people, who are now younger than the original YouTube generation who are dying to find ways of expressing themselves. And there’s an opportunity for brands to experience that with them, and learn, together. Create that value exchange.

4. Respond to what markets need, today.

Few people are walking around with VR goggles on, yet. Which means that the people we want to reach are swimming through the channels and mediums of the web we’ve been working in for years. They’re still there, but they’ve become immune to the techniques the previous generation used to reach them.

Appropriating content today is “How do I build a 30 second TV spot and run it everywhere?” And people are flabbergasted when that ad unit doesn’t perform across all channels. It’s important to delve into the reasons why.

If we, as marketers, advertisers, media buyers, and digital enthusiasts, step back a second we’d still know that the real opportunity is the device that you might open 80 times a day—your phone. People say, “well, it’s a young person’s game.” No, it’s not.

It’s everybody’s game because we’ve all had it in our hands for the same amount of time, which is about ten years, in the form factor it’s in today. The only difference between young people and older people is font size.

5. Embrace mobile as new media terrain

Brands, advertisers, and media planners need to recognise that mobile is totally, totally different to every other medium out there. You need to be able to understand that there are four things that people want:

• They want to co-create with a brand to develop a sense of affinity.
• They want to be able to create a connection, so once they’ve co-created that connection, they can reach new heights
• They want to be recognized for the value that they bring to the world around them, as part of the co-creation path.
• And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they want to be rewarded. Whatever that reward is, is an opportunity for a brand to say, “I’m not the star here, you are. What we created together is yours, so take it with you.”

It’s this mindset that drives the shift from awareness to authenticity-based advertising, physical product design–more like peer-to-peer advocacy than a billboard. That’s where the market place will shift.

6. Embrace design as a strategic asset

One of the strongest but most often overlooked assets that brands have is design–an investment that yields what consumers would call “the ultimate brand experience.” But design doesn’t need to come at a premium. The best creative concepts are often the most simple:

In Vietnam, for instance, Coca Cola reimagined its bottles to allow people to turn them into pencil sharpeners, bubble blowers or water-pistols.

One winery out of Germany created a wine bottle made from copper, so as the wine matures the bottle matures at the same time. So if the wine gets better the bottle gets better because it patinas over time.

The bottom line
What can brands do to reflect cultural change as marketing? Whether that is through experimentation with new engaging technologies or telling your story through conversation across social in engaging ways or advertising or focusing on your product design to drive mindshare. Offering something unique that sparks conversation or something so unique that people want to hang on to it, or something so unique that it sticks out when it comes to people wanting to select it. That’s the key to empathy. It’s that simple: you understand the most fundamental needs of your audience. That’s how you plug the hole in advertising today.

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