What’s Love(tm) Got To Do With it?

Dale Dougherty, in the context of an O’Reilly Radar blog post about the Monaco Media Forum, describes what he sees as the shared understanding which has developed between advertising agencies and web properties:

Like an arranged marriage of members of distant royal families, they are talking about a union that will bring together very different worlds. The Web companies expect to become rich as advertisers pay more to reach an audience that can be sorted and selected on any set of attributes. Advertisers and their agencies are drooling that they will deliver highly targeted advertising messages that audiences will find more relevant, producing better results than they’ve seen in the mass media. The big question is what does the consumer, the commoner, think of this proposed royal wedding?

In other words, we’ve evolved from a scenario in which traditional and new media (or offline vs. online media) mistrusted each other and battled for the consumer’s attention into one in which they cooperate in their attempts to reach users – but this hasn’t made the situation any better for the end user – the one whose attention the ad buyers seek.

It’s a very good description of what I increasingly see as a major problem. Advertising, as advertising, is an annoying interference for most web users, just as it always has been for TV viewers and radio listeners. (Dougherty uses the metaphor of a tax – a relatively minor annoyance we put up with in order to enjoy the subsidized content).

So what’s an advertiser to do?

What’s a developer of a web property (media site, social network, community – the distinctions are getting less clear all the time) to do, since they rely on the advertising dollar to fuel their growth?

It’s starting to look less like an arranged marriage and more like some delusional, co-dependent pas de deux. It creates a world in which you have, on the one hand, AdBlock Plus, and on the other Facebook Beacon spamming your friends with what you bought in the vague hope that you might buy one too. (Is it just me who thinks it is wrong that I can become a “fan” of major brands in Facebook but I can’t become, well, whatever the opposite of a fan should be called in the context of a social network. This is a conversation in which you can only say good things – double plus ungood).

The most common strategies focus on dissolving the distinction between “advertising” and “content” – just like all those Dorritos product placements in Survivor (or on the Colbert Report), the idea is to make the brand’s presence Tivo-proof. (The YouTube inline ads have a similar function – you can’t skip them without also missing content).

But aren’t these just new ways of trying to push to the user a bit of content they didn’t want along with some content they did?

Dougherty also discusses the challenges that social networks like MySpace and Facebook face as they introducing increasingly obvious commercials into the fabric of their sites:

If sites or services become too commercialized, or as users catch on that the content is really a commercial in disguise, then they can choose to go elsewhere. They can shift their attention to a new site. I hope the threat of user migration is enough to keep Web 2.0 sites honest, and counteract the aggressive tendencies of advertisers. This is the risk that MySpace and Facebook are confronted with as they increase the amount of commercial activity on their sites. If advertisers increase the level of annoyance, even worse than strangers asking to be friends, then people will look for new sites that get it right. It’s a bit like FM radio. Get the balance between songs and commercial chatter wrong and people will flee to a new alternative.

How do we get beyond the dialectic of the users’ desire to avoid advertising and the advertisers’ desire to reach more users?

To put it another way, how do we make “relevant messages” really mean something?

There are certain brands from whom I’m happy to receive communication – eMusic’s updates on what albums are new in my favorite genres, for example – but those are rare moments in a sea of noise. Far too many companies can’t even track the basics, like all the direct mail pieces I get from credit card companies for cards I already have, magazines to which I already subscribe, and newspaper subscriptions I’ve already turned down three times this week.

I might even pay, at this point, to belong to a social network in which no advertising was allowed, if such a thing were even possible. Where my actual friends could tell me about things they like, but the actual makers of those things could not influence, encourage, support, market, or seed such activity. It’d be like an all organic, Astroturf free, commercial-message-free zone. Kind of like Usenet was before Canter & Siegal.