Home / Opinion / Columns /  Social media ads are not just persuasive enough

There are many reasons to consider social media the ultimate medium for persuasion. Increasing internet penetration is directly contributing to its ever-widening reach. The emergence of smartphones, an always-beside-you medium, is enabling individuals to consume social media content 24x7. Advances in big data analytics and artificial-intelligence tools allow social media advertisements to be personalized for each individual and delivered at the most appropriate time. This opportunity for hyper personalization differentiates social media from any other medium of advertising.

Malcolm Gladwell was one of the first prominent writers to question social media’s ability to influence human behaviour. Many believed that the Arab Spring movement had emanated from the influence of social media. But in his New Yorker article, ‘Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted’, Gladwell had argued that Twitter and Facebook had been oversold as popular tools for political action.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Sinan Aral, ‘What Digital Advertising Gets Wrong’, the effectiveness of digital ads has been wildly oversold. It quotes a large-scale study of ads on eBay which found that brand-search ad effectiveness was overestimated by up to 4,100%. A similar analysis of Facebook ads threw up a figure of 4,000%. An article last week in Harper’s magazine, ‘Bad News’ by Joseph Bernstein, argues that today an even greater aura of omnipotence surrounds digital ad makers than did their print and broadcast forebears. But Bernstein contends that stories such as the role of fake news in Donald Trump’s 2016 winning US presidential campaign are just dubious strategies to position social media as powerful means of persuasion.

The book Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet by Tim Hwang, a former global policy lead on artificial intelligence at Google, further exposes the vulnerabilities of social media advertising. Revenue from advertising is the critical economic engine underwriting many core internet services. Ads that are placed alongside search-engine results account for about 46% of the overall digital ad revenue pie. Display advertising, with promotional messages delivered via ‘banner ads’, accounts for another 32% of the digital ad pie.

Hwang points out that despite being exposed to an enormous amount of online advertising, people are largely apathetic towards it. In 1990, when banner advertising started appearing on social media platforms, the click rates were a whopping 40%. According to a 2018 study by Google, the click-through rates of advertisements on social media are a mere 0.49%. These click rates are low despite artificial-intelligence tools helping advertisers identify people who are most likely to buy what’s on offer and even spot the time-slot that would work best. One can well imagine how abysmal the click rate would be if such online stimuli were used to shape the behaviour of consumers who are in the early stages of a buying process.

Hwang raises serious doubts whether social media ads are worth the money they get. He contends that if these digital ads are not as valuable as they’re made out to be, then much like how poor mortgage valuations in the US pulled down the world economy in 2008, falsely valued digital ads could someday pull down the whole internet economy. How can we avoid such a catastrophe?

We often forget that persuasion is not just about bringing water to a horse when it is most likely to drink it. Persuasion is all about getting the horse to drink the water. There is much emphasis on perfecting the targeting and placement of social-media advertisements today. In contrast, there is very little focus on the creative content of those messages. Most digital ads are composed of a bland product shot with a price-off blurb. Few are able to break the clutter.

Studies have shown that the average time spent on smartphones per day per user is more than three hours. This smartphone user picks it up more than 150 times and touches it more than 2,700 times in a day. With each touch, the user typically has a new stimulus soliciting attention. As a result, the user’s average attention span while on social media is only about 4 seconds.

Not only the duration of attention, but the quality of that attention is problematic. Many studies have shown that a vast majority consume social-media content when they are in a casual or distracted mood. Instances when the social-media user is in a focused, lean-forth frame of mind for information search are few and far between. In this time-scarce, attention-short social media environment, persuaders do not have the luxury of space as large as the full page of a newspaper to design creative stimuli. On social media, the space available to create any creative stimulus for a tile or banner ad is only few square centimetres. All persuasion strategies have to be condensed into this tiny space.

We need to think anew about persuasion processes that have remained stagnant for several decades. Persuaders have to learn the new art of influencing human behaviour in a matter of milliseconds. These micro selling propositions (MSPs) will mostly be visual in appeal. This is because the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds. Other than that, MSPs will likely be crafted to hold emotional appeal. Our brain can process emotions too within milliseconds. Such MSPs will revolutionize the persuasion business and make social media ads more effective—and hence worth their cost.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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