If you haven’t heard of flow advertising until this very moment, that's OK. It’s a new technique. But expect to hear a lot more about it in the year ahead. Flow advertising is where the industry is heading--and heading fast.
Flow advertising can be thought of as sequential advertising on steroids. With sequential advertising, marketers determine the order in which they want the various creatives in their campaigns to appear, but then sit back and let the process play itself out. Flow advertising, by contrast, is about making adjustments to the sequence in real time based on signals from consumers. Those signals can come from lots of different places, from the amount of time a user spends watching an ad in the sequence to the searches a user performs after viewing an ad.
Perhaps most important of all, flow advertising picks up signals based on the device being used. This makes it possible for marketers to serve not just the right ad for the right person at the right time, but also the right ad for the right device at the right time.
Take the fictional example of Orbitz planning a sequential messaging campaign targeted at students who are shopping for a spring break vacation. The first ad might be a YouTube preroll promoting a trip to Miami. The second ad might be a display unit that offers 10 percent off your hotel stay. In a perfect world, the consumer would see the first ad, followed by the second ad, and then travel to Orbitz to book the trip. The problem? We don’t live in a perfect world. And because the sequence is predetermined, Orbitz would have no way to alter its campaign if it picked up on important new signals from a consumer.
Now, imagine that Orbitz is running a flow advertising campaign, and a consumer who sees the YouTube preroll browses over to Google and searches for "Las Vegas travel." That's, of course, critical data for Orbitz, and it should determine the next ad the consumer sees. Why continue with the plan to serve the user a generic ad or an ad for Miami travel when Orbitz can now show an ad featuring Las Vegas?
Flowing Across Devices
Sounds pretty good, right? But to really appreciate the power of flow advertising, you have to think about the way people use different devices today because, let’s face it: The good old days, way back when people were only using one or two different devices, are over. Indeed, even the idea that people are primarily watching standard cable TV and turning to phones and tablets as second screens for the Internet is beginning to feel a little quaint. Late last year Hulu revealed that roughly 50 percent of Hulu Plus subscribers are watching exclusively on devices, including set-top boxes such as Roku and Apple TV.
Meanwhile, as though the landscape hasn't grown complicated enough, one Google study found that nine out of every 10 consumers use multiple devices to accomplish a goal. Someone buying new speakers might see a commercial for the speakers on TV, then read more about the speakers on her laptop, and then search for places to buy the speakers from her phone while she’s out on the town. And we’re not talking about days or weeks here. The same Google study found that 67 percent of online shoppers who start an activity on one device and finish it on another will complete the whole multiscreen activity in a single day.
Granted, this was as Google study, but it’s worth noting that the study also found that when people use multiple screens sequentially, search is the “connector” between those sessions. In other words, if you’re serving a sequential campaign without picking up search signals, then you’re missing what the consumer is telling you along the way of the multidevice journey.
Now let’s jump back to our Orbitz example. Let’s say we know that the consumer has searched for “Las Vegas travel” on his desktop. And let's say we know that the consumer has resumed browsing on his tablet. At this point, we may want to do more than change the next ad in the sequence so that it highlights Las Vegas. Because the user is on a tablet, we may now want to switch from a display to a video ad. And if the user moves to his phone, it might be better to make the next ad in the sequence a promoted Tweet.
We’re not talking about the future here. Many of these tactics are available right now. Twitter, for example, makes it easy for advertisers to identify and target consumers across multiple devices because consumers tend to be logged into Twitter on all of their multiple screens. Better yet, advances in digital fingerprinting will soon resolve the problem of identifying consumers in cookie-less environments (such as Apple devices). This will be the most exciting development this year, and it will provide a tremendous opportunity to reach consumers with ads that make the most of the devices they’re using.
All of this is to say that sequential advertising has now caught up to the moment. Now it’s time to go with the flow.