Context is king


Out of context is viewing online commercially valuable? Image courtesy of papa'rocket.

As we career head long into the economic car crash that is destroying jobs, crushing consumer expenditure and ripping the confidence and profitability out of both client and agency organisations, one performance metric has emerged above all others to guide us through these tricky times.

It’s not a measure of efficiency like cost per response, it’s not a measure of likelihood to purchase like brand consideration and its certainly nowhere close to a measure of return on investment. It is the number of people viewing a commercial online.

Right now the advertising industry has become obsessed with this one measure of performance above all others, we even have our own chart at to add a little competitive frisson between agencies.

Now, it is easy to see why ad people love online views, it is a pure measure of creative prowess. Of course a brilliant seeding strategy can turbo charge online distribution but by and large, unlike traditional media, you can’t buy the audience. Your content has either got what it takes or it hasn’t and that places real value on the thing that agencies value the most and get paid to deliver – creativity.

Of course we have to be realistic about the reach that online viewing can contribute. You have to have something pretty spectacular on your hands like the T-Mobile Dance ad or Cadbury Eyebrows spot to generate the big numbers that make online a serious contender as a distrbution medium. However, the counter argument is the value of an audience that elects to view a commercial message rather than one that is served it regardless of whether they are remotely interested or paying any attention whatsoever.

As a legendary house ad from the ad agency HHCL read while showing a couple going at it hammer and tongs on the sofa oblivious to the TV playing in the foreground, ‘research says these people are watching your ad, who is really getting screwed?’ It seems self evidently true that one voluntary and attentive viewing of a commercial is worth considerably more to the advertiser than the many potential views that a commercial break may or may not have delivered.

Now, not that I want to rain on the online viewing parade but I do want to encourage a moment of caution before we all drink the YouTube Koolaid. Caution inspired by the idea that it’s not only content that is king, context has a pretty good claim to the throne too.

When people watch an ad on the television it is delivered to them in a commercial break. A break in the content that is overtly signposted as an opportunity for people to sell their goods and services and understood as such. The audience has been conditioned to decode the content they then see as ads and that their job is to figure out what is for sale and who is selling it. No matter how eyewateringly creative or side splittingly enjoyable the work, this is clearly understood as a commercial transaction between advertiser and audience. And though it’s hard to quantify exactly, it is clear that this context adds considerably to the success of the content.

And that’s what concerns me about the hoopla around online viewing. Is an ad an ad when it’s viewed out of the context of an ad break? Or does it simply become a piece of sponsored content, engaging and enjoyable but neutered of its commercial power and therefore of dubious valuable to the Client’s business and a rather inappropriate a metric to be fixated on at this particularly mercenary time in the economic cycle.

Hat tip to Paul Colman who got me onto this and is undertaking some proper research on the subject as we speak.


Great post by the way. I'm a little confused though ... and maybe I have it all wrong. But are we saying that online content can be useless b/c it may not contribute to sales etc.? I agree that one shouldn't be obsessed with #s of views but more about viewers do after they've seen spots online, further highlighting the importance of more actionable CTAs.

Posted by: Emily @thenoodler at April 2, 2009 03:46 AM

" is clear that this context adds considerably to the success of the content."

Are you sure? I've read arguments that say that receptivity increases when advertising is voluntarily viewed as part of a pleasurable experience, rather than in a defined ad break when viewers can easily 'disengage'.
The research results will be interesting.

Posted by: Cat at April 2, 2009 09:55 AM

Content = what
Context = location / occassion

What's still missing in the analysis is "Why". Can the questions you've raised be answered without taking the goal into account?

Posted by: Andy at April 2, 2009 10:00 AM

Cat - I'm interested to know more. Can you post where these were cited?

Posted by: Andy at April 2, 2009 10:06 AM

That's a very interesting question. Does the knowledge of an advertising spot affect the way it is viewed.

Perhaps a secondary question is then: Once people can identify an ad/sponsored content from a random video, does the same thought then follow? By understanding the nature of a video gone viral, they also understand that they are being sold to in the same way as a TV ad. Particularly as many popular online ads end up/start on TV.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at April 2, 2009 11:24 AM

Surely it depends on the content?

Not all ads are "sponsored creativity" - though the ones that have had the biggest viral success recently are (e.g. Cadbury's eye brows).

The point of advertising is to sell. It does this by articulating a unique selling point which differentiates the product from its competitors, or a unique insight about the product or consumer which differentiates the product from the marketing place and fulfils a person's needs.

If it does this in such a creative way that people can't help put pass it to their friends, then it's working really, really well.

If people are passing it to their friends because they think it's funny (like a gorilla banging a drum) and it doesn't do anything to sell the product then it isn't advertising - it is just sponsored content. I would argue that Cadbury's glass and a half full products are exactly this. That's probably why they've been losing market share to Galaxy.

Posted by: Andy Robinson at April 2, 2009 04:24 PM

Bah Richard. You're making me think again.

This makes so much intuitive sense. It'll be fascinating to see the research results.

Posted by: Katie Harris at April 2, 2009 11:21 PM

It's a really interesting point, but I wonder if the exact opposite is true? After all, isn't some of the debate about advertising to children that they lack the ability to distinguish between programming content and advertising, and are thus overly susceptible to its influence? And that advertorials in print are clearly labelled such to protect readers from the belief that they're reading editorial, not a commercial message?

Or that we insist that brands trying to engage with online forums identify themselves, lest we listen to what they say without our finely developed filter for commercial hype?

Posted by: Dan at April 3, 2009 08:47 AM

Not only do you steal my idea (actually mine and my colleague Andrew Stirk's). But you don't even have the good grace to link to my blog.

You've changed.

Posted by: Paul H. Colman at April 3, 2009 05:09 PM

I don't know if get your argument right, but are you implying, that people will only process information in any way relevant to their decision making process, if their brain is in the appropriate mode (i.e. "Ah, this is advertising break and I now have to search for the messages")?

Has it not been demonstrated by R. Heath et al that if we are actually aware of the fact that somebody is trying to force a message into our head, this message will always be labeled with this little "don't believe, don't listen" sticker up there? Whereas when we experience content in in a deliberate and voluntary situation, our brain might process the information along with some positive emotions. Might it thus perhaps even have a far stronger influence on intuitive decision making, when we are not in a cautious state of mind like we are during an ad break?
Just a thought...

Posted by: Nico Westermann at April 3, 2009 05:39 PM


i take your point brother but I think 'the audience' understands the implicit contract of advertising - anything from a brand is some kind exhortation, some kind of sell.

Are ads online just content? I think now. Some ads are, some ads are just ads

Posted by: faris at April 3, 2009 06:53 PM

I'll take a stand on this one-- you're wrong.

Cat and Dan have already made the point well enough.

Posted by: Chris Grayson at April 7, 2009 10:20 AM

Connection is King.
A true test isn't Views, a true test of the value of online brand communications lies in whether people are prepared to link to it, to connect it to their friends via Twitter, Delicious et al.
Back in the days, you knew your brand was doing it, if people sported the label. Same goes today, if they're linking to it, its saying something to them and its become part of their story.

Posted by: Leo at April 7, 2009 09:03 PM

I totally agree on the value for the audience. Well, If I pass a link of T-Mobile Dance or Cadbury Eyebrows video to my friend, I'm a good person as I share a couple of minutes of great time. And it doesn't matter if it's ad or not.

What is a question here, is how many viral ads actually turn into sales? Yes, they create buzz and maybe that's enough, but what about likeliness to buy? Maybe you have some data? ;)

Posted by: Onetrouser at April 9, 2009 04:49 PM

Hehehe. I see the spambots have no idea about context. Or perhaps they do?

Posted by: Kay at April 10, 2009 08:16 PM