The digital advertising equation is outlined in the Nielsen graph below. The Global Trust in Advertising survey released this month (summary on Nielsen site and PDF here) underlines one key finding: For the vast majority of digital users, trust lies first and foremost in recommendations and opinions from their peers. As for the bulk of formats found on web sites or on mobile (such as various flavors of display advertising), they fall to the bottom of the chart. Nielsen’s study, based on 26,000 respondents in 56 countries, was conducted in Q3 2011.

Here are the expanded results (click to enlarge):

By themselves, these figures provide the perfect explanation for the current state of the advertising industry and, more specifically, for the digital ads segment.

Then, superimposing the ad revenue structure of most news medias companies would show an alarmingly symmetry: these businesses derive most of their revenue, allocate most of their effort to the least trusted ad vectors: display banners of various forms (on web, mobile or social), online video ads, etc.

The survey also provides a grim view of what people trust: they put more of their faith in a branded website (58% positive), a brand sponsorship (47%) ad, or even a product placement in a TV series (40%) than in a display ad on a website or on mobile (33% each)!

Even worse is the general distrust of advertising: on this list of 19 ad vectors, only 5 are are trusted by 50% of the respondents.

Let’s focus on a few items:

Recommendation from people I know: Trusted: 92% Not Trusted: 8%
Consumer opinions posted online: Trusted: 70% Not Trusted: 30%
Problem is: traditional medias don’t own these two segments. Social networks and consumer websites do. It’s a key Facebook’s strength to have people engage in conversations around brands and products. (IMO: a pathetic waste of time). Interestingly enough, the social network environment doesn’t boost the despised banners that much: When served on a social network, banners gain a mere 3 percentage points (at 36%) against a plain website or a mobile context. This must be a matter of concern for Facebook’s revenue stream: its unparalleled ability to pinpoint a target doesn’t raise the level of trust.

Editorial content such as newspaper articles. Trusted: 58%, Not trusted: 42%
Not surprising, but worth a bit more thought. It pertains to the level of trust readers put in the medium of their choice — carbon or bits. As expected, a fair and balanced product review written by a non-corrupted journalist (every word in the sentence counts) will be trusted. That’s what I call the Consumer Reports syndrome. This organization deploys 100+ professionals testers — and no ads beyond the ones for its own paid-for services and extra publications. Among its enviable base of 7 million subscribers, half pay $6.95 a month (or, a much better deal, $30 dollars a year) to access ConsumerReports.org — this is good ARPU compared to other digital medias who only make a few bucks per year and per viewer in advertising revenue.

What does this mean for online outlets? They should consider beefing up the volume of product reviews, while preserving the reliability of their coverage. This also raises the question of the separation between journalism, advertorial and plain advertising. By no means should a publisher accept blurring the lines: beneficial on the short term but damaging on the long run. Having said this, when I see a growing number of anglo-saxons magazines making big money from high quality advertorials, I tend to believe online medias should consider sections of their websites or applications harboring such content. But two requirements need to be met: (again) no confusion whatsoever; and editorial standards for what will indeed carry commercial content, but in a well-designed, informative, visually attractive package. One important point to keep in mind: this type of service is typically out of reach for a Facebook, a Google or a Microsoft. But moving in such a direction requires unified thinking between publishers, the sales house (and the ad agencies they are dealing with) and the editorial team. A long way to go.

Ads served in search engine results:  Trusted: 40% Untrusted: 60%
Speaking of Google, here’s another interesting finding in the Nielsen survey: by and large, readers doesn’t trust search ads. To many viewers, text ads popping up on pages, on YouTube video or on emails, are seen as intrusive and irrelevant (to say the least: look at this hilarious site featuring inappropriate ad placements.) Still, search ads account for about 60% of online ad revenues. Why? Essentially because it provides a cheap, convenient, and totally disintermediated way of promoting a product. On this count, Google makes no mystery of its intention to vaporize the advertising middleman thanks to its superior technology.

The digital advertising party is just warming up. The business will continue its ongoing transformation. Currently, digital accounts for 16% of the global ad spending. It is likely to gain 10 more percentage points over the next five years. Not all markets nor products carry the same potential: According to the Financial Times, Unilever currently spends 35% of its US budget on digital, compared with 25% in Europe and only 4% in India. For news medias, the opportunity is that brands and agencies are still searching for the right formula. Brands face an incredibly complex challenge as they have to play with many dials at the same time: traditional ads, digital, web, mobile, apps, social, behavioral. And all are tightly intertwined, creating flurries of new metrics: ROI naturally, but also engagement, sentiment, feelings.

Like elsewhere in the digital world, the most successful players will be the genuine tinkerers. Software giant Adobe is said to spent 20% of its digital budget on experimental campaigns. They test, measure, adjust and iterate.

It is up to digital medias to go from passive to active in the quest for the right model. Their economics depend on it.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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