Online Advertising: Does It Work On Digital Natives?

Most prolific online platforms, including those used by the publishing industry, place a large emphasis on online advertising as a main source of revenue. Indeed, this seems like a logical revenue stream and has proved successful to many. But notice that Vice, BuzzFeed, and The Onion (publications and websites aimed at digital natives) avoid featuring ads. They opt for sponsored content as an alternative. While online advertising works for certain publications, this essay will argue that this advertising model fails to work as effectively for publications aimed at a younger demographic.

To give some clarification, a digital native is a person defined by the technological culture in which they born; this means the individual is born somewhere between the early 1980s and early 2000s. Alternatively, the digital immigrant is someone born before 1980; this person was forced to adapt to the technological developments happening in their surroundings. The latter has always been accustomed to advertising and therefore will not dismiss it when online. Having said that, there are a number of reasons why the same can’t be said for digital natives. While the advertisers might believe this model to be working, the product at hand isn’t properly making its way to the digital native.

Are Digital Natives As Tech-Savvy As We Believe?

To begin with, while digital natives were born into the era of technology, this doesn’t necessarily mean they understand its inner workings; they simply benefit from technology in their personal and professional lives. Russell Potter’s Medium article “The Problem with Digital ‘Natives’” suggests that millennials were born and grew up in an era where technology was at its prime; as such, digital immigrants assume millennials know everything about technology. Potter, an author and professor at Rhode Island College, argues that millennials have developed serious expectations in terms of convenience created by technology. Potter argues that millennials are satisfied with the technology easiest to navigate: “When I polled my freshman writing class last year, I found they were all heavy users of Instagram… none had even heard of other image sites such as Flickr or Hipstamatic, none of them knew how to generate a meme (though they loved reposting them), none had a blog, and none had used Twitter or Tumblr. One student even raised her hand to ask what ‘HTML’ was.” They are extremely well versed in navigating these technologies. Yet, few are actually producing them.

Millennials are dissatisfied with technologies that prove complicated to navigate. They literally immerse themselves in the Internet on their laptops and smart phones. It is not uncommon for a conversation via text messaging or social media to be happening between two people in the same room. They tag their friends and family in funny pictures and posts on Facebook, they like their friends’ Instagram posts, they send each other Snapchat photos, and so on. This is how they communicate; they require interactive technologies. While they don’t necessarily know how to create this technology, millennials have extremely high expectations when it comes to convenience. Jake Wobbrock’s Wired article “How Millennials Require Us to Design the Technologies of Tomorrow” points out that convenience and a slick user experience absolutely needs to be at the bottom line of any tech, especially social media, company’s mandate. Wobbrock further explains that this is important to consider because millennials will soon have more buying power than any other demographic: “Millennials also have different communication habits, according to Accenture, and are way more connected and in-tune with technology and online culture. Growing up with access to information at their fingertips, they have become accustomed to an on-demand lifestyle, expect a seamless shopping experience, and won’t hang around for long if they don’t find what they need.” Wobbrock explains that the main criticism of millennials towards a brand is a poorly designed website and/or a bad social media presence. They expect a perfect and seamless experience, which includes being undisturbed by online advertisements. Wobbrock, co-founder of AnswerDash, a company that enables online businesses to provide customers with answers, has done extensive research and work on the subject of millennials online. He believes that online consumers abandon their search in less than a minute if their question fails to receive an answer. He also believes that consumers, in particular millennials, need to be in charge of their online experience. As a result, they don’t respond to online advertisements, as they don’t have control over what they’re seeing. Instagram’s recent decision to move from a chronological feed to an algorithm serves as an interesting comparison to this statement. Instagram will present its users with the pictures they believe users will find most appealing. A poll conducted by Kevin Shively for his article on the subject indicated that only 6% of users are satisfied with Instagram’s decision. Not only do users already find Instagram advertisements to be a hassle and an inconvenience to their viewing experience, this decision means they have even less control over their experience.

Kevin Shively @KevinSaysThings.
Kevin Shively @KevinSaysThings.

While the inability of digital natives to understand the technology they are using doesn’t directly correlate to online advertising, it does to a certain extent. Millennials use technology blindly; they don’t pay attention to the platform but expect convenience. They need to feel in control of their experience; the traditional advertising model doesn’t parallel this need of theirs. Congruent to Potter’s point, millennials love Instagram, they love reposting memes, and they love being where their friends are (figuratively speaking). They are used to convenience; online advertisements are a hassle. They don’t match up with the seamless online experience Wobbrock makes note of. Moreover, knowing this, online publishing platforms aimed at a younger demographic can no longer rely on traditional advertising as their sole revenue stream.

Getting Advice From The Social World

Secondly, traditional advertising arguably fails to convince millennials because their loyalties now lie elsewhere. Daniel Newman’s Forbes article “Research Shows Millennials Don’t Respond To Ads” suggests that millennials trust the social world because of its sense of community. Millennials, especially the last of them, were literally born in an era in which they’ve always had immediate access to all technologies and facets of the social world. Millennials communicate over smart phones and social media platforms. They have become so accustomed to navigating the web and finding their information as quickly as possible that they don’t necessarily take in the information being advertised. Born into technology and being so accustomed to its various and ever-changing nature, the average millennial spends up to six hours a day online. Millennials feel the need to be constantly connected with their friends. According to Newman, they therefore trust their friends’ advice more so than anyone else’s, including that of advertisers. Because of this, traditional advertising doesn’t serve the same purpose to them. It fails to convince them; rather, it hinders their browsing process.

Millennials expect a different relationship with brands. They assume that every company will have an online and social presence. Yuyu Chen’s ClickZ article “84 Percent of Millennials Don’t Trust Traditional Advertising” explains the concept further. As the title points out, a significant number of millennials claim to be unconvinced by traditional advertising, such as online advertisements. Brands are trying to effectively target millennials and therefore are making attempts to think as they would. Millennials trust their friends and social networks. As an example, Chen suggests Adobe Creative Suite. Apple didn’t rely entirely on online advertising; rather, they enabled a discussion within friends so that instead they would tell each other how great the product was. As noted, millennials like to feel in control; they prefer to have the ability to discover something on their own, regardless of how staged the concept may be, as was the case with Apple. It is interesting to note the extent to which digital natives trust user-generated content. Max Knoblauch’s Mashable article “Millennials Trust User-Generated Content 50% More Than Other Media” provides an overview of the phenomenon. To be clear, peers create user-generated content. Some examples include status updates, blog posts, and restaurant reviews. Millennials much prefer these to an advertisement. This concept seems logical (maybe because of the fact that I myself am a millennial and digital native). A Yelp review proves much more accurate than something generated by the organization itself as a means to sell their product. One reason for this may be that it’s made extremely simple by social media platforms to publish reviews of all sorts.

What’s more, millennials have the ability and the instinct to get informed very quickly. Marie Puybaraud’s Work Design Magazine article “Digital Natives: A Tech-Savvy Generation Enters The Workplace” suggests that digital natives only know research through technology: “This higher level of experience, knowledge and information resulting from consistent use of digital media has also impacted purchasing behaviors, as consumers become increasingly educated and empowered.” If online advertisements do reach them, they won’t be as easily swayed as a generation that isn’t used to having quick access to information.

Digital Natives Biggest Users Of Ad Blocking Software

Finally, millennials don’t want to be disturbed by online advertisements, especially pop-ups, when navigating the web. As such, a large number of them install ad blockers. Indeed, they are among the highest users of ad blocking software. This poses a threat to both the publishing industry and online marketers. One great concern surrounding this matter is the fact that millennials constitute a large part of most publications’ future readers. Millennials are part of an extremely large generation and they are, for the most part, extremely tech-savvy; they have no problem finding ways in which to enable ad blocking software. According to an eMarketer study entitled “Nearly Two in Three Millennials Block Ads,” there are two major reasons why millennials download ad blocking software. The primary reason being that they don’t find the content relevant; the second reason being that there are better ways to target them (which is not really a reason, but there it is). Roughly 63% of North American millennials are using the software; 4% are unsure. Online publishers are forced to seek means to override this problem. Interestingly, when researching this paper, this pop-up came up as a solution to ad blocking.

Gianni Mascioli’s Forbes article “Will Ad-Blocking Millennials Destroy Online Publishing Or Save It?” explains that millennials, the group most inclined to download ad blocking software, also happens to be the group advertisers wish to contact the most. Millennials are entering the workforce currently and will soon occupy important roles within the United States and Canada. As such, marketers are after them. Unfortunately, however, they are forced to find new ways with which to target millennials. The latter has incredible purchasing powers because of their ability to find everything on the web. They do not respond to online advertising, but trust the opinion of their friends and social networks. Facebook, for instance, has proven to be the most successful avenue for advertising in terms of social media platforms. Facebook at its core promotes and explores user participation, which parallels the way millennials are shopping; they are asking other users for advice. Mascioli points out that “millennials don’t want to be talked at. They are used to having control over the information at their fingertips in their day-to-day lives, and their interaction with brands online is no different. They want to control their messaging.” Because of this situation, traditional online advertising seldom works on millennials.

On a similar note, it is worth noting that a page view doesn’t necessarily mean the whole article was read. Jordan Louis’ Online Behavior article “A Web Analytics Primer – What Does It All Mean?” provides a breakdown of what hits and page views mean to online advertisers. Louis explains that most advertisers base the success of their advertisement of unique page views. He defines a page view as follows: “The number of times any page on a website has been loaded in a visitor’s web browser, and the analytics code has successfully recorded the fact that page was loaded.” In fact, for the most part, the reader won’t go past the headline, which means the reader doesn’t necessarily see the advertisement. With this being the only way to determine if a reader has seen an ad, however, the advertiser is satisfied; there are no numbers that prove differently. Visits, on the other hand, generally terminate after thirty minutes of inactivity, which means the advertiser gets a better indication of how long the reader stays on page. Having said that, most online publishers don’t generally offer this information.

To conclude, brands have to change their advertising strategies when it comes to millennials and digital natives, who simply don’t take in information in the same ways as their predecessors. Millennials are used to convenience; they don’t wish to be disturbed by online advertisements. They’re also more likely to trust their friends and social networks as well as other user-generated content. Finally, they are the highest users of ad blocking software. Whether or not brands wish to do so, they have to move to a model in which the content speaks for itself; this enables users to discuss the product over social media and other interactive technologies.

Works Cited

Bilton, Ricardo. “Ad Blocking Is Every Publisher’s Problem Now.” Digiday. Digiday, 7 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

Chen, Yuyu. “84 Percent of Millennials Don’t Trust Traditional Advertising.” ClickZ. Contentive Media, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Joy, Oliver. “What Does It Mean to Be a Digital Native?” CNN. Cable News Network, 8 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Knoblauch, Max. “Millennials Trust User-Generated Content 50% More Than Other Media.” Mashable. Mashable, 9 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Leone, Chris. “Five Of The Biggest Challenges Facing Online Marketing.” Web Strategies. Web Strategies, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Louis, Jordan. “A Web Analytics Primer – What Does It All Mean?Online Behavior. Cardinal Path, 1 Apr. 2012. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

Mascioli, Gianni. “Will Ad-Blocking Millennials Destroy Online Publishing Or Save It?Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 20 Sept. 2015. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Nearly Two in Three Millennials Block Ads.” EMarketer. EMarketer, 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

Newman, Daniel. “Research Shows Millennials Don’t Respond To Ads.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Potter, Russell. “The Problem with Digital ‘Natives’.” Medium. Medium, 09 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Puybaraud, Marie. “Digital Natives: A Tech-Savvy Generation Enters the Workplace.” Work Design Magazine. Work Design Magazine, 31 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Shively, Kevin. “Don’t Panic: How to Prepare for Instagram’s Algorithmic Feed.” The Simply Measured Blog. Simply Measured RSS, 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

Weisbein, Jeff. “4 Major Challenges the Digital Publishing Industry Is Facing.” Business 2 Community. Business 2 Community, 5 Aug. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Wobbrock, Jake. “How Millennials Require Us to Design the Technologies of Tomorrow.” Conde Nast Digital, 17 Sept. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

2 Replies to “Online Advertising: Does It Work On Digital Natives?”

  1. Ames provides a thorough introduction to the challenges of online advertising to millennials. From her research, it is clear “traditional” or at least standard online advertising is in trouble with millennials. She does a good job of outlining who the millennials/digital natives she’s talking about are, especially in contrast to the digital immigrants. The case that millennials are good at using and navigating technological advances but are not good at using the same tools they are supposedly well versed in for creative and new output was well laid out and weaved into a cohesive narrative. The example about Russell Porter’s students not knowing how to create memes but readily reposting them was particularly illustrative of the point Ames was getting at.
    The thorough look at millennials and their motivations for not engaging with online advertising was a strength of the essay. One aspect that could be addressed in revision is the presentation of assertions and facts. For example, when presenting information from Jake Wobbrock’s article, Ames states that millennials will leave a shopping experience if it’s not convenient but doesn’t provide any direct data to support claims like that. Wobbrock’s article has links to where he found the data, but it’s not readily available in Ames’ essay. This felt more essential when Ames made assertions about millennials’ behaviors that directly contribute to the argument she is making.
    Elaboration of Ames’ thought process would have been helpful in places, too. For example, she states millennials preferring user-generated content to ads seemed logical, but did not expand. After reading the whole essay, her connection seemed more clear, but having the connections spelled out for the reader may have been helpful.
    There were also a few points that were brought up in passing that felt like they would have been worth exploring. It may have been beyond the scope of this essay, but the fact that prevented Ames from viewing its articles with adblocker on felt like a directly relevant example to explore and expand on. Similarly, Ames provided a very concrete and well presented argument for why online advertising doesn’t work for millennials, but did anything come up in the research that suggested a possible solution? Native advertising was mentioned briefly in passing, but the essay concludes that content providers need to appeal to millennials sense of not wanting to be “talked at” (which was an excellent summation of the problem). What does the future of online advertising look like?
    Overall the essay delivered on what it set out to do: show that online advertising does not work on digital natives—at least not how it’s currently structured.

  2. This essay describes Millennials as if they were unique in their interpretation of online content, but fails to note the similarities they have with every user of both digital and print media. While it is true that they hate to have ads present, the same thing could be said of anybody that has ever seen an ad everywhere.

    Overall, I wanted to agree with the argument, but felt that the lack of a critical lens (or counterpoint) left me unsure. Although I am inclined to believe the premise, the essay has left me wondering if the rise of native advertising is just the natural progression for online ads for everyone, or if it has been fueled by Millennials.

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