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What is ambient ecommerce - and how is it tackling 'ad blindness'?

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22nd Jun 2014
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The globalisation of ecommerce and the opportunities it offers consumers, marketers and retailers, has long been known and the value of ecommerce is no secret, with the annual spend in the UK alone in 2013 at £91 billion. But a major challenge retailers now face is how to systematically drive more customers to their websites in an increasingly competitive environment.

Consumers have long been bombarded with advertising online, using techniques such as banner advertising that surrounds editorial content, or pop-ups which take over the page when a user hovers over a word. These adverts are usually either related to a particular key word in the text and thus often contextually irrelevant (if I am reading National Geographic do I really want to see an ad for a car if I hover over the word jaguar?) or my previous browsing behaviour, frequently making them unrelated to the content I am consuming at that point in time.

Let’s take an example – say I research and buy a surfboard online for my son. Every time I go online from that point on I’m hit with repeated adverts for more boards. This is because my personal data was captured by the advertiser during my initial shopping spree. The problem is that this data is now outdated, just because I looked at a few surfing sites last week doesn’t mean it’s still important to me. There are other things in the here and now that I am more focused on.

This has led to widespread ‘ad-blindness’ amongst readers who have grown apathetic to the irrelevant ads they encounter online – as such, they no longer engage with them and often simply ignore them. This creates a quandary for etailers – the money they are pumping into advertising isn’t delivering significant clickthroughs to their websites, but without advertising directly to consumers they run the risk of losing out to competitors who could steal their lunch. This is where ambient ecommerce comes in.

Making ecommerce ambient

Ambient ecommerce is where a customer’s online shopping activity intelligently adapts to the content they are reading in real time to create an engaging and relevant experience. Ambient ecommerce harnesses artificial intelligence to analyse the content being consumed, taking into account its context, to meet and anticipate consumer shopping needs right at that moment.

Because it understands the meaning and context of the surrounding content on a web page, brands can be assured that only the most relevant products are displayed to interested consumers alongside articles, increasing the chance of engagement and sales. Importantly, this approach also enables retailers to showcase their entire catalogue online, rather than having to focus their ads (and budget) around just a few ‘hero products’.

Additionally, the content doesn’t have to be brand or product focused either. For example, a consumer with back pain may seek online advice, but with traditional approaches be served up with a variety of banner ads and sidebars based on recently viewed content (such as a surfboard!). But with ambient ecommerce, alongside the advice about managing back pain will be promotions for beneficial products such as back supports, back rubs, pain killers, or even exercise videos on strengthening back muscles – even though no product is even mentioned within the article. This is made possible thanks to the artificial intelligence lying at the heart of the technology.

The benefits for brands and retailers are obvious as ad blindness is tackled head on – it gives them the opportunity to cut through the noise and capture consumer attention when they are at their most engaged. Additionally, brands are not tied to spending large amounts on promoting a limited number of products, but instead can showcase their entire catalogue in a laser focused way, where they will make the maximum impact – a much more cost effective approach.

Consumers also benefit by getting the most useful and relevant products and offers. This is demonstrated by the impressive results shown by ambient product recommendations, with clickthrough rates of up to 50 times greater than the industry standard for traditional online advertising.

Smarter safer promotion

Another major benefit that sets ambient product placement apart from the traditional models of online advertising is that it does not track personal information or behavioural and historical data. Consumers are increasingly concerned about privacy and what information companies are tracking and storing about them online. By intelligently utilising real-time content to drive the product recommendations, the individual consumer remains anonymous, ensuring personal information does not need to be captured and keeping it private.

As an example of this difference in action, let’s imagine I’m shopping online for my wife’s birthday. If I research perfume, traditional advertising methods would save this information and ads for perfume would be displayed at a later date. Not only is this irrelevant once I’ve made the purchase, but it comes with risks - my wife might see these pop up and wonder what I’d been up to, spoiling the surprise. With ambient ecommerce, users are only shown what’s relevant to me at that moment in time, not what other users have been doing before them.

Ambient ecommerce marketing tools can be used on websites by directly adding a few lines of code. Marketers can easily integrate ambient marketing into existing plans, without the need to replace all advertising – existing banners and placements that have been created can be re-assigned to ambient ecommerce placement.

Context is key when combating irrelevancy and ‘ad blindness’. But it’s not just about matching products and brands to content, it’s also about integrating them seamlessly into the full online experience. Rather than being intrusive, ambient ecommerce enhances online content consumption, delighting and immersing consumers in relevancy. 

Dr. Dave Patterson is founder and CEO of Sophia.

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