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Is 2021 the Year Ads Die?

January 29, 2021


Is 2021 the Year Ads Die?

In December, TikTok presented its top accounts. It handed out kudos to many accounts on the platform, including those that had built a community, some that #mademebuyit, and more.

An interesting line from the platform’s infographic caught my eye. It said, “Don’t make ads, make TikToks.”

That got me thinking—are we moving toward some post-ad form of marketing?

Our Customers Hate Ads

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Our customers—all of them—don’t like ads very much. That’s shown in a few facts:

·          47 percent of people use an ad blocker online

·          82 percent of Americans ignore online ads

·          86 percent of people skip ads on TV

·          65 percent of users skip video ads

The number of people “cutting the cord” to go with services like Disney+ and Netflix also attest to this. The same is true of services like Spotify Premium, which nixes ads for subscribers. Anyone with the free account has to listen ads, like they would on the radio.

The long and short of this is that people are willing to pay to get rid of ads.

It’s also shown by the fact our customers don’t trust ads. Most say they’re skeptical of brands, and they do not put any stock in claims we make in ads.

Yet ads are everywhere in today’s landscape. It’s how many news websites keep offering free article access. (The alternative is putting news behind a paywall.) It’s how Spotify keeps free streaming access for their users who don’t want to pay—which has let the service grow.

Even traditional radio and TV channels might offer “ad-free” premium channels. Radio stations will even advertise how long they’ll play music without ads.

Our Customers Don’t Want to Be Sold to

Why do people hate ads so much, that they’re willing to go to such lengths to avoid them? It comes down to a very simple fact:

People don’t want to be sold to.

Our customers distrust our ads because they see them as trying to get them to buy something. We’re only telling them about this “great deal” because we want them to buy something they weren’t going to buy otherwise. We’re telling them 9 out of 10 dentists that we interviewed (and maybe paid off) said our toothpaste was the best.

Our customers also see this as annoying. So long as they’re aware our brand exists, they’ll buy from us when it’s convenient for them. They like to be treated like the smart, savvy individuals they are. That means they’ll buy when they need or want to, and they’ll do their own research, thanks.

It’s the same reason people are leery about talking to sales representatives. They’re always waiting for the pitch.

Should We Make TikToks Instead?

TikTok is just one of several social media platforms you could choose to adopt for your brand. It’s one of the most popular and fastest-growing right now, and there have been a lot of viral hits out of it last year. (Pretty much every viral dance you saw came from it.)

That doesn’t mean all our brands should be on it. It might make sense for a brand like GymShark to be on TikTok. A brand aimed at selling health insurance to seniors might find they have less success there. Even brands hawking school-lunch snack solutions to busy parents might want to go wider.

But I think, buried in the sentiment, is a different message. A TikTok isn’t an ad. And a Facebook post, tweet, or Instagram pic doesn’t need to be either.

That is, not everything we do needs to be a pitch. I know that violates one of the fundamental rules of sales—Always Be Closing—but really, that kind of behaviour turns our customers off. It makes them feel like we’re doing nothing but selling to them.

That, in turn, makes it feel like our brands don’t care about anything except how much you spend or when you make your next purchase.

So, in a sense, yes! We should absolutely be “making TikToks” instead.

Why “Making TikToks” Makes Sense

Like I said, the idea here is that not everything we do has to be aimed at selling. In fact, a lot of what we do should aim at not selling.

Instead, we should check in with our customers and build relationships with them. That’s what non-ads and non-pitchy posts do for us. They give us a chance to connect with our customers on a human level.

And that makes our customers feel seen. More than that, it makes them feel appreciated, like we get them! Suddenly, we’re not just here to sell something to them and stack them up as metrics about who’s a “good” customer and who’s a “bad” customer, who spends the most and who isn’t worth our time. We’re connecting with them on this human level.

That helps us stay in tune with their needs.

So, Is the Ad Dead?

Not by a long shot. Ads are going to continue apace this year and probably the next ten years too.

What we might see is a transformation in what ads look like, in how they’re put together. In fact, we’re already seeing this with influencer marketing. Influencer posts can be so subtle that the FTC in the US requires influencers to mark their posts as ads. They’re worried that influencer posts get by the average person’s “ad detector”—which could lead to people feeling misled.

Truth in advertising is always good, so I’m not suggesting we should be underhanded here. But we could learn a thing or two from the influencers here. First, influencer posts are so organic. They’re at their best when they talk about a product as incidental to their larger story, like how their Nike shoes helped them train to run a marathon.

It’s not strictly an ad. They'll talk about other factors: motivation to run the marathon, inspiration, training. They might talk about people and products, including the shoes, that helped them get there.

This builds brand awareness—it’s still advertising in that sense. But it’s not the pitch-to-sell style of ad people are so used to. In fact, it’s something that transcends the ad: it’s entertainment, it’s educational, it’s inspiring. In short, this kind of ad is doing a lot of work.

And it’s work our customers appreciate more than a catchy slogan or a jingle, more often than not.

So, when we look at these ads, even we might be tempted to dismiss them as advertising, because they’re so subtle. What are they doing, we might ask, if they’re not generating sales?

Like I said, they’re doing a lot to connect us with our customers and raise brand awareness. In turn, our customers will buy more from us.

This is the long game of building a brand. The pitchy stuff has its place, sure; it’s a short-term strategy designed to get people to click or buy right then and there. But so often, that’s not what our customers need or want from us. This new type of ad—call it the TikTok ad—helps us deliver a little bit more of what they need and want a little bit more often.

Start with Your Purpose

Deciding to “make TikToks” versus making ads is a natural extension of finding our core purpose. So long as we think our brand’s purpose is “to sell things” or “to make money,” then this kind of advertising seems useless.

Once we look deeper and realize what’s actually at the core of our brands—our real purpose—then it makes a whole lot more sense. Why wouldn’t we want to inspire our customers or educate them? Why wouldn’t we want to entertain them or make sure we’re building relationships with them?

The TikTok sensibility here gives us so much more flexibility when it comes to crafting ad campaigns that resonate with our customers.

So, ads aren’t dead—they’re just evolving, even if TikTok wants to tell us not to make ads. But to be successful, we need to embrace the logic behind the “make TikToks” slogan—and, like always, that means we have to start with the why!


Here to inspire and create conversation!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles I have written to inspire others.

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