By Christine Moorman, Megan Ryan, and Nader Tavassoli | From Harvard Business Review
Summary. Pundits have long predicted the demise of traditional advertising. However, it is alive and well and headed for growth for the first time in a decade. The authors explain seven factors driving this trend, including the ability of traditional ads to break through digital clutter, the decline in third-party cookies, and more.
Digital marketing technologies and their ecosystems have dominated growth in marketing budgets for over a decade. As consumers have shifted their attention from stationary media to perpetual media on the go, traditional advertising lost some of its appeal. In turn, marketers pivoted investments from television, radio, newspaper, events, and outdoor advertising to digital channels, from TikTok to TechTarget.
For the last decade, marketers have consistently predicted that their traditional advertising spending would decline. According to data from the 28th Edition of The CMO Survey, on average, marketers reported an annual decrease in traditional advertising spending of -1.4% between February 2012 and 2022, compared to an annual increase of 7.8% for overall marketing budgets during this same period.
However, recent evidence suggests that a shift is underway. In contrast to the historical trend, in August 2021 and February 2022, marketers predicted that traditional advertising spending would increase by 1.4% and 2.9%, respectively.
Consumer-facing companies are leading the shift, with B2C service companies predicting the largest increase in traditional advertising spending (+10.2%), followed by B2C product companies (+4.9%). Further, and somewhat ironically, companies that earn 100% of their sales through the internet are leading this inflection — predicting an 11.7% increase in traditional advertising spending over the next 12 months.
So, why is traditional advertising on the rise, and will the trend continue? We see seven drivers behind the shift.
1. Breaking through the digital clutter.
As consumers are spending most of their waking hours online, it seems they are becoming increasingly numb to conventional digital advertising and engagement. They report frustration and negative brand association with digital advertising clutter that prevents them from reading an article, watching a video, or browsing a website. For example, a HubSpot survey found that 57% of participants disliked ads that played before a video and 43% didn’t even watch them. As a result, marketers are looking for a way to cut through the noise.
Traditional ads, on the other hand, are experiencing increased engagement. MarketingSherpa reports that more than half of consumers often or always watch traditional television advertisements and read print advertisements that they receive in the mail from companies they are satisfied with. Indeed, research by Ebiquity suggests that traditional media channels — led by TV, radio, and print — outperform digital channels in terms of reach, attention, and engagement relative to costs. This performance differential is amplified as costs of online advertising have increased, especially when accounting for impression, click, and conversion fraud — whereas the costs of traditional media have fallen. It simply makes good economic sense to rebalance spending away from digital clutter.
2. Capitalizing on consumers’ trust in traditional advertising.
The same MarketingSherpa survey found that the top five most trusted advertising formats are all traditional, with customers trusting most print advertising (82%), television advertising (80%), direct mail advertising (76%), and radio advertising (71%) to make purchasing decisions. Similarly, it found that British and American consumers trust traditional advertising such as television, radio, and print more than social media advertising. As a result, marketers can use traditional advertising to build brand credibility and trust with jaded buyers.
3. Preparing for the decline of third-party cookies.
For years, marketers have relied on third-party cookies to track website visitors, using detailed data on their search preferences to improve the user experience and target consumers with personalized ad experiences. However, with Google phasing out the third-party cookie on Chrome browsers by late 2023 and Apple implementing changes to its iOS14 operating system, the death of third-party cookies is imminent. The CMO Survey found that 19.8% of companies invested more in traditional advertising (outside of online approaches) as a result.
Because of this inevitable change to the advertising landscape, marketers will be forced to rely on segmentation methods that hew closer to traditional advertising models. Without advanced data-driven targeting, marketers will need to refocus on extending their reach.
4. Tapping the growing medium of podcasting.
Podcasts are a form of digital media. However, unlike banner, display, and other social advertisements that often appear within consumers’ everyday browsing, podcasts use an on-demand approach that is more similar to traditional radio. And this is one reason advertising succeeds. According to Ads Wizz, “Podcasts saw a 51% increase in available inventory, a 53% increase in new podcasts, and an 81% increase in podcast ad impressions.”
In addition to reaching over 100 million monthly listeners, podcast ads are effective because listeners trust their podcast hosts and are genuinely influenced by their endorsements. In fact, Edison Research’s Super Listeners 2020 study found that 45% of podcast listeners believe the hosts of their favorite podcasts actually use the brands mentioned on their shows. According to the same study, almost half of podcast listeners pay more attention to podcast advertisements than those of any other format. Given the match of target market to podcast content, podcasting has proven to be an effective way to get a company’s brand in front of a well-suited and attentive audience.
5. Exploiting the digital lift of traditional media.
Digital technology can leverage traditional tools in powerful and surprising ways. For example, who would have thought that direct mail would be resurrected? That’s exactly what happened when mailers are paired with a QR code that consumers can scan to learn more. Furthermore, as Madison Taylor Marketing shares, unique URLs and QR codes allow marketers to gather extremely granular data, permitting them to develop robust marketing analytics regarding ROI and attribution, and eroding the advantage of digital channels.
6. Fine-tuning brand and market fit.
Marketing is an art and a science of contingencies and context. This means that sometimes traditional advertising is a perfect fit for some brands, markets, and messages. For example, broadcast TV continues to offer an ideal platform for emotional storytelling ads, such as the clever “Welcome Back” Guinness ad that marked the reopening of pubs and restaurants following the Covid-19 lockdown. New addressable TV solutions, such as by Finecast, now enable advertisers to precision target viewer segments across on-demand and live-streamed TV, thereby eroding the targeting advantage of online channels.
7. Revisiting digital effectiveness.
The CMO Survey showed that 54.8% of marketers track digital marketing performance in real time, with an additional 35.2% doing so quarterly or weekly. At the same time, marketers are also becoming skeptical of the hyped returns of digital media, because the platforms control both the advertising inventory and its effectiveness measurement. This has raised credibility concerns related to ad fraudand the worry that digital advertising may be far less effective than reported.
The digital promise of hyper-targeting and personalization is also under scrutiny. For example, recent academic research by Jing Li and colleagues published in the Journal of Marketing shows that retargeting can actually backfire if done too early. And research in computer science has shown that personalization can lead to consumer reactance, especially when consumers are unfamiliar with the brand. In short, marketers are learning that the advantages of digital media can be a double-edged sword and are becoming more cautious about blindly embracing it.
Pundits have long predicted the demise of traditional advertising. However, it is alive and well and headed for growth for the first time in a decade. When used together, traditional and digital marketing can reach more audiences, build and keep trust, and motivate buying from consumers who otherwise might tune out marketing messages.