When I saw this article my jaw Hit. The. Floor.
Skype calls to feature ads big enough to interrupt any conversation
Skype to serve up personalized ads, hoping you'll discuss them with friends.
Skype has provided a great service for years, keeping us connected with friends and family. But there's always been one thing missing—marketers interrupting calls with giant display ads.
Skype is finally fixing that problem, with today's launch of so-called "Conversation Ads" that will appear within the calling window during audio calls. Why are they called Conversation Ads? Because Skype is actually hoping users will discuss the content of the ads during phone calls. In other words, Skype (now owned by Microsoft) is hoping to interrupt the normal flow of human conversation, with advertisements targeted at users based on their location, gender, and age.
I have a hard time imagining that these will inspire conversations more sophisticated than, "This ad sucks!" But let's give it the benefit of the doubt, and see how Skype itself describes the service:
We're excited to introduce Conversations Ads as an opportunity for marketers to reach our hundreds of millions of connected users in a place where they can have meaningful conversations about brands in a highly engaging environment. Skype is already at the center of meaningful conversations, where families, friends, and colleagues spend time together.
While on a 1:1 audio call, users will see content that could spark additional topics of conversation that are relevant to Skype users and highlight unique and local brand experiences. So, you should think of Conversation Ads as a way for Skype to generate fun interactivity between your circle of friends and family and the brands you care about. Ultimately, we believe this will help make Skype a more engaging and useful place to have your conversations each and every day.
If you check the URL, you will see that this is not from The Onion. Though I wish it were.
Is this a petting zoo of what can go wrong with social media, or what?
Sigh. Let's begin.
First, this is what I think of as the rent-seeking attention capture theory of advertising: that the most effective way of delivering your advertising message is to present it to people who are actually trying to do something else, and have no choice to wait for your ad. Movie previews are the canonical example. No one seems to get up during previews; in fact, many of us like seeing what's coming soon. This is the sort of thing you see on more and more Web sites now: the ad that runs for 15 seconds between the article you finished reading and the next one you want to read, or the 30-second spot that appears before the video clip you want to watch.
Here's the thing, Skype: the world is not a movie theatre, and a video call is not an experience equivalent to watching a movie. I think people are more likely to respond to these ads the way they do to phone solicitations during dinner: not as fun preparation for the main event, but a complete and often-irritating distraction.
Second, let's take the idea of Skype being at "the center of meaningful conversations." Yes, it's at "the center" if you mean "people use it to talk to each other," but that's a center shared by typeface, wine goblets, and bespoke suits: namely, they only really work if you don't notice them.
Think for a moment: when was the last time talking about an advertisement made a conversation more meaningful? When I was living in Cambridge, away from my family, and we would spend an hour or two on Skype or Facetime, I have to admit: I never thought to myself, You know, seeing my family thousands of miles away is an experience that I'll never grow tired of, but... if only there were some shared advertisements we could talk about.
talking to california from cambridge, via flickr
So they're assuming a kind of "centrality" to communication that is deeply flawed.You don't need Skype to be "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman" (look it up, youngsters). You don't get onto Skype to talk about Skype. You also don't get onto Skype looking for something to talk about.
The third totally off-base assumption is the one shared by Ms Dewey, Microsoft's ill-fated multiethnic persona-fronted search engine (remember her?): that there's no social exchange that can't be improved with a little archness or sarcasm, and no conversation that can't be made more engaging and useful with advertising.
the ill-fated ms dewey
Okay, let's think for a minute about the underlying assumption here: What you always want is to interact in an environment that's more engaging-y. Call this the Harrod's Model of Perfect Communication: just as the architects of the elevators in the main court thought their job was to keep asking, "But is this elevator pharonic enough? Are we sure we can't dial the Egyptianness up to 12?" you always want to turn the interaction up beyond 11. Why? Because the point of communication is to have fun!
how can we make the elevator experience better? one word! HEIROGLYPHS, bitches! (via flickr)
But what if you're on Skype and telling an employee that you've got lay them off? Or you're telling your mother that your leave has been cancelled and you won't be home for Christmas? Or that you have to tell your son whose leave has been cancelled that the doctors say his father won't live until the spring? Or you're on a consult and you have to tell the pediatrician that no, you read those results wrong, and they have to call the family back and tell them that their daughter isn't a candidate for surgery? Or to be a little less morbid, how about having to tell an author that their manuscript needs another month of hard work
Will any of those experiences be improved by making them fun? Will they be leavened by some ads? Will things go better if you have the mutual distraction of talking about this one amazing trick to save 50% on your car insurance?
The point is, things aren't always improved by making them into entertainment, and it's idiotic to assume so.
Finally, the brands I care about aren't dumb enough to do this kind of thing. The brands I tend to see in situations like this are ones that are only marginally interesting, and often wildly off-base. I seriously doubt that I'm in any online criminal databases, I don't want penis enlargement pills, and I'm pretty sure I haven't won a free iPad.
At the same time, I'm sympathetic to Skype's need to make money. Those servers don't run on air and good wishes. My suggestion is the same one I make to Facebook: start charging everyday users. People, I think, are at the point where they value their attention enough to pay not to be distracted by things like this. I certainly am. And I would consider it smarter and more straightforward of Skype if they started charging a monthly fee of a couple dollars a month.