Digital advertising and the Cookie Monster

Wed 25 | 02 | 15 by David Allard

Once upon a time, advertising promotions could only be seen in the likes­­­­ of newspapers or magazines, on leaflets, posters, on the good old TV, on billboards, by word of mouth, heard on the radio or pasted on to a sandwich board and attached to an odd-looking person walking down the street. This was the case until the internet boomed. In 1994, HotWired, an online companion to Wired magazine, made online banner ads mainstream by selling en masse to AT&T and other companies, heralding a new era of online advertising. The rest is certainly not history – it is developing rapidly, with online advertising now being targeted to our own personal tastes and behaviour (see the view of Michael Smith, Chief Digital Officer at Forbes Media, below).

It is estimated that we spend, on average, 23 hours a week online, be it on a PC or mobile. Our connected experiences during this time are decorated with advertising magically promoting things we are interested in, popping up on websites that might not be related to the product or business that is being marketed, but how is that possible?

It’s thanks to cookies. Like the Cookie Monster, they are now a familiar part of our diet. When you visit almost any website there will be a pop-up warning that they use cookies and by using the site you give your consent to them being used (as detailed in their privacy policy which no one has the time to read). A cookie, in the digital sense, is a small piece of data which is sent from the site domain that you are visiting and stored on your web browser. When you re-visit the website, your browser will send the cookie back to the site domain to inform them of your previous activity on the site, such as saving a shopping cart or presenting you with content or products you might be interested in based on your previous movements.

Cookies are an incredibly effective way for websites to deliver a more personal experience to their visitors. Variants of cookies can also be used to not only track your activity on a single website, but also your browsing history and overall online behaviour.

Tracking cookies and third-party cookies are used to compile long-term records of your personal online activity. This information is what third party ad-serving companies will use to target their clients’ promotions to you, based on your presumed personal interests, and even advertise them at a time when your online behaviour is deemed to be “ripe for a sale”. Although this targeted way of promoting products can be effective (it has prompted me to follow up on a product or two in the past), it can feel quite Orwellian in its nature.

The pre-internet equivalent of this targeted advertising activity (with tracking or third-party cookies) would have involved someone placing you under constant surveillance while you shopped and record the products you looked at, then follow you around with adverts related to your presumed interests and at times when you were most likely to make a purchase. Would this type of advertising strategy have been seen as acceptable? I don’t think so, but advertisers are able to achieve the same effect online without becoming overtly intrusive on our personal lives.

In 2011, a program was launched by the Digital Advertising Alliance called AdChoices to give people the option to opt out of advertising companies using their online behaviour to present personalised promotions. You may well have seen the AdChoices blue triangular icon in the corner of many banners, but most consumers are not aware of its function or purpose – market research by Parks Associates shows that awareness of AdChoices only grew from 5% in 2011 to 6% in 2013.

So, our online activity is being monitored (to some degree). On the plus side, we are now seeing more relevant promotions while third-party advertising supports free content on many sites. Also, there is a setting on your browser (not too easy to find for some) in which you can block third-party cookies, so we do have a choice. But I wonder where all this tracking activity will lead us and if there will come a point where the “Cookie Monsters” will have overstepped the mark in terms of personal privacy. Who knows what the next 20 years will bring?

Brand interaction: the challenges of social media

Wed 11 | 02 | 15 by Marianne Sartori

There are more than 3 billion people connected to the Internet and by interacting online and sharing thoughts, pictures, writing blogs and creating forums and communities with shared interests, they have created a vast social hub. People can end up spending more time online than in real life, which leads to some funny situations. It is the place to be, the place to meet. It’s also how consumers talk to brands and where the brand can talk to us. And that’s where it becomes challenging, but also very interesting.

Marianne blog wioth rule

At a time when everyone is over-connected, many brands don’t necessarily understand the role they can play on social media and the necessity to engage with it. The time when brands only had an information-only website is over. People now want a site that has everything they are looking for, allows them to express themselves and to have that feeling of being special. They may have a question or a comment, they may want to receive regular updates in a format that is more convenient for them and they may want to be informed about exclusive offers or get the news before everyone else. Social media is an ideal medium for this.

Many brands think you simply have to create a Facebook page or a Twitter account. But brands need to consider why they are doing this (raising awareness, creating an online community, encouraging people to buy?) and what are the best platforms to achieve their objectives. Marketeers need to be innovative in order to be noticed, to adapt to a new audience (mostly younger) with a bespoke tone of voice and to consider the fact that a social media campaign should be part of their communication strategy.

The time when a brand could simply post on Facebook and see their fan base grow is over. Facebook is making it more and more difficult to reach out to people, even when they like a page. Each user has an average of 338 friends on Facebook and likes an average of 89 pages. A brand’s post can easily be lost in the middle of the newsfeeds, especially since Facebook’s algorithm favours friends’ posts rather than those from brands.  In 2014, organic impressions on Facebook (as opposed to paid media) declined by 32%, encouraging brands to adopt a pay-to-play system of advertising.

If this has now prompted brands to have a media budget for social media, it has also given them enormous analytical power. Indeed, with all the tools that exist, a brand can target people by region, age, gender, language, interest, behaviour, and so on, and measure with precision how many people actually saw their post, clicked on it and engaged with it. Eventually, a brand can tell how many sales it generated. What PR campaign is capable of doing that?

Brands can have access to so much data because everything that a person does online is traced, from searched keywords and visited websites and pages to information given on social platforms. The Internet has become an enormous database that any marketeer is now eager to use although, according to IBM, 90% of the world’s data has been generated only in the past two years, and less than 1% of that data has so far been analysed.

Brands such as Walmart and Amazon already understand that the challenge over the next few years is how to maximise all the pieces of information given by their consumers on any given digital platform and support (website, newsletter, social media), how to collect them, store them, analyse them and use them in the best possible way. The objective will be to understand what motivates the customer to visit a website and purchase a product. Theoretically, it’s a goldmine of data for brands… And as a result, we can expect some fascinating projects and offers over the next few years!

One thing needs to be kept in mind, though: consumers have started to realise that free digital platforms are supporting themselves by using users’ data and that personalised offers have a cost. Some platforms have started to see the number of their subscribers decrease as people don’t want to give private details to be used by marketeers.

On both the brands’ and the consumers’ sides, nothing seems to really be free online anymore…

Free thinking: ways to add value

Mon 19 | 01 | 15 by Samantha Robinson

A pioneering force in publishing, The Illustrated London News launched in 1842 as the world’s first illustrated newspaper. It was an instant hit and by 1848, it was selling 80,000 copies a week. Its success was down to the innovative ideas of its publisher, Herbert Ingram.

Looking through the paper’s fascinating archives, owned and managed by ILN, you find that then, as now, newspapers and magazines were always on the lookout for ways to attract and retain readers.

Ingram’s initiatives included adding a campaigning voice to his newspaper, supporting popular campaigns for reform by such figures as Charles Dickens. He also managed several editorial scoops that saw sales increase, one of which was to print the designs for the Crystal Palace before they had even been seen by the royal family.

Ingram also sought ways to attract subscribers. Readers subscribing to the newspaper for at least six months were promised that “a copy of the splendid Colosseum Print of London will be presented”  – an early free gift that proved extremely popular. He realised that adding value to his product, whether through free gifts, campaigns or scoops, would increase his paper’s popularity; at its peak The Illustrated London News was selling 200,000 copies a week.

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The Colosseum Print, given free to subscribers of The Illustrated London News in 1843

Today, magazines and newspapers can only dream of such sales, but the need to add value has not diminished. It is no longer enough to offer a free gift: modern publications need to be much more of a multi-media experience for their readers and publishers look at all sorts of new ways to offer their audiences an enhanced experience across print and digital.

Almost every print publication has a web presence, with varying degrees of success. Although completely different in content and format, the Guardian and Daily Mail newspaper websites, for example, are among the most popular in the world, offering readers free and unlimited access to news, features and comment.

But a web presence is just the tip of the modern iceberg and publications must look to other innovations to add value for readers and retain their custom. For example, magazines such as Elle and Red  offer “shoppable” content, to enable readers to become buyers in a simple swipe, while others, such as Men’s Health, offer free apps to help readers achieve their fitness goals.


Sam blog with frame

Left: News Corp’s The Daily iPad app closed after two years in 2012. Right: Men’s Health offers added value with a host of extras, including its Fitness Trainer app

Video, too, offers publishers – and advertisers – a range of possibilities. In a recent interview Grant Bremner, head of Future TV at Future publishing group, said: “We are a media company competing with likeminded media companies. Our competitors are now broadcasters, TV production companies and also the rising stars of YouTube.”

But the dash to digital can be fraught with difficulty. News Corporation put plenty of money and effort into making this publishing platform work with its The Daily iPad app, but it closed after just two years of operation after being unable to break even.  

Whatever the innovation, quality is paramount, with media-savvy readers no longer fooled by, for example, tablet versions that are a sloppy and expensive afterthought, offering no added value. Back in the 1850s, Ingram made sure every part of his offering was a quality product, right down to the paper. He was so dissatisfied with that used to print The Illustrated London News that he started his own paper mill to produce the quality of paper he required.

Without having to go to such extremes, today’s publishers can still learn from Ingram’s innovative spirit.



Digital Developments: 2014 and the year ahead

Tue 06 | 01 | 15 by Nakul Singh

In 2014, we saw the fast-paced digital industry gather even more momentum with record levels of venture-capitalist funding in London and further consolidation, making the city the epicentre of European tech start-ups and innovation. The results have led to a shift in the way businesses, particularly in marketing, print and ad agencies, approach their clients with their digital offerings.

Here are some of the hottest digital developments in 2014 and how they may impact on the digital landscape this year.

The rise of User Experience

The User Experience (UX) is rather a new field in the digital industry, but is becoming more defined and increasingly important. Most clients that approach ILN already have online platforms such as brochure websites, e-commerce platforms and social media channels. These platforms are often complex, interconnected pathways that sometimes confuse users and clients are becoming aware of this.

 UX Experience

The core principles of the User Experience. Image by Dan Willis (@uxcrank)


Clients now frequently ask for a consistent experience. What this actually means is that, on top of traditional design, they are asking for an easy-to-use interface. User Experience (UX) specialists are now employed at early stages of a project to help define these experiences. They carry out user research, content strategy, sitemaps, user journeys, wireframes and prototypes. If agencies fail to adopt a more UX-led approach, they may end up falling behind their competitors.

The Product Manager

This is fundamentally a discipline born out of start-ups. In an agency such as ILN we have project managers who oversee multiple projects on behalf of our clients. A product manager manages one product that a client is trying to sell.

Moving from a project-based approach to a product-based approach has some compelling advantages. The latter approach is something that can be defined in-house — from the design, the timelines, the features, the price, the goals, the audience and the research. A project lifecycle is usually set by the client and has a limited life span. More agencies are looking to develop their own products to sell. ILN is utilising its extensive magazine archive to produce its own range of products through the ILN shop.

The Tools

In digital, the technology keeps moving and so do the tools. Traditional agencies use Adobe creative suites for their design work. These tools weren’t intended to build interactive applications when they were conceived.  Digital designers who use only Photoshop often fail to convey basic digital concepts such as mouse-hover effects, click events, user journeys, CSS effects and clickable prototypes.

This has led to new, efficient and often cheaper alternatives to the traditional Adobe suite of software. Examples include Sketch for design work, Axure for prototyping and wire framing and Invision for sharing clickable, high fidelity “mock-ups”. This is only a small list: the once dominant force of the Adobe creative suite of software is being challenged by a range of more efficient and useful software. Furthermore, they are considerably cheaper.



Invision provides ILN with an effective way to share its wireframes with clients

The year ahead

We are likely to see more UX professionals becoming important in companies that offer digital services. Agencies that formerly were client based will start to create their own products and the tools that we once held in high regard will start to become augmented with newer, cheaper tools that are better suited for a digital world.


On the move: digital marketing

Thu 11 | 12 | 14 by William Roche

ILN was recently invited to speak at a Digital Marketing Masterclass for the Leisure and Travel industries. Hosted in the stylish Century club on Shaftesbury Avenue, the event was attended by, amongst others, Rocco Forte Hotels, the Hong Kong Tourism Board, the Natural History Museum and Virgin Atlantic.


 The first speaker was Nick Cochrane, Mobile Solutions Specialist at Barclays, whose topic was mobile payments. Despite the proliferation of smart phones and tablets in modern society, and now being able to receive a 4G connection on top of Everest, mobile payment systems by and large provide an unsatisfactory experience.

Nick cited reasons such as overly complex input methods and security trust issues. To tackle such issues, the industry requires optimised payment options and a global acceptance of digital tickets and receipts. Putting these elements together should show an exponential growth in mobile commerce.




Next up was Michael Wrigley, Chief Marketing Officer of EngageSciences. He immediately got the audience’s attention with the bold statement that the popularity of social channels for marketing is falling rapidly with more emphasis on company-generated sites and apps featuring user-generated content with campaigns across multiple social platforms.

The simple fact is that consumers trust other consumers more than marketing information put forward by a brand. This calls for greater administration of user review sites such as trip advisor, where some less reputable users are brandishing the threat of bad reviews to get concessions from restaurants and hotels. It’s a despicable practice that needs to be stamped out.

Rob Thurner, a managing partner at digital agency Burn the Sky, then explained how many forward-thinking companies are now focusing on a mobile-first marketing strategy. Taxi companies Uber and Hailo have focused their business models on attracting all their custom through their mobile apps.


Another company employing a very successful mobile campaign is Starbucks. Through it’s pay-by-mobile app, you can scan to pay while earning stars in the My Starbucks Rewards programme. In the United States, Starbucks is currently enjoying 14% revenue from mobile alone.



In the next presentation, Lisa Barnard, ILN’s Chief Executive, talked about the importance of content and the communications experience in igniting purchase intention. She described how this content can manifest itself in different ways and at different stages of the purchasing cycle, which is why having a content marketing strategy in place is so important.

Power imagery, video and brand storytelling were also discussed as well as opportunities for the co-creation of content through partnerships – demonstrated by ILN’s client  Maille and its collaboration with Historic Royal Palaces, River Cottage and Taste of London.

We then heard from Sophie Rayers, Director of Marketing at Brightcove, a digital marketing company utilising the power of video, that the average attention span of an adult viewing a typical text-based webpage is 8%. Providing video content on a page equates to a 75% increase in conversion rates.


Lisa Barnard emphasised the importance of deploying rich video content to social channels while also encouraging users to provide their own video content to tie in with the previously lauded idea of UGC (or User Generated Content).


The key points raised by the guest speakers were as follows:

• An emphasis on the user experience on mobile

• Ease of use

• User Generated Content is more trusted than curated content and brands

• An emphasis on rich content such as video to capture and hold user attention

• Analysis shows a move away from social channels for marketing purposes back towards company-driven websites and apps

• Websites will benefit hugely from a greater focus on the UX (User Experience) and UGC, which lends authenticity to content

• User engagement needs to be maintained past the point of sale.


The guest speakers then answered questions from a rapt audience and elaborated on their presentations.

Some of the questions included:

• What is the difference in the suggested approach to mobile content as opposed to desktop content?

• What is the best way to handle brand heritage alongside engagement of new clients?

• How do small companies and start-ups mitigate the cost of expensive media such as video?

• How do you handle the management of dispersed content?

• How do you ensure you avoid creating content for content sake?



Concluding the masterclass was Antony Robbins, Head of Communications at the Museum of London. He revealed how the museum has used both web and mobile technology to engage with the youth of today, to provide a richer user experience for its visitors and to create its fantastic Augmented Reality app that brings history to life on the streets of London.

This was an enthralling presentation and a wonderful conclusion to a stimulating session.