For contrasting insights into the fortunes of online advertising, look no further than the news in the Financial Times this week that companies like Google and Amazon have been quietly paying the owners of Adblock Plus – browser software that filters commercial content – to stop them blocking ads on their sites.
Meanwhile over in China the tech titan Tencent has just launched its own advertising push on WeChat (its social networking app for mobile phones that boasts almost half a billion users). And here the response was rather different, ranging from anguish for those who couldn’t see the ads (or didn’t get the ones that they wanted) to joy from some of those who could.
Until last week WeChat was mostly ad-free. Brands could set up accounts of their own but were prevented from reaching into the private networks of other users. But advertisements from Coca-Cola, BMW and Vivo – a Chinese smartphone brand – all started to appear at the end of January in WeChat’s ‘Moments’ feature, a timeline of updates from users and friends similar to Facebook’s news feed.
The ads look like updates but are marked as ‘promotional’. If a user comments or ‘likes’ them, they may then appear on friends’ Moments pages too.
According to The Paper, the programme is targeting “seed users” with “high activity” in their circle. “If these seed users praise the brand or comment on the advertising, the system will increase the advertising’s exposure to the seed users’ friends,” it explains, citing a leaked Tencent presentation, which adds “Interactive advertising among friends is going to generate a sense of trust that is very difficult to replicate.”
Perhaps, but people might not welcome the intrusion and may even be irritated by the brands that appear. “My WeChat circle of friends used to be a closed and intimate social circle, and now it has rampant advertising. Damn!” was the reaction of one early critic.
Zhang Jun, a spokesman for Tencent, has promised that the company won’t deluge its customers with promotional material. “An ad will appear in a place no higher than the fifth post on the page. A user will receive only one ad within a certain period of time while it will disappear automatically if left unnoticed for hours,” he advised.
Bizarrely though many WeChatters seemed more annoyed when they didn’t get some of the advertisements, rather than when they did. More accurately, users were more concerned about the type of brand being advertised, because of what it was thought to imply about their economic wellbeing.
Hence the debate was whether the BMW ads were being displayed to the richest, most educated or even the best looking. Recipients of the Vivo ads were held to be lower on the social ladder, and those getting Coca-Cola even further below.
Tencent hasn’t revealed how its advertising algorithms work but a poll of 3,000 people on technology news portal Huxiu suggested that 33% had got the BMW ad, 27% had seen the Vivo and 16% had received the Coca-Cola advert. For the remainder, there was the chastening experience of getting no advertising at all.
The ads have been pushed to 200 million users daily but Tencent seems to be playing up the notion that getting them is some kind of honour, asking “Were you a winner in life on your circle of friends last night?” on its own WeChat account.
For the status-anxious, the wait to see which ads they are getting has been a more tortured experience. “I’ve been refreshing over and over again but still there’s no BMW ad . . . today my spirits are in the dumps,” groaned one.
“I have suffered from some very serious discrimination,” complained another. “Forget the BMW ad, I didn’t even receive the Coca-Cola one. This is an emergency. I’m just sitting here waiting online.”
“My circle of friends received a BMW advertisement but my partner got the Coca-Cola ad,” another reported. “He’s so furious that he hasn’t talked to me for half an hour.”
For a select few, there was even a chance to take the point-scoring to a new level of smugness. “This morning I checked my WeChat as usual and I found the BMW advertising,” one wrote. “But I blocked it immediately, because I already own a Lamborghini.”
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