Dominick Sorrentino

People don’t like ads. They never did.

But they tolerated them up until recently because how else were they supposed to watch their favorite programs, or read their favorite magazine column?

Today, we can avoid a lot of ads, like with ad blockers or by skipping ahead during our favorite podcast. In many cases, we can even remove them from the equation entirely by paying for ad-free experiences, a la Netflix.

So what does this mean for the future of interruption marketing? Should you start thinking about pulling your ad spend and reallocating to native advertising? What the hell am I even talking about?

Answers to all these questions, and more, just ahead.

What is interruption marketing?

Interruption marketing, sometimes called interruptive marketing or just “interrupt marketing,” is any type of marketing that interrupts what a person is doing. Some examples of interruption marketing tactics include:

  • Door-to-door salespeople.
  • TV commercials.
  • Radio ads.
  • Print ads.
  • Telemarketing.
  • Cold calling.
  • Billboards.
  • Display ads.
  • In-app ads.
  • Text messages.
  • Direct mail.
  • Social media advertising (e.g., a Facebook ad).

I’d argue that there are two hallmarks of interruptive marketing:

  1. You’re not given a choice whether or not you’re served the marketing messages.
  2. The marketing content detracts value from whatever experience you’re engaged with.

When you think about it, “interruption” has a negative connotation. A pleasant interruption would be a surprise, and there is no such thing as “surprise marketing.” (Can you imagine, though?)

So why doesn’t email make the list of interruptive marketing examples?

As someone who spends a lot of time tweaking their spam filters, I can understand the confusion here.

The simple answer is that, legally speaking, no one should be receiving marketing emails without their passive or active consent.

In the U.S., the CAN-SPAM Act requires including a conspicuous “unsubscribe” or “opt-out” option in every marketing email. So even though you can technically send out that first email without consent in the U.S., you have 10 days to honor any unsubscribe requests before you’re breaking the law. This is passive consent.

In the EU, GDPR requires active consent, meaning you shouldn’t be sending any marketing emails to any person who hasn’t explicitly said you can.

If we want to refine this a little, we might say that any emails you send out to paid lists (meaning you purchased the contacts) are outbound marketing (you came to them, as opposed to them coming to you) and that they’re interruptive.

The email contacts you capture through your content marketing campaigns – e.g., they liked your blog post so they subscribed to your newsletter – are inbound marketing.

Is paid search interruptive?

It’s a bit of a gray area.

Unlike a pop-up, a print ad or a TV ad, a paid search ad is served in direct response to something that you actively seek out.

If you search “boots” on Google, it means you are asking the search engine to show you “boots.” Paid or unpaid, that’s what you’re going to see because that’s what you asked to see.

This is different than, say, a social media ad about boots being presented to you after you spend time searching for them on Google. Just because you want to see them on one platform, doesn’t mean you expect or care to see them on another.

More importantly, in most cases, paid search ads will be highly relevant to what you’re looking for and in that sense, add direct value to the user experience.

For all of these reasons, I tend to see paid search as a form of non-interruptive advertising.

The counter argument is that you cannot opt out of paid search. You might also make an argument that the results can just delay you from getting to the organic results you actually want to see.

There really is no right or wrong answer on this one.

Examples of non-interruptive marketing

The polar opposite of interruptive marketing would be non-interruptive marketing, also known as “pull marketing.” Think of inbound as any form of marketing that adds value to the user experience.

Examples include:

  • Content marketing: A blog post, white paper, case study, how-to video or other inbound tactic that is created to gradually lure users toward the point of sale rather than foist the point of sale upon them.
  • Organic SEO: Any number of efforts to improve your website’s presence in organic search results.
  • Organic social media: Unpaid social media marketing – e.g., building followers, sharing interesting content with them, engaging with them, etc.
  • Influencer marketing: Paid or unpaid methods whereby you either collaborate with, or compensate, influential content creators in your industry to expand your brand reach.
  • Email marketing: Newsletters, delivery of helpful content into a customer’s inbox and other types of email sends to email subscribers.
  • Product placement: The inclusion of a product or service in a film, show, play or other production (for instance, a main character uses a specific brand of laptop in a movie).

All of these attempt to meet audiences where they are without altering the intended experience.

So then, should you invest in interruption marketing?

Ah, now that’s an interesting question. And I really am in no position to tell you how to spend your money.

However, I can give you some examples of where it might make sense to spend money on interruptive ads.

  • Retargeting: A web user has visited your website and or product or service page, and now you want to target them with a display ad to try to give them that extra “nudge” to make a purchase.
  • Content promotion and distribution: You’ve created an awesome piece of content, and you want to get in front of audiences that you might not otherwise have access to, so you use YouTube ads, display ads and social media ads to expand your reach.
  • Brand building: You’ve recently rebranded or launched a new brand, and want to earn some immediate recognition, so you run a print ad, pay for a TV spot or launch any number of digital advertising campaigns.

But wait: Isn’t interruption marketing on its deathbed?

Clearly, interruption advertising can have value, but only when used to a very specific, measurable end. The question so many marketers grapple with is: How much value does it have right now, and for how much longer?

I think it would be a little dramatic and premature to say that interruption marketing is “dying.”

However, there are clear signs that the industry is not what it used to be.

For instance, TV ad sales have been declining since 2017 and are expected to see a 12% drop in revenue in 2020. The Olympics were expected to slightly buttress ad spend in 2020. For obvious reasons, that didn’t come to pass. But even if a pandemic had never happened, any gains would have been just a minor temporary defiance of an impossible-to-ignore downward trend.

Digital advertising – some of which is interruptive, some of which is not – is a mixed bag. A lot of the growth in recent years is somewhat offset by the fact that nearly 30% of all estimated internet users use ad blockers, and counting.

In fact, the click-through rates of display ads is less than 1%, compared to 3% to 5% for paid search ads on Google, and a whopping 31% for the No. 1 organic search result on Google.

And lastly, there has been a heightened focus on data privacy in the past few years, with the GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) both having been introduced since 2018. As consumers continue to advocate for greater privacy, digital marketers will have a harder time collecting behavioral data that will help them serve the most relevant ads.

So where does this leave us?

The bottom line is that interruption marketing is expensive, and due to wider audience distribution in the digital age, (among an increasingly tech-savvy, privacy-centric and ad-averse audience, no less) marketers face greater risk dropping big sums of money on an interruptive ad campaign today than they did in, say, 2000.

At the same time, interruptive ads can still add some value when used with precision and as part of a bigger marketing strategy.

Either way, it’s evident that people crave ad-free experiences, and that the best way to make your brand a part of the customer journey isn’t to interrupt, but to become an important stop along the way – namely, by adding value with great, non-interruptive content.