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Google Searches Beyond AdWords

Personalized and interactive advertising experiences are becoming a lot more important than just simple banner ads.

As consumers spend more time moving among various Web-connected gadgets, advertising must evolve to keep up.

Would you follow your favorite basketball player’s shoes on Facebook or Twitter? That’s right: the player’s shoes, connected to the Web and posting status updates live from the basketball court. Bizarre as it sounds, this could happen in the not-so-distant future of digital advertising and marketing, if some of the ideas conceived by Google’s latest advertising experiment, Art Copy & Code, take flight.

Project lead Aman Govil says Art Copy & Code, introduced this month, is meant to show how advertising and marketing can be more relevant in a technology-rich and highly connected world. A few video demos are featured on the site, including one in which a man’s sneakers use sensors to understand what their wearer is doing and make witty remarks in response (they appear to be using Google’s social network, Google+). There’s also a mention of the first real project: a social driving app, called Smileage, created in collaboration with Volkswagen, that’s expected to be released before the summer. Projects with Adidas and Burberry are in the works, too, Google says.

“Digital advertising today is great, but it’s going to be even better in the future, and these experiences are designed to look into what this future will be,” Govil says. “The honest answer is, I don’t think we have these answers at Google, nor do I pretend we have them.”

It’s a long way from AdWords, Google’s biggest and best-known advertising product, which surfaces ads in response to your search terms, and which generates most of Google’s profits. And it hints at how the advertising landscape is changing, most immediately with the growth of mobile ads, but also as users become more accustomed to media-rich, interactive digital content.

In keeping with the company’s general love of experimentation, Google’s not afraid to try a bunch of new things and see what works. And it makes sense that the company would seek to maintain its dominance in advertising and grow the business. Advertising produced 87 percent of the company’s revenue in 2012, including revenue from Google’s Motorola purchase (excluding Motorola, this figure climbs to 95 percent).

Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Altimeter Group, says Google needs to work with brands to create ads that are more than just links or images. The examples on Art Copy & Code show a new form of advertising content meant to drive deeper customer loyalty, he says. “In the future, if we can target content and advertising so well, advertising as we know it goes away; it just becomes useful and helpful information,” he says. “And that is the future where Google and Facebook and everybody else need to hit.”

New approaches are also necessary because consumers increasingly control what ads they pay attention to. “The way things are now, the whole pushing messages down people’s throats doesn’t work as well as it once did,” says Justin Osborne, general manager of marketing communications for Volkswagen of America, who worked on the Smileage campaign. “They can screen it out.”

Osborne says this means doing more than just entertaining people. For example, the Smileage app, which will let you track and share trips and trip photos with friends, is meant to be useful to all kinds of drivers (not just those who already own a VW). The only real branding, Osborne says, is on its home screen.

We’re likely to see more advertising of these types, as well as dynamic ads that change depending on who views them and when, and more ads that use audience participation to make viewers feel more invested in the process (in one that Google created last year with Coke as part of another ad experiment project, people could send a Coke and a message to a stranger at special vending machines).

It may be a struggle to get some advertisers on board, however. Edward Boches, a professor of the practice of advertising at Boston University, who spent 35 years in the advertising industry and has worked with Google as a client, says that it has been a “crazy, challenging, and difficult journey” for ad agencies trying to move beyond focusing on art and copy to including technology and social media in effective ways.

Some resistance comes from brands, Osborne says. They understand what a banner ad is, but moving beyond that in the mobile advertising realm is harder to understand. Working with Google helped in VW’s case, though. “That took a lot of the angst out of the executive team. They realized this was innovative, experimenting,” he says.

Further experimentation seems likely. Google has so many tech tools at its disposal, Boches says, and it seems to recognize that it will be beneficial to the company if advertisers learn to use those tools in creative ways. “We’re no longer creating one-way messages; we’re creating experiences,” he says. “You need to take advantage of technology and all it has to offer.”

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