The future of advertising: Many, lightweight interactions over time

Technology is driving some dramatic shifts that will change the face of business, and change the fundamentals of marketing and advertising in particular. I’m constantly thinking about better ways to explain this to people, and about a month ago, I thought of something that resonates with almost everyone I talk to about it. So I wanted to share it to see if it resonates with you:

To be a successful advertiser on the web in the future, you will need to build content based on many, lightweight interactions over time.

Following is the context explaining why I think this is the future of advertising.

We build relationships with brands the same way we build relationships with people.

We build relationships with others through many, lightweight interactions over time. We often meet people for the first time through friends of friends. Maybe we chat, maybe we don’t. Maybe we meet through friends of friends a few times, get talking and find out that we plenty of things in common and maybe similar interests. Maybe we both like skiing. So we go skiing together with our mutual friends. Maybe we go a few times. Then we go just the two of us. And slowly but surely a deep friendship develops. It takes months and years. We don’t suddenly become close friends overnight. We become  close friends through many, lightweight interactions over time.

Our species has learned this pattern of relationship building over the past tens of thousands of years. It is how our brains are wired and so isn’t going to change anytime soon. Because marketing and branding is very new relative to the history of our species, only 150 years old at best, it makes sense that we would build relationships with brands the same way. Many, lightweight interactions over time is how we’re wired to build deep, emotional connections. Therefore, our marketing plans should be built around this insight. We have intuitively and sub-consciously made rough attempts at this by spreading our messages across multiple media – magazines, billboards, TV, radio, web banner ads. Add on the other lightweight interactions we have with brands – in the retail store, chatting with our friends, seeing other people use the brand – and we have an interesting framework: many, lightweight interactions over time.

We talk about brands in passing – lightweight, not heavyweight.

We like to think that people talk about our brands in-depth, mentioning specific attributes we have seeded, but that is not how people talk about brands. People talk about brands in passing. They tend to be talking about something else, and the brand rises and dissipates incredibly quickly. For example, I’m talking with my friend John, who tells me he met our mutual friend Matt last week. He is telling me what’s happening with Matt, then mentions that the weather was crazy hot, that they were in Starbucks, that he had a new Frappuccino that I would love, and then back to telling me more about Matt. These kinds of conversations happen over and over again. Brands being mentioned as part of a bigger conversation, and brand perception being built through many, lightweight mentions over time.

Disruption and attention as a framework for marketing and advertising is ending.

One of the dramatic shifts happening that is changing business is the rise of accessible information. Only twenty years ago, our access was bounded by the books we owned, the TV shows we watched, and the books in our library. Today, because of the web, we’re seeing an exponential increase in the amount of information that we have access to. We are sinking in information yet our capacity for processing all this information remains the same. It took our brain tens of thousands of years to evolve to its current state and because it evolves incredibly slowly, it’s not going to noticeably change within our lifetime.

Dramatically more information, and limited processing capacity, means that anyone in the game of grabbing attention, and disruption is in a race to the bottom. The web is destroying disruption as an effective and efficient advertising mechanism. Disruption is a terrible user experience and is damaging to both the publisher and advertiser. In a world of too much information, the only way to be successful will be to fit in seamlessly and naturally into people’s lives. You can introduce new content and new ideas to people, but it will need to feel natural or it will be ignored at best, infuriating at worst. The best way to do this will be through people’s friends, because in a world of overwhelming information and choice, people will turn to their friends to help them decide. They will turn to their friends because that is what we have learned to do through thousands of years of evolution.

Because the web is being rebuilt around people, in the very near future, maybe 18-24 months, almost every website you visit will be personalized to you. Every website will feature information about the people you care about. What they read, what they bought, where they went, what they think. In this environment, where all content is competing with people’s friends, advertising based on disruption will lose. No brand, and no advertising campaign, is more important and interesting to people than their friends. Display advertising as we know it today will die. Banner ads will die. Because TV is also going to dramatically change in the next couple of years, standalone 30 second TV spots will die.

The future will be built around always-on strategies with many, lightweight components.

Because we build relationships with things through many lightweight interactions over time, advertising will need to do the same to be heard. Although specific short-term campaigns around launching new products and new product variants will exist, they will be built on top of a solid ‘always-on’ foundation. The ‘always-on’ foundation will be far more important than short term campaigns because that is how people act in real life. Our real life relationships with friends are ‘always-on’. Our real life relationships with brands are ‘always-on’. Advertising will need to be the same.

This is very different to how we currently do things. Almost all advertising campaigns today are based on heavyweight experiences. Heavily branded content – product shots, taglines, icons, logos – everywhere. There is a huge movement towards building deep, immersive, heavyweight marketing experiences. Marketers are building web apps. Ads that you can interact with. Ads with animation, motion and multiple layers of interaction. Everyone building these “immersive” experiences are swimming upstream. Almost every app built for a brand on Facebook has practically no usage. Think about it – when is the last time you used an app built for a brand? Heavy, “immersive” experiences are not how people engage and interact with brands. Pitched against strategies built around many, lightweight interactions over time, heavyweight experiences will fail because they don’t map to real life.

Many, lightweight interactions is an incredible creative canvas.

Many creative practitioners don’t like the sound of this, but they are blinded by their current practices. Everyone is looking for the ‘big idea’ and the hero TV spot. Sight, sound and motion. Sexy visuals. Yet many, lightweight interactions over time is an incredibly flexible canvas. It allows you to have non-linear stories. No longer do you need to tell everything at once. It allows you to fit seamlessly into conversations between people who trust each other. It allows for adaptive storytelling.

This canvas is not worse than the canvas of large sight, sound and motion experiences. It’s just different. The best creative people will seize this opportunity, create amazing experiences, and every client trying to understand the evolution of the social web (which is almost every Fortune 500 company by the way) will come flocking to those creative people’s door.

In summary, change how you think before your competitors do.

I recently gave a talk at fMC on how to create successful content on Facebook. Afterwards, the most common question was for examples of brands doing a great job using many, lightweight interactions. The truth is that there aren’t many. But that is changing. Brands who embrace this early will see incredible success. Brands who don’t may go the way of the dinosaurs. The future of advertising is many, lightweight interactions over time. Don’t be the last to realize this.

If you want to learn more about the huge shifts in how the web is structured, and what that means for marketing, check out my book Grouped. It also contains references to dozens of research studies illustrating where things are headed.


  1. This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on advertising, it is definitely ahead of most companies, therefore evidence would be needed to convince players it’s in there own interesting, it is also ahead of what consumers think of advertising…

    I left Facebook 4 months ago, I found the design changes with the ticker, the change in how content was displayed (algorythms over time based) created a lot of noise in my stream. With each iteration I felt I lost more and more white space, and things I was interested in buried.

    I believe in Google, it is a company with whom I have a history, they filter in to the day to day speak, and their values and philsnthropy are cornerstones to their reputation and interaction with the community. When I first heard about circles I thought the idea was fantastic, thanks again, but the platform still lacks features that would be considered basic to Facebook (e.g. events).

    There remains a small chance that I would return to Facebook, ijnspitr of it’s aims to put the web within Facebook, and its direct community relations leaves a lot to be desired as compared to Google and you are halfway there. Placing adverts on the side, in the ticker, or in the stream still disrupt the overall goal users are seeking on the website. Instead of integrating isolated posts as advertisinginstead out the adverts into peoples messages in a mutually beneficial way.

    Person A mentions Bigmac or mcdoinalds and hamburger the text becomes a link to the McDonald’s Facebook page which shows the nearest store. Brand loyalty could be reinforce through random give aways or discounts offered to people that mentions those brands (face books role as being the intermediary between the user and the company. Sure this could be invasive but I’m sure Facebook has the nous to pull it of in implementation that allows users to be front and center allowing companies to build relationships.

    Thank you for this great insight into one of the major advertisers on the social web.

  2. “Today, because of the web, we’re seeing an exponential increase in the amount of information that we have access to. We are sinking in information yet our capacity for processing all this information remains the same.”

    I believe that the tools Facebook provides to users, while not increasing our capacity, is still shifting capacity to fit more relationships and a different level of information. 10 years ago, we would have had to remember numerous trivial details about a person (ex. phone number, birthday, mutual friendships).

    Now that Facebook has made this information easily accessible, I believe that Dunbar’s number has increased. We can manage more relationships or more quality relationships because we no longer have to remember as many trivial details. I see this as either leading people to store more lightweight interactions in their memory, or allowing them to invest in more heavyweight interactions.

  3. YES. YES and YES!

    All fantastically valid and insightful thoughts. I hope @edwardboches chimes in as he has been saying similar things for a while now and he come from deep within the Ad industry.

    2 Areas I’de like to comment on.

    1 – I think your view on disruption at face value makes sense but I would argue that the world needs a little disruption from time to time. People sometime need to be jolted and have something thrown directly in their path. Disruption can be awesome and polarizing. The problem with the ad industry is we wield it like a 4 year old with a machine gun. Too much disruption IS a bad thing. Pointless disruption IS a bad thing. Disruption for the sake of disruption is reprehensible. Do not dismiss it in it’s entirety, A solid and well rounded marking campaign can make use of disruption and even make it a creative playground. Disruption can play well with others and can be a beautiful catalyst for the lightweight interactions you outlined.

    2 – Sorry but I can’t agree that in 18 -24 months every website I visit will be tailored to me. I’ve been working with brands online for a while and they are much much slower to adapt than you would think, especially the brands that sit outside the 500. We still see brands that come in asking for work on their sites that largely haven’t been touched for the past 4 years. I think we will get o your vision but I think the timeline for ubiquity will be a bit longer than you suggest.

  4. Yes the thoughts did resonate with me…. very insightful
    Contacts (friends, family, word on the street etc) who you TRUST plays an important part in promotions.
    I believe the culture and the socio-economic considerations also play an important part in choossing one product/brand over others. Sometimes disruptions can help in seeding the idea which other wise the group is not aware. But the disruptions have to carefully planned and depends on many factors (most of which are subjective)such as the informations being watched/read/listened to , how private a person is etc.

  5. [...] spurned to write this because I ran across an article this morning (via Percolate of course) about how the future of marketing is in lightweight interactions. Here, to me at least, is the money paragraph: Because we build relationships with things through [...]

  6. Thanks for the comments folks.

    - There is a ton of research behind this. I left it out here for brevity (although the post is still long). My book, Grouped, was written based on over 200 academic papers, books and articles. If you’re into data, that’s the place to go!
    - As much as I’d love to talk about the similarities/differences between Google and Facebook publicly, I can’t. Suffice to say though that I worked on ‘privacy’ at Google for a long time and yet I left to join Facebook. Both companies are trying to do the right thing by their users – but some decisions are hard to get right.
    - Facebook isn’t trying to put the web inside Facebook. In fact, our goals are the inverse of that. We don’t think of Facebook as a blue and white website, but rather as a platform. Check our Chris Cox’s talk from fMC last week that describes this very articulately:

    Good points, I think it remains to be seen how things might change. However, technology isn’t increasing the capacity of our brain, it is simply making a lot more information more easily accessible. So I don’t think we can hold any more relationships in our head and it’s no different to gossiping over the garden fence 50 years ago. What might be changing is that we hold less information about more people, although the total volume of information remains the same. So our networks might be a stronger power law than they already are.

    - I think a better term for the ‘positive disruption’ you’re describing is ‘seducible moments’. While I understand and appreciate your points, I worry about arguments like this because people use it as an excuse to get in people’s way. However, there are points in people’s routines where disruption can be good because they are ready for something new. For example, Amazon don’t get in your way until you place a book in the cart, but then they ‘disrupt’ you with other books you may be interested in. Expect a blog post about seducible moments and the advertising industry soon!
    - I always say that predicting the future is a fools game. It might take 18-24 months, it might take longer. However, I do think that in 24 months this shift wil be much more obvious and the momentum will be huge around it.

    I think the best way to introduce people to new content and new ideas is through their weak ties, or through their friends. Regarding new product launches, see my follow up post to this one “The role of heavyweight interaction”.

    • “Seducible Moments” is a great term! I agree with you about how easily disruption can be turned into an excuse. It’s pretty much the reason why the industry is in the situation it is right now. A lot of people are still trying to qualify the old approach in the face of new contradictory data.

      Look forward to your future posts on the ad industry.

      • Hi Paul,
        I’m a big fan of your work – I’ve listen to your audio book several times, but I’d love it if I could get a copy of all your sources. They are read after every chapter but it would be easier if I could have a list of them. I’d greatly appreciate any direction you could provide to support my peripheral research in this field.

  7. [...] Paul Adams, the Global Brand Experience Manager at Facebook, has been developing this idea for a while, which he fully explained on his blog. [...]

  8. This is a completely different take on the power of persuasion and where advertising should go. Thank you Paul. I have always considered the thick line that separates content and advertising to be a kind of ‘walled’ approach that has helped people ignore advertising easily. One of the things that we will see is genuine content with oblique or direct brand name references.
    How we define interaction will also be equally important. Clients do not like slow methods because they have quarterly targets to meet. The way our media is built also encourages disruption rather than engagement. But there is no doubt that we need new answers – and this seems a very logical direction once you have articulated it.

  9. Great post, Paul.

    I watched the stream of the fMC and was impressed by how much Facebook is embracing their lightweight approach. You alluded to it here in your anecdotes and Chris made it explicit in his keynote, but a good story is the basis on and through which a connection can go. I think there’s exciting times ahead!

  10. [...] Adams, Global Brand Experience Manager at Facebook, wrote one of those traditional advertising is dead posts that I avoid or ridicule. But I didn’t avoid Adams’ take on things, and I will [...]

  11. In yet another lightweight interaction, you told us about your book and how cunningly you (the person we trust) actually influences our thinking.
    Anyways a good article. I agreed to most of your points except that websites will be tailored.
    I think websites are today dying a slow death and overtime small brands at least will rely on facebook or such other mediums.

  12. [...] futuro de la publicidad online está más en muchas interacciones ligeras a lo largo del tiempo, que en una gran exposición repentina a la marca. Hay que abandonar la [...]

  13. [...] Paul Adams, product guy at Facebook and author of Grouped, in a recent blog post. Discovered via James Gross’s blog SHARING IS CARING:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted in Marketing, They Said It | Tagged advertising online, branding, facebook, marketing, paul adams [...]

  14. Don’t forget that the future of advertising means also the future of how we’ll deal with mass information. There are 6.5 billion people using different mobile platforms globally ( and and in 2014 there are more information seeking on the mobile than the web. So this concept has to be optimized further to fit in the mobile environment

  15. Spot on. One of the ways I explain this is that we are now in a speed boat approach, rather than a cruiseship. And this is for good reason: Its hard to stop and optimize a cruise ship, but much easier to optimize a bunch of speed boats.

  16. Right on. Technologies such as location based services, publish/subscribe, cognitive science have to be embedded in the future integrate mobile web marketing and advertising.

  17. I really like this topic and I beleive it can change the way we do anything in the future.

    In addition to Paul’s comments to using technology and applying many lightweight interactions over time, I want also to add the concept of Network Analysis to be applied to social relations in order to utilize the marketing/advertising/branding tools and technologies correctly. It is my research now to apply a set of phenomena or data which we seek to understand including: focus on relationships between people rather than attributes of them, Sense of interdependence: a molecular rather atomistic view, Structure affecting substantive outcomes and Emergent effects

    Network theory has to be sympathetic with systems theory and complexity theory. Social networks is also characterized by a distinctive methodology encompassing techniques for collecting data, statistical analysis, visual representation. So this has to be applied to the branding of a product or a service. That is what Paul and others at Facebook are trying to do.

    How do you map and measure relationships and flows between people, groups, organizations, machines or other information/knowledge processing entities to advertising, marketing brand awareness?

    Social network analysis has to include set of methods used in social psychology, sociology, ethology, and anthropology (affecting efficiency when performing a task, moral satisfaction, and leadership. Another research I doing is M2M and this can also be embedded to this topic. Using machine to machine communication to benefit. Intereting!

  18. [...] a line to be drawn from that way of thinking to this from Paul Adams, a member of Facebook’s product team: To be a successful advertiser on the web in the future, [...]

  19. [...] The Future of Advertising: Many Lightweight Interactions Over Time [...]

  20. Show me an example. Brands are not people. Brands are products. How you evaluate using a product is not the same as how you evaluate your relationship with people. People do not compete for your mindshare (unless you are dating many people at once).

    So, give me an example of a product with significant competitors that broke through with light interactions. And don’t say Pinterest.

  21. [...] thoughts in an article titled The Future of Advertising: Many Lightweight Interactions Over Time #. If you work in any facet of advertising it’s worth a [...]

  22. I love your “many, lightweight interactions” mantra & find most of your conclusions spot-on.
    However I don’t quite understand your rhetorical, “when is the last time you used an app built for a brand?” question. Doesn’t iTunes count as an app and Apple as a brand? What about Farmville and Zynga? In both cases I’d argue the user experiences – and is typically delighted by – an immersive branded experience. Maybe the takeaway here is that more brands need to build more user-oriented apps?
    I’m also intrigued by your statement that marketing and branding are only 150 years old “at best.” Logos, brand guidelines and market strategies have all been around for far longer. Am I missing something or do you have just have a better, more specific definition for marketing and branding than I do?

    As a former biology student I’d like to suggest an edit to your assertion that
    “because [the brain] evolves incredibly slowly, it’s not going to noticeably change within our lifetime.”
    Even if the brain was our fastest-evolving organ it wouldn’t undergo evolutionary change in one person’s lifetime. Your brain can and will change over time (perhaps even due to your browsing habits) but your children couldn’t genetically inherit your personal cognitive changes and thus they’d have no way of precipitating an evolutionary change.

  23. Hi Paul – I concur.

    Thought I’d throw another analogy into the mix (you can never have too many).
    It concerns penguin poop, as all good analogies should:

  24. [...] future of advertising, according to Paul Adams, is about “many, lightweight interactions over time”. I’m starting to think [...]

  25. [...] The future of advertising: Many, lightweight interactions over time Tags: advertising, interactions, design Paul Adams works with Facebook. He has some interesting thoughts on how advertising should think many sustained interactions rather than traditional “big splash” type advertising. Strangely I have been thinking something along the same lines with my own job in UX&D at the BBC. We tend to design for finite interactions manifest as “grand narratives”. Users come to the site, perform a number of tasks – usually in sequence – in order to complete some sort of goal. I think reality is often much more fragmented, as people jump between tabs, screens, experiences, content etc., over both long and short periods of time. We should be designing for this sort of non-linear and undirected interaction – which probably also involves taking a long hard look at our toolsets – user journeys, scamps, etc. Non of this is fully formed in my mind yet – and some may turn out to be supplemental to what we have now, rather than an actual paradigm shift. But it is none the less interesting. Now stop listening to me pontificate and go read Paul Adam´s thing. [...]

  26. [...] social brands – ie. Zappos, Patagonia, KLM – understand that experience is a non-linear sequence of lightweight interactions that happen over time and across multiple touch-points. It is the last part of that sentence that [...]

  27. There’s so much good sense in what you write, Paul. I’m particularly interested in the consequences for creative agencies, who are burdened with a long legacy of making things that are designed to have a big, singular impact, where all the other, ‘lighter’ touch points/interactions are seen as merely pale echoes of the big hitter (which is almost always the TV commercial). As you say, the creative canvas for lots of lightweight interactions opens up new paradigms for storytelling – and opportunities to make lots of smaller content elements that are woven into a ‘natural’ brand narrative. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, far less elegantly, and from a perspective of frustration with traditional agency practice:

  28. [...] Many Lightweight Interactions This is the most recent article of the bunch and comes by way of Paul Adams, who works in the product team at Facebook. It was a really nice way to explain a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking and talking about with clients over the last five years. Specifically it talks about how the web (and specifically social) offer brands an opportunity to move from a world of few heavyweight interactions (stock in Robin’s parlance) to many lightweight interactions (flow). The one thing I’d add is that I think the real opportunity is to take the many lightweight interactions and use them to understand what works and inform the occasional heavyweight interactions brands need to succeed. [...]

  29. [...] of the dancing raisins experiment can we view the bubbles in the liquid (the market) as a series of lightweight interactions, (referred to by Paul Adams, from Facebook’s product team) and hence in Noah’s framework as [...]

  30. [...] Facebook 全球品牌体验经理 Paul Adams 在 广告的未来 一文中曾提到过:「若想要在未来成为一名出色的广告主,你需要有足够的耐心,通过积累许多细微、轻度的互动来创造你的内容。」虽然并没有就如何选择投放渠道的问题做细致讨论,但却有一些观点令人深以为然「任何人都处在获取注意力的游戏中,而“干扰”处在这场游戏的最底层。」试想人们使用搜索引擎的目的绝不同于浏览一个门户或到朋友的博客去“串串门”,而是在潜意识里已经想到了我可能是需要点什么 或 我应该去哪儿,这时候的广告如果过于刺激,反而容易激怒别人,处理好这个“度”将变得很困难。译文…原文…所以,无论是从获取最高的回报为在线营销目标的出发角度看,还是从品牌建设的角度来思考,我认为短期集中高曝光率的玩法并不会对所做的事有太大帮助,那不该是我们太过倾注精力去关注的。 [...]

  31. [...] The future of advertising: Many, lightweight interactions over time [...]

  32. [...] Paul Adams: [...]

  33. [...] the global head of brand design at Facebook and the man behind the concept of Google circles, aptly sums it up when he noted “Think about it – when is the last time you used an app built for a brand? [...]

  34. Great post, thanks for sharing this information! Very interesting.

  35. [...] The future of advertising: Many, lightweight interactions over time — Think Outside In — “We build relationships with brands the same way we build [...]

  36. [...] Paul Adams, wrote an interesting piece stating that people build brand relationships through many, lightweight interactions over time. Because of this, it’s crucial that your brand identity remain consistent. That way, every time a [...]