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How to Advertise Without Advertising

Advertising is all around us. From the smallest start-up to legacy Fortune 500 companies, everyone is competing to get their message out in the world where prospective customers can see it and engage with it. With their being so ubiquitous, are traditional marketing and advertising methods still effective?

People have gotten savvier about the internet and the way companies construct messaging to make their products and services appealing. As such, the old methods of direct selling and even newer digital advertising strategies have lost their edge.

Advertising without advertising may seem impossible or dishonest by its face, but what we really mean by the term is that companies need to engage with prospective customers honestly and authentically rather than pitching them products repeatedly. Mastering this approach is challenging, but if you use some of the tips in this guide you’re sure to get the hang of it.

Modern Branding & Advertising Without Advertising

How did branding and advertising go from straightforward print ads and signage to the highly sophisticated design-driven branding we see around us today? The conceptualization and then centralization of the user in the process of creating promotions played a huge impact recently, but there were some big trend shifts earlier on as well. 

Newspapers and flyers were some of the first modern promotional materials. Before that, it was pretty much limited to word of mouth and signs hanging at or near the point of sale. 

As life got more technologically advanced and complicated, though, new avenues for communicating ideas and products became available. Certainly, the mail-order catalogs were some of the first long-distance materials to become popularized. But then came the telephone and later electronic mediums like faxes and the internet. 

Side by side with all of this development was a growing attitude that direct salesmanship was inconsiderate and greedy. People began to detest being marketed to all the time. 

What’s Wrong With Traditional Advertising?

One of the biggest problems with mass marketing and a constant stream of messages from businesses who are trying to turn a profit is that recipients of such marketing materials are very easily overloaded. It has become difficult to find anywhere you can go in the real world or the digital one without there being some sort of selling point. 

The improvements made to marketing and advertising aren’t meant to reset the clock in any kind of way, nor are they an attempt to preserve the traditional relationship between the businesses trying to make a sale and the people who might make a purchase. 

Rather, the entire concept of advertising without advertising is to radically shift to suit the relationships that already exist in the real world. It’s not so much that companies need a new way to dupe people into making a purchase. The better description is that business has found a new foothold as a source of information and a medium for communication.

Hands operate a smartphone while a person lies across the bed.
Cultivating relationships on social media is a great way to build a brand.

The Digital Advertising Revolution

When the internet first came into wide use, most of what was digitized was modeled after older traditional technology. From e-newsletters to neumorphic graphic design, the precursors to today’s creatives were mostly employed to move existing print assets onto the web.

Digital advertising took a little while to get savvy to the internet and the way people use it. The equivalent of mailed spam was the first resort, but people didn’t want their email inboxes filled up with spam any more than they wanted to see a bunch of unrequested flyers and advertisements in their regular mailbox.

Nonetheless, these methods persisted throughout the naughts. Slowly, companies and the designers and marketing teams who worked for them realized that the total immersion – essentially, the endless potential clickability – of web surfing meant they could create user experiences that were omnichannel and conveniently located when the customer wanted them.

Digital advertising began to create value for login credentials and other forms of user data. Measuring the paths of users and how they explored information on the internet also allowed them to find new avenues for posting and sending promotions and product details to people who were most likely to want it. 

In many ways, this was the ideal answer to the annoying overabundance of traditional marketing and advertising material. In the last decade, we’ve seen targeted digital advertising that either finds the people who want it or is only available to people who commit to seeing it the way you might with a newsletter subscription or a free account. 

The word revolution is surely overused in corporate-speak, especially as startup culture and “disruptive” ideas surge in popularity. That charged word might be overestimating the importance of developments in digital marketing, but it can’t be denied that companies and designers both have a completely different conception of their target markets than they did fifty or sixty years ago.

How to Advertise Without Advertising

What does all this mean for businesses who want to get their products into the hands of people who want them?

The most immediate takeaway is that potential and return customers are active decision-makers rather than the passive receptors of ads and promotions that older styles of marketing seemed to imply they were. Also important is the role of the internet in people’s everyday lives. They seek information about the world as well as about products. 

Here are a few ways you can take advantage of the newest marketing and advertising theories to make your point to the people you need to reach without taking up too much time or space.

1. Focus On Content & Information

Content writing is likely the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions content in a marketing context. But even if you aren’t focusing on articles or video to fill a website in a way that will attract viewers, content is still vital. 

If you want to showcase a product line, you need to present as much content as possible without overdoing it. It’s a fine line because some people may be driven away by what’s called cognitive overload. 

But the definition of content has broadened so much as creatives have continued experimenting with different forms. Technology that accommodates streaming video was a huge game-changer for content on the web, which at one point was primarily a vehicle for text-based information in forums and big blocks of text. 

Even newer technology like augmented reality has enabled designers and other creatives to create content that is highly tailored to the personal lives of the users. Tech can make for novel user experiences but don’t forget that what people are after the most is quality information. Providing it for free will lend authority to your brand and also help build a connection between your users and the company. 

2. Transparency is Key

You don’t have to delve into all the minute business practices and decisions your company goes through on a day-to-day basis, but you should be open with the people who communicate with your brand on any platform. With the rise of social media, this has become even more important. 

Part of building authentic advertising and marketing is admitting when explicit attempts to sell are explicit attempts to sell. And highlighting when you’re legitimately making a more informed customer by providing education or information for free will also put people on the path toward a long-term relationship with your brand. 

A common mistake in many digital marketing campaigns is to confuse transparency with self-awareness. While that style of commercial or other ad is frequently funny and entertaining for exactly the kind of savvy consumer you’re probably trying to reach by advertising without advertising, it doesn’t create the same kind of authentic connection that true transparency can. 

That transparency could be related to your marketing efforts, to your product line or selection of services, to your competitive edge, or to your long-term goals. Proprietary information notwithstanding, you can level with your customer base so that they know what kind of company you are and understand that you aren’t always trying to make a sale.

3. Build Social Media Relationships

By far one of the most impactful developments in the digital age was the rise of social media. Although some of the big social media giants may have seen their limelight fade in the last few years, they still maintain huge audiences and are already incorporated into the latest iterations of website and app designs via share buttons. 

Integrated Buy Now functions on websites like Instagram have brought shopping into a new era. No longer are people necessarily spending a long time browsing to buy. Their browsing is just web surfing, looking at posts, and interacting with different pages. When they see something they like by happenstance, they can make the purchase. 

Social media has also improved the user experience for peer-to-peer services like ridesharing and rentals. People can share photos of their experiences and their customer service interactions with brands that are otherwise hardly perceived are public and free to view for anyone who wants to see them. 

Logging into a site with social media credentials is a great way to build a huge block of user data since behavior is more apparent when people use a site whose sole purpose is to help people interact. Sharing information from elsewhere on the internet and posting reviews of places and businesses is all much easier with social media in the picture. 

Using social media allows companies to build trust from a very small individual level and continue fostering a perception of the brand as helpful and educational on an expanding scale. Of course, this image mustn’t be hollow. You really need to provide quality information and customer service if you want to make sure your social media presence is helping your company. 

4. Try Long-Form Content

A common misconception about people in the internet age is that they have such shortened attention spans that they can’t pay attention or won’t click on longer articles, videos, or other content. Overly information-laden content is frequently viewed as a negative quality for companies who perceive internet users as clicking rapidly from page to page. 

We’ve already mentioned that people constantly crave information in today’s world. That’s precisely what makes long-form content so effective. High-quality information is coveted and sought-after, plus it’s very likely inexpensive to produce because your company probably already has people with expertise on the subject matter you publish. 

One likely cause for the misconception that long-form content is undesirable for people who surf the internet is that it’s not exactly clear how long long-form content is. Videos on your website don’t need to be hours-long documentaries. But they should be long enough for people to engage with the information they contain and then link that positive experience back to your brand. 

When the content is in article form, a few thousand words is ideal. Videos of 10 minutes are suitable most of the time, although more complex subject matter might require more time to adequately be explained to interested viewers. 

5. Don’t Completely Abandon Traditional Selling

This tip might sound counterintuitive since we’ve gone to such lengths to explain how explicit salesmanship has lost its appeal. The thing is, if you’re trying to be transparent and create honest relationships between people and your brand, you can’t pretend that your company doesn’t have some kind of bottom line. 

There’s no need to be cynical or ironic about it. Illustrating how your company believes in its product and passes along cost savings to the people who purchase products or services is every bit as effective in new internet formats as it was with older mediums. 

Even if you have the most informative and easy-to-use website or app ever, people will become distrustful if they can’t see where your company benefits from providing free information and things like that. Take the right attitude to explicit selling and your impression and appeal will increase among users of every level.

The element of confidence in your product blends with the unshakable truth that companies need to sell products in order to survive. People know this about all businesses and need to see some aspect of this going on. If you don’t seem like a company that can sell products to people, any legitimacy you might get from providing free or educational resources will be void. 

6. Use A Diversity of Tactics

Long-form content and clear call-to-actions for people who are interested in them aren’t the only two things you need for a successful creative marketing strategy. Take a multi-tiered approach, especially where people are likely to be interacting with your brand on multiple platforms. That also goes for your content and campaigns. 

Building a brand voice is important, but that doesn’t mean you can only approach potential customers from one direction or with one kind of media or material. Mix videos, audio, text, and augmented reality across your branded sites and apps to keep people engaged with the brand. Whatever voice you have in your straightforward promotions should exist in your text and video content as well. 

Remember that this tip isn’t about people having shorter attention spans. It’s actually based on the fact that people have a wider variety of experience with the internet and with branded content in general. Showing them that your brand can successfully communicate across mediums and in different formats of media is a great way to boost the authoritative expertise of your company. 

This diversity of tactics should also embrace cutting-edge technology, although it should avoid doing so unless your company is ready to implement the tech without jumping the gun and seeming juvenile, out of touch, or inexperienced. Whatever collection of expertise your business has should be readily apparent from the diversity of content and technology in your advertising and marketing. 

Three people sit near a lake and talk.
Authentic relationships are the key to honest marketing without advertising.


Advertising without advertising is a concept that seems a bit more complicated than it is. What companies and creatives are really doing is embracing the changes in the relationships between people and media, the internet, and companies. 

Digital advertising has become part of people’s daily lives not because they find banner ads invaluable but because the information supported on sites that also engage in digital marketing is useful and much-needed for everyday people. The trick is to advertise without relying on the old theories and tricks of the past where straightforward selling was the primary method.

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