NEW YORK CITY — Digital advertisers and marketers are gathering here today and tomorrow to ponder seismic shifts in customer engagement — and grapple with a fast approaching ad-free future.

At the Ad Age Digital Conference at Pier 36 in Lower Manhattan, the conversation focused on how innovation and creativity can address new realities like ad blocking, ad fraud, industry kickbacks and, most importantly, apathetic customers.

Customers have infinite choices and growing pathways to purchase. And while that is creating new opportunities, it is also driving marketers and advertisers to rethink how they connect with customers and develop better strategies to address customer needs.

The bottom line: Marketers and advertisers need to learn how to engage with consumers on their terms. And just an hour after the conference opened, more than 400 had already picked up their lanyards and nametags to hear dozens of speakers share their insights on doing just that.

Medium for Publishers

Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter and founder and CEO of Medium, traveled to the East Coast from San Francisco to focus on the importance of place. "Whether you want to tell a story or influence people, being in the right place is incredibly important," he said.

This Thursday, Medium — a place designed for anyone with a story to tell — will create a new commercial zone, Medium for Publishers. This will give companies and brands new opportunities to tell their stories and address "the right audience in the right context," he said.

Medium is also introducing its first monetization platform this week, which is called Promoted Stories. "It's going to be completely native, available to publishers who are publishing on Medium" and run in select publications that Medium invited to participate in the beta program, he said.

To make the point that advertisers and marketers need to evolve, innovate and capitalize on both new technologies and new iterations of existing platforms, Evans told the story of his own relocation from his childhood home in rural Nebraska to San Francisco.

The Right Place

The Bay Area was the "center of gravity for the internet," he explained. That made it the place to be for an entrepreneur who would ultimately co-found two of the biggest online services — Blogger, which he ran for four years before selling to Google in 2003, and Twitter, where he was CEO for two years and now serves on the board of directors.

People move for opportunity, convenience and the experience of a place, he said. "Not everyone loves cities, of course. My dad, when he visited from Nebraska, told me San Francisco would be wonderful except for all the people," he noted.

Learning Opportunities

But marketers and advertisers should recognize that customers are drawn to population hubs on the internet, too — and take advantage of platforms that promote community and engagement.

"A standalone website is like a shop in the country," he explained. While the store will get some traffic, it will get measurably less than a similar store in a busier place.

Create Value, Stop Shouting

Medium, he explained, was conceived in 2012 as a new digital city, a site designed for deeper discourse where the measure of success was more about viewpoints than page views.

Evans still sees Medium, with its commitment to distraction-free writing and open publishing, as a thriving metropolis — the right place to be for anyone who has something to say, including advertisers and marketers.

"If you are not in the right place, things get a lot harder. That's not to say that things get easier if you are in the right place. It's still hard, but the rewards are also greater," he said.

"To actually capture attention. You have to add value. You have to be more original. There needs to be less shouting loudly and fewer tricks. The reward is that the web will be a better place for everyone."

Title image by Asa Aarons Smith