Publishers, advertisers and consumers all have skin in the game when it comes to the use and proliferation of ad blockers. Like everyone, I am deeply concerned where the industry is and more importantly, what has to be done to reconnect with disaffected, disgruntled consumers.
The rapid adoption of ad blockers is a direct response to our industry's persistence in using old fashioned and outdated advertising practices, that don't work, and in many cases, never did. The result is a breakdown in media economics. Consumers are switching off ads, reducing publisher income and damaging advertiser sales prospects. But everyone already knows this.
So how did we get into this mess?
Once upon a time people bought magazines and newspapers because they valued the editorial content offered. Ads were part of the revenue model and were not intrusive from a reader's perspective. Some were even entertaining. Simply flip the page and get on with it.
The advent of digital publishing meant for many that old models were unsustainable and that drove a move towards digital advertising to fill the economic void. This regrettably spawned a vicious cycle in which the entire advertising eco-system shifted over time from quality to quantity objectives and almost everyone lost site of the consumer experience. Volume and scalability became the hot buzzwords and technology, as always, was developed to support them. Huge investments have been made in all things digital (programmatic, DSP's, DMP's, networks, exchanges, native and more), which with no change in product quality means the same old unwanted, annoying ads. Couple that with privacy and performance issues: it is clear why ad blockers are massively proliferating. In addition, the industry seems to either be blind or not care that vast majority of fraud happens through the use of programmatic channels. This blinkered approach has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that drives consumers away from wanting to see any ads: enter ad blocking. Today's business drivers have become more about short term revenue gain; money for money's sake, at any expense. It's become more about cost reduction instead of creativity. It's become more about data mining not consumer privacy. It's become more about volume and scale rather than creating great consumer experiences and value.
The sad truth is many still have their heads in the sand. The implicit standing contract between publisher and consumer; see and enjoy my content in exchange for seeing my advertisements has been fundamentally, and perhaps, forever broken. The erosion of advertising revenue is realizing the not so slow death of the very economic model that was wrongly thought would save the publishing industry. If the internet is to remain free, a major course correction is needed. And everyone in our industry needs to stand up and be counted, not just an enlightened few.
What Needs To Be Done? A Two Pronged Tactical Initiative Plus A Transformational Strategy
Simply put, our industry needs to get back on a track that changes consumer attitudes towards advertising; One that ends the intrusiveness of current and often considered questionable advertising practices that are being used today. Doing so will start a process that will ultimately remove or greatly reduce the need for consumers to rely on ad blockers in the first place. The answer lies in a root and branch change in attitude and action:
1. Open Communications Channels With Current Ad Block Users
It's a fact that there has been little if any dialogue between publishers and consumers who use ad blockers. As a result, publishers have no actual idea why their site is being blocked, how many times it happens and what revenue losses they are incurring. And from a consumer's perspective, all they are offered by ad blockers is a binary decision to block or not. It's an "all or nothing" proposition. Now publishers have the opportunity to put technology finally to "good use".
To engage directly with ad block consumers who visit their site you need tools that identify when an ad block occurrence takes place and which ad blocker is being used. Then you need to provide a two-way communication and dialogue with ad block users through rich messaging that allow publishers to start to change consumer behavior and give readers a wide variety of alternative choices through configurable publisher-defined options. These tools should then expose what works and what doesn't to optimize the consumer experience and measure the impact of the publisher choices consumers are willing to take and quantify which choices consumers took including white list conversions over time.
Some more fortunate premium publishers like the New York Times and the Washington Post don't have to concern themselves about ad blockers as you can't get full access to their content without a paid subscription. Others including GQ and Slate both detect ad blocking and message readers to turn off their ad blocker or pay to get access to content. These practices may or may not work well for them but for many other publishers they don't have that luxury. These new tools help those not so fortunate to figure out what their response to ad blocking should be. One point of caution publishers need to consider is giving giving zero access to content can prove as damaging as doing nothing. It can, and has been seen to increase the level of animosity against publishers and stifles the whole reason for having the site in the first place. But in the scheme of things, these tools are only tactical. They will not solve the underlying cause and effect on their own.
2. Shift to Transformational Advertising
This is where all our efforts need to strategically focus. It's clear that the same tired use of display and banner advertising is killing the industry, exacerbated by their huge programmatic proliferation. The use of ad blocking by consumers is a loud a siren, if one needs one, that the whole advertising ecosystem needs a root and branch transformation.
It's true that ads using video or high quality image media are viewed much more positively by consumers. But on their own, they are not transformational and in the end, ad blockers don't discriminate between "good" and "bad" ads. They block everything or will block everything in their way.
Many people now rave about Native Advertising as being the white knight for our industry. But there is still flawed thinking here too. Obvious shortcomings are being overlooked driven by expediency in a rush to judgement. Today many so-called native ads conforming to the look and feel of a web page and embedded in the content stream are merely camouflaged banner ads. Clicking on them takes consumers out of their intended experience to some other web site where they did not want or expect to be; yet more disruption and more of the same old annoying ad tactics that got publishers into the mess we are in today. Sure, native ads done properly will be a key part of the transformation but there is much more needing to be done first.
The cornerstones of true transformational advertising lie with 3 key tenets. Firstly, consumers must be allowed to stay within their intended digital experience. Content and better experiences must be brought to them, wherever they are. Secondly the whole nature of ad content has to be overhauled. Consumers must be informed, educated and truly engaged in the experience if they are to stick around. So ads must be intriguing stories, full of relevant content that they can interact with and take action on within a single experience. This cannot be achieved with just text, a video or a picture. And consumers will decide whether their needs are met through higher rates of engagement and conversion, whatever that might be. The third, and most crucial element, is that the change must be transparent in recognizing consumer power. When consumers realize and accept that their needs and interests are being truly respected, ad blocking should be a thing of the distant past.
But how do we get there I hear you cry. The answer comes in two parts. We must use the advanced technology available us, but now for the common good, to deliver amazing new consumer experiences instead of using it to damage those relationship as we do today. Solving the quality problem also opens the door to using automation and programmatic channels in a more meaningful and responsible way. But technology can only help us through the practical aspects of creativity, production and ad distribution. The bigger mountain that must be climbed is a wholesale change in current thinking. It has to sink in that using business as usual advertising models puts industry survival at stake. The time for paying lip services to this growing crisis is over. It's time to stop talking and start doing if a free internet is to be in our future.