What is the state of ad blocking in 2016?
Last fall, renowned digital media writer and brand strategist Rebecca Lieb discussed ad blocking on NPR, and now we continue that conversation with a focus on what ad blocking means for digital brand marketing strategies. In the content marketing and native advertising world, many of us have long held the belief that interrupt advertising is going extinct. Yet many websites still rely on ad revenue to deliver content at no cost to its viewers—unless, of course, you count being annoyed by a banner or side panel ad as a “cost.” Business and technology publication Wired recently made an appeal to its readers to whitelist the site on their browsers, citing the need to keep making money through ads so they don’t have to charge readers to stay solvent. Forbes and others have made similar pleas.
That level of transparency is endearing, but is it enough?
A recent study by Rapt Media found that 95 percent of consumers take action to avoid seeing or receiving ads.
That percentage is staggeringly high, but it also isn’t surprising. In the age of Netflix and DVR, and an Apple Safari browser that automatically defaults to blocking ads, brands that are consumer darlings have proven that people will pay to avoid being blatantly targeted by interrupt advertising.
Lieb notes, “It’s important to bear in mind ad blocking has existed in digital channels for years. The difference now is that tools are more readily available and easier to use by a non-technical audience. And critically, Apple has made ad blocking a default setting on iOS. With digital usage’s overwhelming shift to mobile, this makes the issues fantastically more pervasive.”
Apple has made avoiding advertisements part of the iPhone experience. Free plugins for Chrome have made ad blocking across desktop and mobile browsers incredibly easy for even the Luddite tech user. I don’t have ad blocking on my phone or laptop, and my girlfriend still groans in disbelief every time we pull up a YouTube video on one my devices and find ourselves sitting through an ad. Apparently, I’m the only person she knows who doesn’t use an ad blocker that can eliminate those pesky YouTube ads. Given that 95 percent statistic, that makes sense.
I asked Lieb if she thought that digital ads were the equivalent of the taxes we pay to maintain otherwise “free” amenities like roads and public schools. She noted that free is in the mind of the beholder, then invoked a wonderful metaphor: “Are ants at a picnic fair? Or the price you pay for accessing a lovely garden? People have put up with ads (and ants) for ages. Fundamentally, they’re annoyed by them. If they can make them go away, they will. But if those ants were ladybugs or butterflies, that is to say something more pleasing and welcome, the situation might be different.”
There’s no denying that people will spray Raid on ants but are reluctant to do so on things that are thought of as more beautiful and even lucky.
So how do we transform those ants into ladybugs and butterflies?
Discoverable content may well be the answer. The same Rapt Media study found that 62 percent of respondents believe that content they discover themselves is personalized, even if it actually isn’t. Five percent say that ads influence their purchasing decisions, versus 46 percent who say that content they find on their own influences how or what they buy.
My grandfather used to say, “You win more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” The same is true of ladybugs and butterflies. When asked how we get people to perceive paid programming as positive instead of negative, Lieb explained, “Native advertising is an answer, but not the answer. Native advertising is the marketing of attraction: Pull rather than push. It’s not interruptive. Ads clutter and interrupt. So when you consider user experience, native ads are ladybugs and butterflies, not ants. But they’re only one of many ways to reach consumers, and they are also labor and cost intensive.”
Native content is benign and discoverable. It offers audiences a chance to find it themselves. Butterflies on the flower bush near your picnic are more memorable and more well-received than ants crawling into your strawberry jam. Both are bugs and both are metaphors for advertising, but only one is viewed positively.
Do ad blockers pose as big of a threat to the free, quality content we see on the internet today as Wired would have us believe? Lieb says no. “Ad blockers pose little threat to the functionality of the internet, but they do greatly threaten ad-supported digital media. For a long while now, properties like The New York Times have been ad-supported, but even that support is insufficient to sustain a major media property. As ads become increasingly ineffective or blocked altogether, there’s a rolling effect: Publishers can’t charge as much for them; they don’t work, so advertisers and marketers must try other tactics and, as a result, publishers are threatened. So are the businesses and people who make their living in the digital advertising ecosystem, everything from agencies to technology vendors.”
The New York Times is a particularly relevant example, as we’ve covered their massive and well-documented shift toward native content recently. The entire content publishing industry is following suit in one way or another: Native content on Facebook, Twitter, and other major social sharing sites are increasing as all platforms realize that we are getting better at blocking interrupt ads and tuning them out when we can’t block them. In a recent study by IHS that was commissioned by the Facebook Audience Network, the company found “Native advertising will account for 63.2 percent of all global mobile display advertising by 2020, reaching $53.4 billion.” One can only assume this trend will continue to pick up steam as brands realize what a waste of money traditional display ads are.
Just like you get up for a bathroom break when your sports game goes to commercial, you probably put down your phone while the internet forces you to sit through an ad. As Lieb points out, “you can’t ensure that your ad is always seen, and ad blocking will continue to exist. It’s therefore critical that programmatic advertising be part of the marketing mix, but don’t bet the farm on it. Marketers must increasingly augment paid campaigns with owned and earned media: content, social, PR, influencer marketing, search, and email. We’re living in a more complicated and complex world. The days of ‘buy an ad and throw it on one of only three networks’ are done.”
For those of us who are in the native content business, this is just another angle that confirms what we already know. And for those who are still on the fence about shifting their marketing strategies towards discoverable and natively-published content, this should only further enforce the idea that something’s gotta give. People have been ignoring ads for ages. Only now, they’re using technology to not just ignore them but block them altogether.
Rebecca drove this point home as her parting shot:
“Don’t tell me you’ve never taken the opportunity of a TV commercial to use the restroom. The difference with ad blockers? Measurability.”