In mid-2015, Apple quietly announced that iOS 9 would allow the use of ad-blocking apps. Many people read this as the first step in the inevitable mainstreaming of ad-blocking technology. The news sparked an uproar in the advertising and publishing community with many doomsayers foretelling the demise of the internet as we know it.
Previously a tool of the tech-nerd, the use of ad-blocking software has increased by 41 percent since 2014, according to a study from Adobe and Pagefair. (Although it’s worth being aware that Pagefair commissioned this study and has a vested interest in the use of ad blockers.)
According to these doomsayers, without the much-needed advertising revenue, content providers from personal blogs to marquee publications like the New York Times would fold, unable to adapt to the ad-free wasteland that the internet would inevitably become.
Some have suggested that that the loss of advertising revenue (which apparently represents 90 percent of all internet revenue) would spell the end of the ‘free’ (or ad supported) internet and lead to a gated (fee supported) internet. Since very few content providers have been able to establish a successful paywall or subscription model, and users have shown themselves to be extremely reluctant to pay for content (other than video streaming sites) it seems unlikely that this will emerge as a viable way to replace lost advertising revenue.
Some starry-eyed idealists have even rejoiced in the return of a utopian internet where free knowledge sharing can take place unencumbered by the mechanisms of capitalism. Well, good luck with that. Ad blocking doesn’t mean the end of advertising. If anything, it means the end of small and mid-tier online publishers that don’t have the scale to attract other more costly forms of advertising. If we want to get paranoid, it means that information dissemination will be more polarised between the mass publishers that have alternate revenue streams and personal bloggers in tinfoil hats who bash out their tirades in the wee small hours of the morning. And, good luck getting a straight story out of either end of that spectrum.
The ethics of ad blocking
The ethics of ad blocking is actually extremely interesting, although this is perhaps not the place to delve into it too deeply. In brief then: in late 2015, Marco Arment, cofounder of Tumblr, created an iOS ad-blocker app called Peace.
The app was downloaded tens of thousands of times in the 36 hours before Arment pulled the plug and removed the app. In its brief 36-hour life, it had become the highest selling app on the US iTunes app store.
On his personal blog, Arment explained: “Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.
“I still believe that ad blockers are necessary today,” he said.
“Ad blocking is a kind of war — a first-world, low-stakes, both-sides-are-fortunate-to-have-this-kind-of-problem war, but a war nonetheless, with damage hitting both sides.”
Some have argued that blocking ads violates the implicit agreement between publisher and reader. This argument suggests that the publisher provides free content in exchange for the reader viewing the advertising material. It’s a nice, simple theory. And one that doesn’t hold up in reality. For the most part, internet users don’t pay attention to ads, so advertisers do everything they can to divert attention from the content to the ads.
And this is where the problem lies. For most people, advertising has gotten too intrusive, too pushy and too distracting. Consider the fate of pop-up ads. Fifteen years ago, pop-ups emerged online, representing the embryonic form of modern online advertising. People hated them to the point that pop-up blocking became a standard feature on all browsers. Advertisers and publishers cried apocalypse then, too.
Today, we have outstream video (video appearing between paragraphs in articles), in-image banners (banner ads layered on top of other images), floating pop-ups that are difficult to close or redirect you to another page when you try to close them, and remarketing ads that can start to feel like online stalking.
For most people this is why advertising has crossed the line. These forms of aggressive advertising represent a shift in the balance between advertiser and consumer.
Earlier forms of advertising — say print or TV, for example — operated with the understanding that ads would be presented, but it was up to the consumer whether you would pay attention. You could always turn the page or change the channel. The burden was on advertisers and publishers to create and present ads that the consumer would tolerate or perhaps even welcome.
But that balance has changed. With online ads you are forced to pay attention, forced into immediate action that distracts you from the content you want to see and can even navigate you away from where you want to be. But that’s not the worst of it. While you are madly trying to negotiate the deluge of ads, these ads are usually collecting personal data without the knowledge of most users, and nearly always without consent.
And this is where the real imbalance emerges. When consumers are inundated with invasive and annoying ads for products of no relevance to them, the consumer gets nothing while the various advertising parties are benefiting from a stream of personal data they are collecting without permission. In that kind of environment, it’s hard to sympathise with the ad agencies and publishers.
As Arment points out, this is why the implied-contract theory is invalid: “People aren’t agreeing to write a blank check and give up reasonable expectations of privacy by clicking a link. They can’t even know what the cost of visiting a page will be until they’ve already visited it and paid the price.”
Publishers need to monetise their operations to stay in business and advertising is simply the way that this is done. There is no problem with that and most people are willing to accept a reasonable amount of advertising to get access to quality media. However, the ubiquity of low-quality advertising content; the intrusive, invasive and manipulative ad tactics; and the the data-at-all-costs mindset means that a) advertisers are shooting themselves in the foot for short-terms gains; and b) that publishers are risking alienating their readership by allowing such dubious content.
What does this mean for content marketers?
Regardless of the advertising industry’s apocalyptic cries, advertising isn’t going anywhere. The industry is simply too resilient, too ingrained in human activity, and too much an integrated part of the internet ecosystem to be thwarted by something as fleeting as ad-blocking software. Techcrunch offers a nice appraisal of the situation: “Advertisers won’t really be affected much. They still have a massive amount of website traffic available, along with lots of other channels, like social and mobile, to which to shift their spend. As more content is heading toward closed platforms and apps, advertising will only become more integrated and harder to remove.” Advertising is the proverbial cockroach that survives the nuclear blast.
But let’s think for a moment about the opportunity that this provides to savvy marketers.
Instead of compounding consumer ire by continuing to pound away with old ad tactics, advertisers should see this as an opportunity to develop more meaningful, engaging and effective means of advertising, rather than hammering consumers with something they’ve made it pretty clear they don’t want. This may sound obvious, but find out what out what your customers want and provide that. Advertising is no longer about quantity — that is getting your ad in front of as many eyes as possible. Advertising is about quality — getting the right content in front of the right people at the right time.
While consumers are clearly disillusioned with the state of online advertising that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to engage with quality branded content. The deluge of terrible internet advertising and the rise of ad blockers could provide opportunities for savvy and creative brands to reach customers through higher quality content marketing.
According to Randy Kohl, most if not all brands are already publishers, with many using high-quality editorial content to drive customer engagement. “This may extend to reporting on topical, industry-related news to serve as a primary information source, as well as producing immersive lifestyle content,” says Kohl.
“While the idea of brands creating in-house newsrooms may sound like a stretch, image [sic] the influence that a brand could wield if it became the go-to source of information for people in their target audience.”
Consider retailers like Vinomofo, Naked Wines or Beginning Boutique. These retailers curate and create significant editorial content that is not directly aimed at increasing conversions, but more at providing information for shoppers. Vinomofo, through its Vinofiles blog, Naked Wines, through its user and winemaker reviews and comments, and Beginning Boutique through its blog and active social media presence (especially via Facebook and Instagram), all offer content that keeps people engaged with the brand and draws them back to the website.
As the average person’s tolerance for online advertising continues to plummet, the challenge for content marketers is to develop relevant and engaging content that serves the customers’ needs, rather than serving the brand’s needs. If, as Kohl suggests, brands need to start positioning themselves as primary information sources, then content marketers need to start thinking like journalists.
Online advertising has become intolerable for so many people because advertisers and publishers have not been concerned with how the advertising affects their audience. And this is the mindset that needs to change. When a journalist is preparing a story they will have their audience in the forefront of their mind. Will it engage my reader? Is it important to my reader? Does it provide the information they want/need?
Content marketers need to start thinking the same way. The question should not be What will this piece do for the brand/client? But rather What will this piece do for the reader?
When looking to create quality branded content, try to determine what a potential reader will get from it — better yet, try to pre-empt a user’s need before they even realise they have it.
Next, work out what type of content will best service this purpose. In the case of Naked Wines user-generated reviews and ratings have been hugely popular. For an hardware stores, such as Bunnings, video content in the form of product demonstrations or DIY guides works to draw people in.
Check out Beginning Boutique’s blog for a great example of this. It includes a variety of content including photoshoots, lists, videos, music playlists, recipies and more that provide style and health tips, inspiration, ideas and more.
Ad blocking is absolutely a reality that will affect both advertisers and publishers. The good news is that with quality content you look to reach customers in a more engaging way, which will ultimately build more trust and better customer relationships.