The current state of online ads
Online ads. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em they are here to stay… Except no-one loves them right? While some are clever, most employ the outmoded interruptive style of advertising popular in the 20th Century - often exploding across the very content you are trying to read, uninvited. Which explains the rise of the ad blocker: Install an ad blocking app on your device and you need never be bothered by noisy, troublesome online adverts again. However in an age of free digital content, ads are the principal, sometimes the only, stream of revenue funding the content creators and digital platform builders. Without that income how can the journalists, bloggers, filmmakers and platform engineers earn a living? Is it fair to expect them to provide the fruits of their labour free of charge? And what about marketers? There you are, investing all that time and money into kick-ass, killer creative, only to discover that fewer and fewer people are actually seeing it.
Audiences are melting away as increasing numbers of people are blocking out the ads.
According to one study use of ad-blocking software globally grew 41 percent in 2014-15, with an estimated 198 million active users, costing publishers an eye-watering US$22 billion. A 2016 survey of users from the UK, Australia and the US found that only 41 percent of those surveyed were aware of ad blocking. But among those who were aware of it, 80 percent blocked ads on desktop and 46 percent did so on smartphones, suggesting that as awareness increases, the use of ad blockers will do too.
Anecdotally New Zealand seems to be a late adopter of ad blocking tech. There are few reliable stats on Kiwis’ current use of ad blockers, however in 2014 Mediaworks reported 10% of its audience using ad blockers. As recently as December 2015 the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IBA) of New Zealand observed that ‘instances of ad blocking in New Zealand are relatively small so far’ and board members concluded that ad blocking was having minimal effects on business. But how long will New Zealand be isolated from this growing trend, if indeed it even is now?
Aware that ad blockers threaten their very existence, the platforms and publications have been staging a fight back. They are concentrating their efforts on outsmarting and overriding the ad blockers, resulting in a potentially never-ending, ad-blocking arms race. In some cases, content is being blocked completely from devices using ad blockers. “Don’t want to see our ads? Fine, but don’t expect to see our content either.”
Other publishers are taking the ‘guilt-trip’ approach, using pop-up messages to explain the impact of ad blocking on the provision of free content, hoping that consumers will feel bad and switch off their ad blockers. Meanwhile, in a shameless case of poacher turned gamekeeper, one of the world’s largest ad blockers Adblock Plus, announced in September that it is launching a platform which will show ‘acceptable’ whitelisted adverts.
In the midst of all this confusion, what can we marketers and advertisers do?
Arguably much of the current situation is of our own making. For too long advertisers have produced increasingly intrusive and disruptive creative: the full screen take-over, the auto-playing soundtrack, the ‘look at me, look at me’ approach which has actively driven our customers into the arms of the ad blockers.
In the future, we must ensure that our ads are less invasive, more engaging and most importantly more relevant. And that means thinking like a customer and targeting like a pro. Which, of course, is what good marketers have always done! In part two, I am going to look at the rise of native advertising, and how this is fast becoming a compelling marketing tool and viable way around the Adblock barricade.