Ads Designed With Empathy To End The Ad Blocker War

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Consumers are at war with brands and publishers. Their weapons are content blockers (the new term for “ad blockers”) and their virtually silent resistance is hurting both brands and publishers so much they are scrambling to find ways to make the pain stop. Ad revenue is falling dramatically and a significant source of the drop is the group once heralded as particularly lucrative: Millennials.

According to Ad Age’s article titled “Ad Age Imagines a World Without Ads – and It’s Not Cheap”:

At least 34% of all U.S. adults use ad blockers already, Interactive Advertising Bureau President-CEO Randall Rothenberg wrote in his recent Ad Age op-ed, “Ad blocking: the unnecessary Internet apocalypse.” “Some websites, particularly those with millennial audiences, are already losing up to 40% of their ad revenue because of ad blocking,” he added.

To aggravate matters, this war isn’t a traditional pitched battle, it’s a veritable arms race. As Steve Rubel put it in his article titled “Ad Blocking May Usher in the Great Era of Earned Media”:

There remain a lot of unknowns and a lot of conjecture. What is known, however, is that in the months ahead we will surely see an escalating war as publishers, ad-tech companies and marketers make an effort to devise new ad formats and developers race to serve consumers who are hungry to block it all.

The point is, it’s getting ugly out there.

How the war began

The early skirmishes that eventually led to the current conflagration involved a few consumers who started using ad blockers to remove annoying ads from their Web experience. It was relatively harmless at the time, just a fringe group of hippies, protecting their “privacy” from brands who just seemed to want to abuse their data. The ad-supported web continued to grow and, for the most part, consumers accepted ads and developed other coping strategies such as “banner blindness”.

As the sheer volume of content grew, brands felt increasing pressure to capture more attention at the risk of being drowned in an advertising ocean. Their tactics became bolder and ad products became more invasive and disruptive. This was an escalation and more consumers started exploring ad blockers. Advertisers explored ways to make ads more relevant and engaging using programmatic advertising and other tools.

The big escalation occurred when, in early June 2015, Apple announced that its iOS 9 operating system would support ad blocking extensions. Apple has presented itself as a privacy conscious brand and presented itself as a compelling alternative to that other mighty company that leverages user data in an attempt to improve user experiences; Google.

Many have suggested that Apple is less interested in protecting its customers’ data than it is about using its marketshare and consumer sentiment against ads to attack its competitors and pave a path to its competing news and advertising products instead. Whatever its motivations, Apple’s sheer dominance of the mobile space means it can have a profound impact, and it is.

Suddenly ad blockers have gone from curiosities (not much too worry about) to existential threats to publishers and advertisers, alike. It has become easier for relatively non-technical users to start using ad blockers and with reports about dramatically improved web browsing speeds and lighter data loads (increasingly important as mobile becomes the platform of choice), they are increasingly popular. It also doesn’t help that ads typically have very little practical value either.

Why are people blocking ads?

Journalism professor and commentator, Jeff Jarvis, wrote a column for the Observer titled “Advertising Doesn’t Have to Irritate, Intrude, Lie, Cheat and Generally Suck” in which he details the reasons advertising has become so objectionable to consumers:

Yet I digress again. The point here is that advertising sucks. Let us listicle the ways:

  1. Advertising is almost always irrelevant.
  2. Advertising is oppressively repetitive. That is only worse now that so-called retargeting advertising will note when you look at a pair of pants online so those pants can stalk you across the web for months.
  3. Even with all its newfound data and artificial intelligence, advertising is still stupid. It doesn’t know that you already bought those damned pants and keeps selling them to you.
  4. Advertising interrupts—first radio, then TV and now our Facebook streams.
  5. Advertising is intrusive of privacy. I will argue that the humble cookie has been unjustly demonized by the Wall Street Journal, for cookies do useful things like reducing the frequency with which ads are served to you (see complaint No. 2). Still it’s true that the advertising, media and technology industries gather much data without giving their users any control or transparency into the reasons and consequences.
  6. Advertising is irritating. It always has been. Go to anyone over the age of 50 and whine, “More Parks Sausages, Mom,” then watch them cringe.
  7. Advertising is tacky, a glaring, blaring blight on the visual and auditory landscape. On most sites, there is just too much of it.
  8. Advertising in inefficient. The only advance on the net is that marketers now have a better chance of determining which half of their dollar is wasted.
  9. Advertising lies.

So how do we fix it? Not with native advertising. That is just another lie, designed to make us think an ad is not an ad. But we’re not as stupid as advertisers—and media companies—take us to be. As online metrics company Chartbeat has learned, users engage with a web page—that is, they scroll through it—71 percent of the time when the page contains real content but only 24 percent of the time when it carries so-called native advertising. And that leads me to one more complaint to fill out this listicle:

  1. Advertising is an insult to our intelligence.

Advertising can be fixed just as media can be by building relationships of relevance, trust, respect and value with the people they serve rather than continuing merely to spout messages to the masses.

Advertising is not inherently evil

In the heat of battle, it is easy to forget that consumers and advertisers are much more dependent on each other than they may want to admit (well, perhaps more than consumers would care to admit). Ad Age shared a thought experiment it conducted recently in an article titled “Ad Age Imagines a World Without Ads, and It’s Not Cheap”. It explores how the costs of consumer content could rise dramatically if ads just went away entirely.

The problem isn’t advertising, it is bad advertising. Ads can add value to consumers’ lives and that isn’t just spin because I work for an advertising technology company. Well designed ads can offer consumers more of what they are looking for, when they are looking for it. A simple example is an ad for car rental agencies when you are reading articles about travel destinations for an upcoming family trip.

Jay Lauf, Quartz Magazine’s Co-President and Publisher, wrote an article on Medium titled “It’s the Empathy, Stupid” in which he argued for ads designed with empathy.

Having failed to apply design thinking at the outset of our online publishing journey, we as creators of experiences have built the mess we face now. Advertisers are so fixated on blasting through the noise and publishers are so desperate to monetize that they haven’t noticed just how bad this whole experience has become for the people who matter most — their audiences.

He argued for an approach to advertising design that is guided more by consideration and empathy than by the urge to turn up the volume on the ads being blasted at consumers in the hope that some are still listening (or even capable of hearing with all that noise). In a sense, the challenge facing advertisers now is a systemic version of banner blindness. Consumers are fatigued by ads that just seem to nag at them they are increasingly eager to adopt tools that block it all out.

A number of brands have been working on more entertaining and off-beat alternatives for some time now and these brands will be the winners going forward. Not all advertisers are harpies and innovative strategies like the “un-ad” lead to fun and engaging ads like this one for Optus in Australia:

Joanna Bakas, founding partner at LHBS, wrote an article, also on Medium, titled “AD BLOCKERS: IT’S NOT ABOUT ADVERTISING. IT’S ABOUT BAD ADVERTISING.” in which she brings some much needed perspective to the discussion. She pointed out that the behaviour behind ad blocking isn’t new. Before the Internet and mobile devices, consumers turned magazine pages past ads and went to the kitchen to make coffee during ad segments on TV. Despite that behavior, TV and print publications continued to do pretty well for decades to come. For Bakas, the problem is something else:

What happened with online advertising, is that we as an industry got lazy, opting for efficiency rather than drama, experience and hence effectiveness.

Ending the war isn’t going to be easy and one side is going to have to take the first step. This time, it looks like advertisers are going to have to take a bullet and do the hard work to transform ads from an annoyance into something that consumers would be more likely to tolerate, perhaps even welcome (at the risk of getting way ahead of myself).

Image credit: Common Facebook Advertising Mistakes by Joe The Goat Farmer, licensed CC BY 2.0

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