In times of crisis, it’s tempting to look for a miracle. Just as for King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table it was the epic quest for a sacred cup, for the digital advertising industry it's the search for a single solution with the ultimate power to help address its ad blocking challenges.
Given the growing scale of adoption — the IAB studies show 22% of UK adults are now blocking ads — it’s easy to see why the idea of one, mystical solution is so appealing.
Indeed, many options are already being enthusiastically hailed as the Holy Grail, with solutions including improving the quality of creatives, whitelisting and ad blocker circumvention, along with micropayments and subscriptions to name a few. But with usage of ad blocking technology still rising and due to reach a quarter of the UK population by the end of next year, it’s clear the pursuit of a single answer to the ad blocking issue is a fairy tale — enticing but unrealistic.
So how can the industry reach a sustainable resolution to the challenge of ad blocking that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers, while securing its own future?
The power of education
When something works well over a long period of time, we often fail to appreciate the positive aspects of the situation and begin to take it for granted. Since the advent of the internet, digital content has largely been provided without any direct cost to the user, so the free web is now an expectation.
Research shows less than half of the UK population is aware that production and publication of the content it freely consumes is only made possible by revenue from digital advertising.
To stem the rise of ad blocking and improve user satisfaction, the industry must educate consumers about why ads are needed and the role they play in keeping digital content accessible, outlining the explicit relationship between online content and advertising. By transparently re-establishing this online value exchange, publishers can ensure there is a clear understanding that advertising is the means in which content creation is funded, and begin to rebuild customer relationships.
There are numerous approaches that can be taken to resolving the ad blocking challenge, but the motivation to block ads cannot be attributed to any solitary cause. Consumers do it for multiple reasons — from aversion to disruptive formats and the impact on browsing speed and performance to concerns about privacy — which no one-size-fits-all tool can accommodate.
So, while it’s true digital content must be paid for, finding a sustainable and mutually beneficial solution will mean offering a range of flexible options rather than a single method.
In addition to communicating with audiences about ad blocking, publishers must allow users to choose the compensation method that best suits their needs. Those needs will differ greatly depending on a user’s historic interactions with a site – think subscriber vs casual browser – along with how they have arrived at a site, for example, from search, social, or directly to the website.
Audience's needs will also be impacted by contextual factors such as device, like mobile phone, tablet or desktop, time of day, and usage situation.
No one solution
The possible approaches to content compensation could include serving a message to ad blocker users asking them to switch off the software so ads can be viewed, providing the opportunity to make a micropayment for each individual piece of content, or offering a content bundle whereby paying a subscription or viewing a selection of ads will unlock certain articles or videos. Each of these will appeal to users in certain situations or at particular moments.
There will inevitably be some friction in implementing these approaches. The industry can’t expect an entirely painless transition to a place where audiences are paying for content they thought they were consuming for free. But if it takes the lead from King Arthur’s chivalrous knights and handles the situation with due care, the industry can emerge from this turbulent period with a stronger, healthier online ecosystem and more satisfied, engaged audiences.
Although there is much that is bewitching in the idea of one solution, technology or method that could spell the end of ad blocking, the reality is more complex. The growing use of ad blockers is a response to an online experience that provides little transparency, flexibility, and choice, so to find a way forward, these are the things the industry should seek to provide.
Instead of devoting their energies to a fruitless quest for the Holy Grail, publishers and advertisers must work to regain the audience's trust and cooperation. By engaging consumers in a transparent dialogue and enabling them to shape their own content consumption experience, the industry can help restore a level of sustainability to the digital content ecosystem. Not quite Camelot, but not far off either.