The ecosystem of the online advertising industry has been rattled. It’s the result of reports similar to the one released by Adobe and Pagefair, estimating that the use of ad-blocking tools has grown by 41% globally in the last 12 months.
Practically overnight, advertising’s perspective of ad blockers went from a tolerable niggle - an activity carried out by a savvy and irritable few - to an endemic crisis threatening to take over the mainstream culture of online browsing, and one that would cost the industry $22 billion in 2015.
The dialogue was propelled when the AdBlock Plus browser was given access to the App Store, which with the iOS 9 update witnessed a deluge of ad blockers climbing up its rankings to set up camp in the top ten downloads.
One group was set to take the fall hard, publishers, who - guarding a major source of revenue in display advertising - argued that the use of ad-blocking products jeopardised the funds vital for producing the high-quality and free content that users enjoyed.
And while it’s a justified response (no content without revenue), frankly it’s not one that the empowered, on-demand and fickle consumer will care to validate.
There’s also a strong counter-argument to this stance: that a surge in ad-blockage is symptomatic of a flawed system of “value exchange” between the content publishers create, the users that view it and the necessity to monetise its consumption.
This is the unexpected opinion of Will Hattam, chief marketing officer at Archant, a newspaper and publishing company with an extensive portfolio of local news and specialist titles under its belt, which relies heavily on selling ad inventory.
Hattam suggests that in a time of flux, it’s on the publishers to innovate their models beyond a reliance on display and subscriptions - the latter of which is increasingly difficult to impose, especially with news, where there can now be hundreds of sources available for a single story.
“It’s a huge shift for the industry, but publishers are reacting to changing consumer behaviour and innovating on a regular basis, so the solution must be multi-faceted. First, there needs to be a clear and transparent communication between the user and the publisher,” says Hattam.
And this dialogue needs to be centred around “premium content” and the “payment” methods used to access it, he adds, whether it be properly targeted, carefully controlled advertising, clearly labelled and relevant promoted content or “a simple micro-payment mechanic that makes consuming content as quick and painless as tapping into the tube.”
Another perspective on the matter comes from Bill Swanson, VP EMEA at display ad-serving platform PubMatic, who suggests any threat felt by ad blockers among publishers can be attributed to an industry-wide ‘deterioration’ in user experience which has lead to frustration, but is hopeful this can be improved.
“Publishing can do this by investing in great user experiences – content offerings that are cleanly designed and perform well. And we can get there by reducing and optimising the number of point solutions publishers rely on, with an eye towards speedier, more reliable sites and apps.”
This can start with ad servers relinquishing more control and authority to publishers in the type of ad content and way it’s presented, adds Swanson.
“All these things will add up to experiences that capture and keep consumers’ attention. And if the experience is great, they won’t need or want a blocker to fix it for them.”
… as we know it
When diving further into the publisher perspective on ad blockers, it becomes evident that the mood is less one of panic, but one of realisation that there is an opportunity to clean up and purge models and formats that are no longer fit for purpose - ad blocking certainly won’t kill publishing
But if publishers are still worried, Swanson concludes that consumer complacency is likely to prevail, with most of the blocking solutions discussed in the media too “esoteric and technical” to be adopted on a wide scale, due to the number of steps required to enable these on both desktop and mobile devices.
Whether Adobe and Pagefair’s figures are to be believed or taken with a pinch of salt, maybe this should be taken as a Darwinian kick for the industry to strive for relevance, with advertising that feels natural and appropriate.