Are current strategies to deal with AdBlock misguided?

The halcyon days for marketers were when we were enabled to transform a user’s device into what is tantamount to a personal billboard. The growth in digital advertising since DoubleClick’s inception in 1996 can only be described as astronomical (Oberoi, 2016). This growth always been appeared to be ahead of any real standards in digital advertising. Fast forward to 2016; we have publishers such as the Financial Times, New York Times, and Channel 4 in crisis. This is in light of the rapidly rising levels of users who are installing ad-blocking software. The latter’s response was that of a petulant child, which was to block users who were using AdBlock (Oberoi, 2016). Instead of fighting fire with fire, we should ask why these users are going to such lengths to avoid seeing ads.

The vast majority of users (68%) understand that ads are necessary in exchange for free content (An, 2016). Yet in their current state many advertisements overstep the mark. A commonly cited reason for ad-blocking is prevent interruptive ad experiences, and I define these as ads which either fill the entire screen, pop-up and/or auto-play videos and sounds. A marketing model based on rational consumer behaviour might suggest an ad that is full-screen, all-singing and all-dancing to be effective in overcoming the problem of banner-blindness – a phenomenon dreamt up to inadequately explain the horrendously low click-through rates observed from banners. However, this incredibly naïve strategy.

Granted, you may well observe during testing that brand-recall increased compared with banners ads. Nevertheless, put away your marketing 101 textbooks because this isn’t necessarily a good thing – a study lead by Carnegie Mellon examined the effects of interruptive ads on a consumer’s willingness to purchase (WTP). They observed that whilst their subject’s propensity to recall the brand increased compared with non-interruptive ads, WTP for the product was actually reduced by as much as 30% (Acquisti, 2011).

What this and other studies, which are more explicit in their investigation into emotion and WTP suggest, is that there is negative association between frustration and WTP (Lau, 2013). A user that’s interrupted whilst browsing projects powerful negative emotions such as frustration onto the brands. These emotions remain poignant for some time after the experience and whilst brand recall will of course be higher, it will be counteracted by frustration and leads to user’s refusing to purchase the product out of spite for disruptive experiences caused by these advertisements.

Whilst these are findings from a small cohort, on a relatively trivial product (a mug) the sentiment is evidently shared by many web-users given the statistics above (Acquisti, 2011) . The obvious question why their use is still so widespread? I’m not privy to the conversion rates of these ads, but one can only assume that these interruptive ads still provide some return on investment because they simply show no signs of going away. Focusing only on the bottom line is incredibly short-sighted strategy by brands and corporations, these negative experiences are affecting the entire digital ad ecosystem given the rise ad-blocking in both desktop and even more so for mobile.

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The Guardian’s “innovative” response to AdBlockers

Some publishers are being heralded as being innovative for recognising that users are using ad-block, and asking them politely to turn it off for their site. Sites such as The Atlantic and The Guardian are requesting that AdBlockers support them via subscriptions instead of seeing ads, and this is labelled as innovative.  To my mind, this solution and others like it are as equally guilty of perpetuating the problem as AdBlockers themselves.

This is an open acknowledgement by the publishers that the state of advertising on their site and the rest of the internet is diabolical. Instead of addressing that problem, their contribution is to politely ask user’s to suffer through poor experience on their site – whilst condoning users continuing to block adverts on other sites. This just smacks of hypocrisy. The problem is that this industry is reactive, and seldom ever proactive and forward thinking. Google the white knight, realising that their largest revenue stream is at risk have banded together with its partners to form a Coalition for Better Ads and they must dictate acceptable criteria for ads in terms user experience. However brands also have their work cut-out to transfer value and evoke emotions other than frustration if they want to begin to turn the tide on Adblock (Hall, 2016).

Acquisti, A., & Spiekermann, S. (2011). Do Interruptions Pay off? Effects of Interruptive Ads on Consumers’ Willingness to Pay. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 25(4), 226–240.

Oberoi, A. (2016). The History of Online Advertising. [online] AdPushup Blog. Available at: https://www.adpushup.com/blog/the-history-of-online-advertising/ [Accessed 12 Oct. 2016].

Bilton, R. (2016). Publishers arm for war with ad blockers – Digiday. [online] Digiday. Available at: http://digiday.com/publishers/publishers-arm-war-ad-blockers/ [Accessed 9 Nov. 2016].

An, M. (2016). What’s the Deal With Ad Blocking? 11 Stats You Need to Know. [online] Blog.hubspot.com. Available at: http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/ad-blocking-stats#sm.000yd4pxjfx9ew311jc2ifw9zwchp [Accessed 9 Nov. 2016].

Hall, E. (2016). Google and P&G in Coalition to Police Ad Standards Across the Web. [online] Adage.com. Available at: http://adage.com/article/digital/google-p-g-coalition-police-web-ad-standards/305875/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2016].

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