The real tech arms race isn’t over who blocks whom, but about who can deliver the digital experiences that people actually want, writes Tom Bowman.
There’s a famous line in the movie Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think about whether they should.”
As I recall, it gets uttered just before an entire ecosystem comes crashing down – and those who thought they were in control of things find large chunks being bitten out of them by monsters of their own creation.
All in all, it’s not a bad analogy for the state of the digital advertising industry as it faces up to ad blocking.
Like Richard Attenborough’s scientists, we’ve been carried away by the incredibly clever ad tech that we could develop to monetise the internet – and failed to realise how those technologies were altering the fundamental balance of our environment. Only with imminent extinction on the agenda are we suddenly realising our mistake.
Impossible to ignore
Ad blocking didn’t become an issue with Apple’s decision to enable it on IOS9 last month. That was just the moment when it became impossible to ignore the threat.
Ad blockers were already available as a simple addition to most web browsers; they were already being used by more than 200 million people worldwide, and blocking around 30% of ads in Europe. Yet we kidded ourselves that, as web usage migrated to mobiles, desktop-based ad blocking would be left behind. Now that basis for complacency has been blown apart. The T-Rex is most definitely out of the paddock.
What should really worry us is just how compelling the logic for individual users blocking ads has become.
The New York Times ran a speed test of mobile news websites, which showed that the slowest loading sites were spending the majority of that time loading up ads rather than editorial. As revealed by its test, a daily visitor to Boston.com (30 seconds loading ads, eight seconds loading editorial) can expect to pay their mobile operator $9.50 per month just to download the ads.
Stats such as this are a gift for ad blockers like Shine, which recently ran a provocative ad featuring Muhammad Ali, claiming the ad industry had effectively knocked itself out. The same company has been encouraging mobile operators to stop charging customers for ad downloads – giving another set of players in the game an incentive for blocking.
Just as in any disaster movie, there have been a range of extreme reactions to the peril at hand.
We’ve had plenty of outrage (ad blockers are engaged in unethical extortion that will destroy the internet), a fair few threats (to force those with blocking software to pay for content), quite a bit of hand-wringing and the odd worrying shrug of the shoulders.
But none of these responses really gets to the heart of the problem, and all are likely to be danced around, Maginot Line-style, by the pace of technology.
Firewalls are all too easily circumvented. And blocking the ad blockers starts the gun on a technological arms race that could alienate audiences even more effectively than we have already.
Advertisers and agencies that think they can happily retreat from the whole mess and fall back on traditional broadcast TV or outdoor advertising are betting, dangerously, that the last decade has been an aberration. Do they really believe that consumers want less genuine brand interaction, tailored messaging and relevance?
Demonstrating our value
But this isn’t to say we are powerless. Despite its rapid rate of growth, ad blocking remains a behaviour of early adopters rather than the early majority.
There is still time to demonstrate to the vast majority of internet users the value of continuing to engage with brands in digital environments – and establish that they would lose something tangible if they pull down the virtual shutters. We won’t achieve this through high-flying arguments about the virtues of an open internet. We need to prove it by delivering brand experiences that people wouldn’t want to block. And delivering them now.
This is why publishers such as ourselves at the BBC are focusing on building brand partnerships that provide content of equal value and equal quality to the editorial that we produce.
In our case this is through our recently launched content marketing service, BBC StoryWorks. It’s a means of de-fanging the ad blocking argument by forcing audiences to think about whether branded content is something they actually want to exclude.
At the same time, we need to keep working on the technical challenges of delivering user experiences that are never compromised by brand activity. I’m happy to say that bbc.com page load times were very much at the quicker end of the New York Times survey’s spectrum – but we need to keep raising the bar.
Facebook’s Notify app is an exercise in loading news stories faster – and delivering them to users with less friction. Those are the types of experience we all need to be pushing for.
As publishers, taking individual action makes sense. We can easily imagine a scenario in which savvy audiences use different browsers for different purposes (some with blockers installed and some without), and distinguish between those sites they trust to deliver ads responsibly – and those they don’t.
But the effectiveness of our response to ad blocking will grow exponentially if it extends across the industry as a whole – because that’s the best way of ensuring that ads themselves are of a higher standard. The IAB and IAB Europe have acted with urgency in aiming to establish such standards. It’s vital that agencies and advertisers get on board with these initiatives.
The real technological arms race isn’t over who blocks whom, but about who can deliver the digital experiences that people actually want. The consumer will always have a choice as to how they experience the web. It’s vital that we respect this and ensure that our version of the web is the one that they want.
It’s a race that we can still win – and it’s also one that we can’t afford to lose.