A focus on quality over quantity in digital publishing is the only way to tackle the “existential threat” of ad blocking software, writes Alex Brownsell.
It is an experience all internet users are familiar with: that irritation when a decision to click on a piece of content backfires, as a web page is bombarded with intrusive, interruptive ads of all kinds.
With publishers under pressure to monetise any available inventory, it is perhaps little surprise that user experience has been consigned to second-place in the priority list. And if all singing, all-dancing banner ads bolster struggling balance sheets, then what is the problem?
The trouble is that disgruntled users are fighting back, primarily with the use of ad blocking software, compromising the very viewability figures publishers have been so desperate to boost. A recent estimate suggested 150 million global consumers are employing ad blockers of various kinds, and the number is rising quickly.
One positive is that the growing threat of ad blockers may prompt the media industry to abandon practises which are driving consumers away, but it will not be straight-forward, according to Simon Davies, EMEA executive director at Atlantic Media-owned business title Quartz.
“Publishing isn’t easy at the moment. It has become accepted that everyone has to do more with less,” he says. “If someone comes to you with a relatively inexpensive and easy solution to monetise where you’re not currently getting revenue, then that is really attractive.
“It partly comes down to the sheer amount of inventory that media owners are producing now, but you can’t physically monetise every single bit of that. On a spreadsheet it might look like potentially lost revenue. But [efforts to monetise in that way] are short-sighted at best, because of what it forces these users to do.”
Cameron Hulett, executive director EMEA at digital ad solutions provider Undertone, agrees that many publishers have found themselves in a “race to the bottom” to grow revenues.
He also believes the growth of programmatic trading has inadvertently impacted user experience, with ad tech prioritising targeting over content: “I see programmatic exacerbating the issue. Programmatic is all about standardisation and efficiency, and what this does is move everyone to more standard formats,” says Hulett.
All commentators agree that the industry is moving in the right direction. Hulett detects a strong “push-back” in the market, with high-end, quality publishers rejecting standardised ad formats.
“Many publishers are moving away from standard banner ads and are saying, ‘Let’s have way fewer adverts, but when we do an ad, we do a beautiful ad which adds value to our website’,” he says.
Others predict salvation may come in the form of native advertising, with a focus on compelling, premium content that users find genuinely appealing.
Stefan Bardega, chief digital officer at ZenithOptimedia, urges publishers to avoid the temptation of the quick buck and the inevitable “diminishing returns” which will follow.
“The answer really lies in native advertising,” says Bardega. “Publishers have to be smart. I understand that many advertisers will push for more interruptive formats, but ultimately it will be a law of diminishing returns – interruptive formats annoy the user base, which means fewer users and less advertising revenue.”
Bardega points to the runaway success of Google and Facebook as examples of publishers making money from native ads which match the “form and function” of the environment in which they are placed.
“If you think about the most prevalent native ad formats, Facebook’s News Feed and Google paid search, the way the ads behave is the same as other posts and searches,” he says.
A focus on mobile changes the argument, too. With wide-spread, global take-up of sophisticated smartphones, users are loath to accept a fifth of their device screens being occupied by banner ads, and are left feeling “highly-negative” following any disruption of their mobile experience. Concerns over bandwidth and batteries being drained have also contributed to a change in attitude.
Messaging service Snapchat’s new in-stream ad format and Discover promotional content features, for instance, offer both viewability with consistency in style and appearance.
However, any such industry-wide enhancements in user experience are being overshadowed by the greater “existential threat” posed by ad blockers.
As it stands, ad blockers are a curiously European and North American phenomenon. The leading brand, Eyeo’s Adblock Plus, has only 6.5 million users in Asia, compared to eight million in its domestic German market. The company has admitted attitudes to intrusive ads “differ” in countries like China.
However, the threat in other regions is very real. Some publishers have used antagonistic tactics to tackle ad blockers. In France, broadcaster RTL is seeking damages from Eyeo, while German current affairs title Spiegel.de has encouraged users to disable their ad blockers, to limited success.
Others are attempting to cosy up the software firms. Last week, it was revealed that Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Taboola have come to a financial arrangement with Eyeo to be placed on its ‘Acceptable Ads’ whitelist, a list of publishers whose advertising is not blocked by Adblock Plus.
Some have accused Adblock Plus and its cohorts of creating a profitable position as self-appointed gatekeepers to the internet, blackmailing publishers to pay a toll to remain operational – an accusation Eyeo denies.
“It is an unfair, inaccurate representation,” says Eyeo director of operations Ben Williams. “Of course we stand behind our product, just like an automaker stands behind its cars or an architect his or her buildings.
“We are responsible for our product and must answer to our users as well as those publishers on the whitelist. Should we happen to influence the wider web positively, great, but we’ve neither the means nor the desire to ‘keep watch’ over it.”
Williams also denies Eyeo seek the “Elysian Fields” of an ad-free internet, instead claiming the motivation of making the web “better” and helping to put it “back in the hands of user”.
The take-up of ad blockers is most profound among millennials, suggesting a behaviour which become commonplace with younger generations. And any consumer driven to download an ad blocker is unlikely back down on their anti-advertising stance.
“It seems odd to me that, just as we’re getting the message we need to do better, we’re also inflicting the type of ad which – ultimately – is encouraging people to go to ad blockers,” says Quartz’s Davies.
“The shame of it is, once people have installed an ad blocker, they are not going to carefully uninstall it when they go to a place with an ad experience they are happy to have.”
The clock is ticking. If publishers fail to implant sufficiently high standards in the contextual and creative excellence of online ads, then the problem is only going to get worse – and become increasingly global, too.