Adblockers: Play Hardball or Change the Game?

Imagine a tennis player learning that her opponent was not a human but a brick wall. Digital marketers and advertisers are are slowly waking to this realization with the increase in the usage and agility of digital adblockers.

Consider the numbers:

This is a trend that isn’t going anywhere. Some estimates put adblock software adoption at 90% growth, year on year.

What are marketers to do about this? There’s actually a lot you can do to get ads to eyes, but what’s the best thing to do get quality eyes?

Advertisers don’t make it that hard on adblockers. It’s easy to identify tags and ad elements (like even domain names) and remove them. Clever advertisers who try to circumvent this with evasive code run up against EasyList, a community of ad-haters who continually upgrade domain name lists, URL structures, and code used to display advertising. It’s like a Wikipedia for screwing over your ad visibility.

Companies like Uponit and Secret Media offer adblocker bypass services that bust through the blockers, but that’s not really answering the problem. If a kid hates broccoli and you tie him down to funnel puree down his throat, that’s called a short-term solution.

The problem is not the closed mouth. It’s the deep-seated hatred of the way you cook broccoli.

Then there’s this tactic:

Thanks for coming to Forbes. Please turn off your ad blocker in order to continue. To thank you for doing so, we’re happy to present you with an ad-light experience.

You can target sites that approach adblockers with candid disdain and offer ad-light experiences. Sites with ad-free subscription services that otherwise put the kibosh on adblocking is a winning model for publishers and advertisers alike. But the problem is that so many publishers offer ad-free experiences. Consumers are just as likely to go somewhere else as they are to whitelist a given URL.

Look to other ways to get eyes on ads. Mobile apps are immune to adblocking software, so you can focus your efforts there. You can target your Facebook ads to app users rather than those logged into Facebook via Safari or Chrome, and both Instagram and Snapchat are similarly unblockable. Then there’s ad networks: Facebook’s Audience Network, Google’s AdMob, and Apple’s iAd give advertisers access to targeting a vast network of un-adblockable mobile apps.

Certain campaigns can be cost-per-action (CPA) based rather than cost-per-impression. It’s not always the best thing for brand campaigns setting sites on maximum exposure (like a movie ad), but in some cases it’s a sure way to save ad dollars. Something like Google TrueView requires a user action to view the ad, and if it’s a video, it measures a completed view.

Viewers see videos they’re curious about, and you get more views from an audience you know is interested. And since you choose what you want to pay for a view, you get the right audience at the right price.

There’s also going the traditional route: in the Golden Age of Television, TV advertisements aren’t going anywhere quite yet. But of course, the roadblock there is a population increasingly shuffling allegiances over to Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, only the latter of which shows commercials, and only then on its lower tier service.

For marketing at scale, email remains the best bet. You first must offer value, though, and only then will you be invited in that door. Then you have to remain interested and worth inviting back in. Focus on compelling subject lines to get opens, and make sure that what’s inside is even better than expected. It helps to be highly targeted, as people-based or one-to-one as you can manage, if you hope to get real ROI from email over a customer lifetime. I never said this was going to be easy.

I know I accused you earlier of being really bad at cooking broccoli. Maybe you’re not one of the bad ones, but…

(Prepare for my analogy to nearly fall apart.)

…the truth is, the metaphorical child-broccoli-hater has encountered too much bad broccoli in his life. People offer him broccoli thousands of times a day. So even if your broccoli is amazing, you’re likely to encounter a mouth sewn shut in frustration.

Even if you beat adblockers for good in a bloody winner-takes-all, you won’t beat ad numbness. You won’t beat the adblocker that is the human mind.

Tim Gentry, global revenue director at Guardian News & Media, suggests that the ad industry refocus its efforts on building long-term relationships.

Part of the solution is offering fewer adverts of higher quality that appear in trusted environments,” he says. “If the industry can collectively adopt this mindset we can avoid a technical arms race to weave our way around ad blockers which benefits no one.

But it was Kurt Gessler Deputy Editor for Digital News at the Chicago Tribune, who put it best. He exempts all the above tactics from his discussion to focus on adblock-vulnerable display ads.

What I propose is that publishers create (or use) an ultra-light mobile environment where your site/app displays only high-quality, high-value ads that users would actually want to see — the Sunday coupons of 2016. You know, that towering stack of inserts that more than paid for the cost of the paper in 2007. People by the millions would get the Sunday broadsheet just for those coupons. What if digital display ads had that value? Ad blockers? They’d be disabled by choice.

Gessler suggest a complete overhaul of the traditional display ad. In his utopian ad future, display is a lot more like an interactive coupon that knows users better than their closest friends. Below I summarize his points, but it’s worth reading his entire article.

1. Mobile First

Take advantage of the edge that mobile gives. In-app advertising. Geotargeting. App integration. Take an approach that keeps simplicity and usefulness as the only targets on the field. Imagine a display ad for a new movie that lists nearby theaters where it’s playing. Even better, theaters that you actually frequent.

2. Offer a Clear, Explicit Value Proposition

Take the Sunday coupon approach. If I work near a Chipotle, offer me 10% off my next infant-sized burrito. Create a secure keychain where I can save the ad and redeem it later, because I brought my lunch to work today. Incentivize loyalty by acknowledging it with rewards. And use that digitally tracked loyalty to personalize. You know what got a user’s attention — leverage and refine that thing. In my ideal movie ad, I’d accrue loyalty discounts for transacting via ad instead of search.

3. Reimagine Display Ads

Clear call to actions. Clear value. Elegant design that stirs an emotional reaction. Unobtrusive sizing. Be useful, be functional, be memorable. Ads should be expandable; don’t be quick to redirect — that’s a pain in the ass.

Online publishers have trained a generation of readers/viewers to fear clicking on ads because you never know what malware-infested Petri dish to which you’re being re-directed.

Back to my fantasy movie ad, let’s say it starts as a small display ad that, when clicked, expands to a trailer or Leonard Maltin review or interview with the lead, which itself can be clicked through to purchase tickets.

4. Align Ads With Content and Users

Develop nuance in matching content to offers. Geotargeting, personalized user profiles, and app integration are great jumping off points. Time and day of the week are factors to take into account. Past behavior, recent browser history, favorite bands on Spotify and iTunes, fantasy league picks — with enough of the right data, building those long-term relationships Tim Gentry suggested will be a difficult but attainable goal.

With loyalty comes data, and with date comes personalization, so you can offer me movie tickets that I’ll actually be interested in instead of, say, Jack Reacher.


Adblockers aren’t the enemy. Shitty, impersonal, valueless ads are. And it’s time for a revolution.

Originally published at on November 15, 2016.