The Antidote to Ad Blocking? Two Words: User Experience

7 Ways to Push Native Advertising in the Face of Ad-Blocking

Can we A/B test all three shades of blue of the ‘learn more’ button? Will the thumbnail of the stylish hipster millennial work better than the young Gen Z female listening to music? Sound familiar? As digital marketers, we lay awake at 3AM with these questions on our mind.

While marketers can get painfully obsessed about call-to-action buttons and copy variations, what do consumers think of all of this? What are the most important components of advertising for the audience? According to research the reality is that they probably look like this:

Where is that stupid x button!!

Not buying it? Chew on this:

  • 96 percent of users skip pre-roll video ads — iMedia.
  • The average click-through rate (CTR) for banner ads is 0.06 percent — SmartInsights
  • Only 14 percent of users can recall the last display ad they saw and the brand or product it promoted. — MediaPost
  • Despite complex ad targeting, only 2.8 percent of users claim that display ads are relevant to them. — Adotas
  • “Where is that dang little x button.” — pretty much everyone.

Backlash Against Disruption = Rise of Ad Blockers

If you read the media trades, you’ve likely seen a surplus of stories on the rise of ad blockers, especially as iOS 9 has come out with ad blocking extensions. In a matter of months, ad blocking has turned from a marginally disturbing trend for ad-supported business models to a full-blown disaster that’s edging into mainstream reality.

Ad blockers are now being used by over 198 million users and 41% of 18–29 year olds in the U.S. There’s no sign of adoption slowing down. Ad Block Plus, one of the more prominent technologies, averages 2.3 million new downloads per week.

Here’s a summary of leading developments in the recent ad blocking narrative:

A Look Back: Is Ad Blocking Really New?

This revolt against advertising may be relatively new to digital, but certainly not other ad formats. Fifteen years ago, television ads were simply part of the user experience. You got your 60-minute show in exchange for 13 minutes of ads. Fast forward to today: the use of DVR, TiVo and over-the-top services is so ubiquitous even my grandpa is now watching Golden Girls free of commercials.

The ability to circumvent TV ads is translating to digital advertising with the advancement of technology. Forget about banner blindness; millions of consumers are not even getting banners served to them in the first place. The harsh reality of ad blockers for advertisers isn’t about fish not taking the bait, but more about the fact there’s substantiality less fish in the lake.

The Response to Ad Blocking

The media industry is finally reacting to the proliferation of ad blocking. So far, here are some of the push-backs:

  • Block the ad blockers — CBS enables technology to essentially block the ad blockers, requiring users to disable ad blockers to view content.
  • Let’s just make banners better — Industry leaders push to make display ads more relevant and part of the user experience.
  • Suing the ad blockers — IAB panel explores suing ad blocking companies in hopes of meaningful recourse.
  • Selective ad blocking — Some publishers are educating readers on the impact of ad blocking on their editorial resources and asking them to “whitelist” their sites within ad blockers.

The drawback with these responses is they’re not addressing the real underlying problem, which is people’s entrenched aversion to digital ads. Further, these reactions are squarely protecting the publisher’s interests and impression status quo.

In order for an ad supported business model to thrive, consumers, brands, and publishers must have a symbiotic relationship.

  • Publishers need audiences (monetization).
  • Brands need access to publisher’s audiences (advertising).
  • Consumers need valuable content (funded by advertising).

Growth of Native Advertising

Native advertising can solve this dilemma. Native is perhaps the only advertising we have left.

As native advertising came on the scene in 2012, it held promise to liberate the web of display ads with more relevant, less disruptive ad formats. For struggling publishers, native possessed the potential to accelerate new revenue streams. For consumers, instead of downright ignoring banner ads, native offered an improved user experience that involved ads they might actually want to see and engage with.

Today, we’re starting to see native expectations come to fruition. According to an eMarketer report, native ad spend is projected to double by 2018 to $8.8 billion — up from $4.3 billion in 2015. Leading publishers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, now monetize native ads and run profitable branded content studios. Enjoying unpreceded growth, native platforms like ShareThrough and Outbrain replace boxes full of logos with compelling ad formats that blend into vertical streams and a site’s natural experience.

How Do Ad Blockers Impact Native Ads?

This is where native shines even brighter as new cool kid on the advertising block. While display, pop up and pre-roll ads have been the primary target of ad blocking, native advertising has been largely shielded from the technology. However, that will change as ad blocking sophistication grows.

Native has its share of constraints, whether it’s disclosure and labeling, scalability issues or lack of consistent measurement. Clearly, this three-year-old trend needs some time to mature. The good news is there’s still time to safeguard it from going the down the same reader-less path as display ads.

Though native may not be a simple turnkey solution to ad blocking or the diminishing display ad business, it’s the most viable way forward for all stakeholders. Native, if done smartly, can scale and forge a genuine win-win-win for the advertiser, the publisher, and most importantly, the audience.

7 Ways to Push Native in Ad Blocking Era

1.) As We Go Mobile, In-App Publishing Will Win

National Geographic on Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover and Apple News. These apps represent the new movement of publishing custom content (not just links) inside the walled gardens of mobile platforms. In-app publishing is important for two big reasons: Ad blockers cannot currently reach apps, and the content is highly native to mobile and optimized for the best user experience.

The demand for these offerings will only increase as users move more towards mobile. In-app publishing checks all the golden boxes; mobile, native, and ad-block free. If publishers and social platforms can strike a balance between mutual monetization and user experience, in-app will deliver enormous value to advertisers and publishers through large engaged audiences and premium ad rates.

Takeaway: Yes, this could signify a risky transfer of power to social platforms, but brands and publishers have to be willing to let go of control of owning the destination. The reality is that we live in post-destination web where you must meet the audience we they live, not the address of your choosing.

2.) Creating Billion Dollar Media Businesses on the Back of Native Advertising

“Dear Kitten” Has Amassed Over 23.6 Million Views

Publishers such as BuzzFeed, Vox and Mic have doubled down on native from the onset of their existence. Logically, modern publishers are not as worried about ad blocking as established players that mainly rely on display ad revenue. These publishers have grown thriving businesses by serving native ads that pay off their advertiser’s goals and actually provide value to their readers and brand.

Innovative publishers believe “advertising” is not merely relegated the right side of a website. Instead, advertising is more cohesive to their experience and can be as compelling as their editorial. Case in point; BuzzFeed and Purina’s Dear Kitten video generated over 23 million views and is one of the most viewed BuzzFeed videos despite being a ‘native ad.’

Takeaway: Native-first publishers have a gold mine of insights that the ad industry can adapt and scale. Perhaps the most critical learning they can offer is how millennials, their core audience, view and react to advertising. Let’s not forget those “kids” will soon take over as the primary purchasers of goods.

3.) Stand Up for User Experience in Native Programmatic

Perhaps the two of the hottest areas of media; native and programmatic appear to be colliding. This convergence runs the risk of deconstructing native ads into tiny little pieces; a headline, a logo, an image. From there the pieces are matched and served programmatically based on a unique user’s attribution first and third party data, which its accuracy can vary greatly.

As a result of technology and algorithms taking control, these ads are often out of context and start to lose their native value. You may get scale and efficiency with native programmatic, but authenticity and relevance for the user frequently suffers. As Matt Crenshaw noted in a recent AdAge piece, as native ads move towards programmatic they’re beginning to look like Frankenstein.

Takeaway: A potential programmatic takeover of native could fuel the expectation that native ads are just as irrelevant as display, consequently subjecting native to the wrath of ad blockers. User experience and data quality have be paramount to the future of native programmatic or else we may be pushing native off the same cliff as display.

4.) An Olive Branch to Ad Blockers

Finding Common Ground Amongst Advertisers, Publishers & Ad Blockers.

Judging by the developer of a major new mobile ad blocker removing his app after just 36 hours, it’s clear that most of ad blockers are not extremists. They’re not against all advertising. They’re against bad advertising that disrupts value from their experience.

Here’s the proposition; replace annoying pop ups and ‘buy now’ banners for sparingly served in-stream native ads that blend into the editorial nature and style of the site.

Takeaway: Instead of threatening ad blockers with lawsuits, what if publishers and advertisers reached out ad block leaders to discover potential acceptable ad formats. It may be difficult to see the venn diagram, but there’s middle ground with ad blockers and advertising; it’s just a matter to working hard enough to achieve it.

5.) Native Is Equally About Function As Form

It seems everyone tends to initially focus on the format of native, but underestimate the function of it. In order for native to be intrinsically native, the content inside of the native unit must also amalgamate into the experience and environment.

Brands need to understand that the move to native means much more than a new fancy version of display ads. The content injected into native ads must be as good or better than the editorial content that surrounds it. It’s the only way a brand’s content can win in this new world.

Takeaway: We can’t use native advertising to disguise overt sales and product messages inside of new formats or else native ads will be just as irrelevant as banners. Brands must double down on their content marketing efforts and resources. It’s time for brands to move beyond simply placing ads with publishers and start acting and thinking like one.

6.) Changing the Measurement Conversation: Impact Over Reach

Impressions and clicks rule the media kingdom. Despite most media professionals recognizing that metrics are very shallow to advertisers goals, consequential change to measurement has yet to happen. The answer to why we see sites covered with banners and pop-ups largely lie in the simple fact that CPM targets epitomize the ultimate KPIs for media agencies and brand executives.

The ‘attention web’ has recently gained traction thanks to the endorsement of Medium and UpWorthy. While a wholesale shift to metrics like “time spent” or “cost per minute” may not be the complete answer, it’s certainly a move towards meaningful engagement that doesn’t incentivize noise and a commoditized ad model.

Takeaway: We’ve become over indexed for reach and lost sight of significant impact. Consequently, the web has suffered from the infestation of ads with little to no regard for meaningful user engagement. It’s been all about the delivery and not the reaction to ads. We need to move media measurement beyond CPMs and CPCs to more customizable model for advertisers based on their individual objectives.

7.) Big Dividends In The Publisher-Agency Hybrid for Brands and Publishers

Publishers like BuzzFeed and Vice to are making millions from brands as both advertising vehicles and creative agencies. No longer are publishers only selling the real estate on their pages. The more innovative ones are starting to infringe on traditional agencies by creating custom content for brands. But they don’t stop there; modern publishers also strategically amplify their co-created content to their built in audiences.

The value prop is very compelling; audience-driven content plus distribution. Traditional agencies can’t offer the latter unless it comes in the form of an incremental media budget. Plus agencies tend to be laser focused on a brand’s brief unlike a publisher who’s incorporating their institutional knowledge of their audience in how and why they create content for them on behalf of brands.

Takeaway: Brands and publishers have a huge opportunity to come together to serve both their interests: new revenue streams for publishers and more effective advertising for brands. As a result, the audience wins too because they’re now the central focus of advertising, not an arbitrary programmatic algorithm.

It’s Time to Disrupt the Age of Disruption!

Ad-blocking doesn’t beckon Armageddon for digital advertising; rather, it could be best thing to happen to the digital advertising. The upsurge in ad blocking teaches us that we’ve lost sight of the audience and its connection to advertising.

Ad blockers push us to transform in an already rapidly changing industry. Failure to adopt is not an option. We can, and we must change the current model and move from the age of disruption to a new era of human-centric advertising.

Advertising doesn’t have to be lame or disruptive; it can actually add value to the user experience instead of extracting from it. Let’s go make advertising beautiful — the way it was always supposed to be.

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About the author:

Luke Kintigh is a global media and content strategist at Intel.

Recognized as a Rising Star in Content Marketing by the Guardian, and member of Onalytica’s Top 100 Content Marketing Influencers, Luke speaks at prominent content marketing conferences and regularly contributes to industry publications such as Business2Community, LinkedIn Pulse, and the Content Marketing Institute.

Looking for the ultimate guide on content distribution? Download Luke’s new eBook: How Intel iQ Does Content Promotion.

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