Don’t Interrupt Me

Ad Blockers Finally May Drive Marketers to Abandon Old-Fashioned Thinking

Ad blockers are “terrifying companies and publishers,” according to a recent article on Mashable.

A study from Adobe and PageFair, an Irish company whose corporate mission is to combat ad blockers, reports a 48 percent spike in U.S. use of ad-blocking programs in 2015. The reaction to this study from companies and publishers has been both predictable and unpredictable.

Digital advertising is what keeps most of the Internet free, of course. So some people, like Avram Piltch, the online editorial director at Tom’s Guide, are flat-out accusing people who use ad-blocking programs of stealing. “Every time you block an ad, what you’re really blocking is food from entering a child’s mouth,” he wrote.

The idea that interruptions of content by advertising are just a price users have to pay for usage is becoming increasingly outdated.

Others are having a more measured response. Do ad-blocking programs really spell the end of digital advertising, or do they mark a new, improved beginning?

The Case for and Against Ad Blocking

Companies and publishers that see the rise of ad-blocking software as a call to arms have devised various strategies for circumventing ad-blocking programs. Some work pretty well — “pretty well” in the sense that they force people to grapple with ads or punish people who try to avoid grappling.

If you want to watch a compilation of videos on YouTube, the site (owned by Google) may make you watch five seconds’ worth of a commercial, or an entire 15-second commercial, or an entire six-minute commercial. But you’re not going to get away without watching some advertising.

“We have to start creating quality ad content … And until that happens … everything is going to be voted off.”

Some publishers use ad-blocking blockers to detect ad-blocking programs and “jam ads through to (site users) anyway or even withhold stories,” wrote Mashable’s Patrick Culp. A website may go so far as to request that a visitor shut the ad-blocking program down while exploring that site.


Confronted with one of these warnings, Chris Wysopal, CTO of the Massachusetts Web app security firm Veracode, responded with the following Twitter parody: “We noticed you have an ad blocker enabled. Please consider increasing your risk of a malware infection by disabling.” What Wysopal is referring to here is one of the many excellent reasons to have an ad blocker beyond merely avoiding advertising: the desire to avoid malware. The rate of malicious software (malware) embedded in advertisements on the Web tripled between June 2014 and February 2015, according to a study by California cybersecurity firm Cyphort.

In his condemnation of ad-blocking software, Piltch acknowledged the dangers presented by malware and suggested they be mitigated with antivirus software, which seems to place the onus for wonky websites on site visitors, not site administrators. It’s the digital equivalent of a “No Lifeguard on Duty. Swim at Your Own Risk” sign.

The “Devil” Disregards the Details

The problem with a lot of digital advertising, even if it’s malware-free, is that it’s far more interruptive than it needs to be. We have all had experience with pop-up, autoplay and rollover ads that swamp the screen at the slightest cursor movement, that freeze and can’t be closed, that crash browsers, and that make navigating websites about as effortless as chopping through Minnesota lake ice.

The interruptive-advertising model, which may date as far back as publications owned and operated by Ben Franklin, is dying.

People are resistant to interruptive advertising even when it doesn’t cripple their desktops or mobile devices. So an advertiser that slows or halts the browsing experience is not likely to be thought of positively even by brand evangelists. Plus, ads devour data plans, and many advertisers still haven’t figured out a way to design ads that aren’t especially detrimental to mobile browsing. The Adobe-PageFair report referenced earlier revealed that 45 percent of respondents don’t want to view any advertising online.

Owning Up to Bad User Experience

In a virtual roundtable discussion with AdWeek in October 2015, publishers and software executives placed the blame for the explosion of ad-blocking software squarely at the feet of publishers and the companies responsible for the ads. Jed Hartman, chief revenue officer at the Washington Post, said the advertising ecosystem got too caught up in the screen-packing, ad-foisting technology available to it.

“In some cases, it didn’t flip this around and look at what it does to the customer experience,” he said. “When I say customer, I mean audience. A lot of the innovation has not been incredibly empathetic with speed, cleanness and [data] lightness of the products. That’s part of what has gotten us here.”

Wooden Road Blocks

Lisa Valentino, chief revenue officer for Condé Nast Entertainment, said advertisers focused on technology at the expense of creativity. “I’m making huge generalizations here, but I do think creative is such a big part of it that we have just ignored and focused so much on the tech,” she said. “As a result, we may be in a world where it’s more beneficial for consumers to feel like they need to block ads.”

In the early days of digital advertising, it seemed that some advertisers were more excited about the interruption than the advertising. “We’ve created this problem together,” said Steve Carbone, managing director and head of digital and analytics at MediaCom. “It created a bad experience, and users are now voting everybody off the island. We have to start creating quality ad content [that consumers are capable of seeing value in]. And until that happens — I think it’s going to take time — we’re going to be in the situation we’re in today where everything is going to be voted off.”

The End of the Interruptive Advertising Era

So if publishers and companies decide to spend less money fighting ad-blocking software head-on, what avenues are open to them? Many. On the website Digiday, Ben Kunz wrote, “Ad blocking could be the best thing that has happened to the ad industry in years.”

Kunz points out that there has always been a lot of money wasted in digital advertising from ads reaching the wrong audience and ads failing (for various reasons) to reach the right one. Ad-blocking software, he wrote, means marketers don’t have to waste any more money on reaching people who don’t want to be reached.

“Next year is all about branded content. You can’t block branded content.”

There is a truth here that some advertising professionals may be having trouble accepting: The interruptive-advertising model, which may date as far back as publications owned and operated by Ben Franklin, is dying.

The idea that interruptions of content by advertising are just a price users have to pay for usage is becoming increasingly outmoded. Replacing this model are subtler sells, including inbound marketing (marketing that draws attention in rather than hunting it down), deft social media engagement and native advertising.

Done right, native advertising (a term that covers the overlapping and variously defined terms “sponsored content” and “branded content”) contains a subtle advertising message but also provides added value. Some use the term “native advertising” to refer specifically to ads wearing content costumes, while “sponsored content” and “branded content” seem to be used interchangeably by many. For the purpose of this post, let’s just say that “native advertising” is any good-faith effort to blend editorial and promotional aims in such a way that both ends are achieved.

Content Creation in the Driver’s Seat

Native advertising has its skeptics on both sides of the content aisle, but when it works, it works beautifully. When it doesn’t work, it’s usually because someone tried to be sneaky. There are wrong reasons to go native, according to Condé Nast’s Valentino. You don’t get into native advertising because you’ve run out of other options. You don’t get into native because you subscribe to the maxim uttered by French novelist Jean Giraudoux: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” You get into native advertising, said Valentino, because you think you can do an even better job of telling stories on behalf of brands.

“In the last two weeks, I’ve heard more companies saying, ‘Next year is all about branded content. You can’t block branded content,’” she said in October 2015. “We’re getting into the branded-content business because we’re great at storytelling, and we can do that for advertisers, we think, in a bigger way — not because branded content doesn’t get blocked. It’s unfortunate to hear that groundswell.”

Interruptive Advertising

Some marketing professionals still filter native ads through an old-fashioned lens of the short con. For example, MediaPost’s Marc Guldimann wrote in July of last year: “The idea with native advertising is that an audience will start consuming an ad because they can’t discern it from regular content, and the hope is that they won’t feel offended or tricked. In the long run it becomes harder to fool people.”

If that’s your idea of native, then you’re stuck in the Stone Age. Native is not tricking people into thinking advertising is content. It’s providing real content that, ideally, will make a user think fondly of the brand that had a hand in creating it. As has been mentioned numerous times on the Britton Blog, BuzzFeed has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that native advertising works. BuzzFeed offers a wide range of content on its site — from listicles to serious journalism — and much of it is made possible thanks to native advertising.

The explanation for why native advertising works so well for BuzzFeed is twofold. BuzzFeed is transparent about what is and isn’t sponsored content on its site, and it ensures that its sponsored content is almost indistinguishable in value from its other offerings. Other publishers that do native well include The Onion (which takes great pains to make everything on its site funny, sponsored or not), Wired, Slate, and Gawker.

These are all “magazines” (two started online, one started in print as a newspaper, and one is still in print as a magazine). In the predigital days, publications like these would have depended on print ads for profitability. As that profit model continues its collapse, native advertising seems its likeliest successor.

Shrinking the Gap Between Brand and Consumer

A robust and responsive social media strategy can have a pivotal role. Smart brands build relationships with customers via social media that could not have been imagined or envisioned by marketing and customer-service professionals 40 years ago.

In a post on the website for digital marketing agency BarnRaisers, Rob Petersen noted that the brands praised for social media savvy seem on the surface to have different goals and different methods for achieving them. Bissell is praised for humor, Chobani for storytelling, the Cleveland Clinic for expert-level medical content, Oracle for transparency, and T-Mobile for grace when dealing with disgruntlement.

In an iMedia post highlighting the best social media campaigns of 2015, Lauren Friedman cited a Groupon post and related Facebook palaver that demonstrated the benefits of having intelligent and quick-witted social media staffers. She also lauded Domino’s Pizza for devising an order-by-emoji system.

People surfing the Web or making use of social media are searching for value and trying to avoid deception.

If you asked most people to name the corporate master of social media engagement, they could be excused for saying BuzzFeed or Gawker or some other ultramodern publisher. But in fact, it’s National Geographic, which began as a society founded in 1888. According to a report from the software company Shareablee, National Geographic had eight times as many social interactions during the first half of 2015 as the next closest publisher, BuzzFeed.

The reason? “It may seem obvious,” Aaron Taube wrote for Contently, “but the biggest reason that National Geographic does so well on social media is because of the massive amount of great content it has to share.”

National Geographic has been dedicated to producing top-quality content for more than a century, and it has transferred that level of dedication to the digital realm.

National Geographic and its editorial staff have spent a great deal of time and money building the expertise to produce quality content, and this investment has clearly paid off,” Taube wrote. “The lesson here? Without experienced, talented people working hard to produce great content, you’re not going to succeed in today’s intensely competitive publishing ecosystem.”

Dawn of a New Age

There are several things that all the aforementioned brands have in common: They don’t see their customers, visitors and users as marks in a con game; they take social media seriously; and they’re committed to imbuing every customer-brand interaction with as much value as possible.

People surfing the Web or making use of social media are searching for value and trying to avoid deception. It makes sense for brands to ally themselves with the former and distance themselves from the latter.

Steve Penhollow
Freelance Contributor

Britton Marketing & Design Group

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