audience/customer vs publishers/marketers

Digital Advertising: The Fall of a Marketing Star

The use of digital advertising is now common within the marketing field. At first, it was reassuring for everyone in the industry to have a new channel to display advertising and days in online advertising were looking good.

Until that happened: Ad blockers.

Ad filtering softwares typically let internet users “remove or alter advertising content from a web page, website, or a mobile app”(1). A huge relief for people who considered online advertising as:

  • Intrusive (e.g. pop-up ads),
  • Disruptive (e.g. auto-play videos),
  • Unsafe (e.g. corrupted ads hosted in websites),
  • Time consuming (e.g. impacts of ads on websites load time)

In the beginning of 2016, the use of ad blocking software was first expected to be an ongoing trend (2) but one year later it looked like it has reached a plateau(3). A good explanation of this is in the fact that websites found creative ways to incite people to turn off ad blockers. As Jon Mew, CEO of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) in the UK, describes it: “A key reason [of not observing a rise in ad blocking] is publishers denying access to content to ad blockers which, in effect, has created that ‘lightbulb’ moment for people who realize that they cannot access free content without seeing the advertising that funds it. The industry has worked hard on promoting this “value exchange” and it’s paying off.” (3)

AdBlock instructing on how to register a website on a whitelist (from a suggestion made by a website who wants to display ads).

Indeed, publishers have developed counter-measures against ad blocking softwares, either by using technologies to go around ad blocking extensions, being part of a whitelist of websites displaying only “acceptable ads”, or by using tactics to persuade users to either switch off ad blockers or pay to access contents (4).

The next step for brands? Let it be.

At the moment, there’s not enough measures to determine exactly which method listed above is the more effective for brands in the online advertising area. As a permission marketing (cf. Seth Godin) and conscious marketing advocator, I would humbly suggest brands to let their audience use ad blockers as they please.

Here’s why.

The number of users of ad blocking softwares is increasing (5). It’s a fact marketers should consider and get comfortable with. How can we be so sure about it? Because one can honestly assume that nobody likes to be disturbed, and certainly not while browsing the internet (weather on desktop or mobile)— I personally hate it.

AdBlockers: the new “pac man” of online advertising revenues.
Instead of seeing ad filtering softwares as some sort of “pac man” eater of digital ad revenue, brands should see it as a refreshing opportunity.

While it is convenient to scapegoat ad blockers, it is also the time to rethink online advertising.

Instead of seeing ad filtering softwares as some sort of “pac man” eater of digital ad revenue, brands should see it as a refreshing opportunity. One that will allow us to rethink online advertising, to increase quality of content, and to bring added-value to an already tired advertising format that — let’s face it — everybody hated in the first place.

So let ad blockers win this one. Or at least for now.

Why not fighting ad blockers?

Because not allowing customers to evolve in a free-ads online environment and to basically have control over their online experience is a restricted strategy. Consequently, tree negative outcomes can come from it:

  • Giving the wrong impression: Not allowing your audience to consult contents and to navigate freely through your website, or to force them to absorb additional ads could be interpreted as taking away consumers’ freedom.
  • Enhancing counterproductive behaviors: Inciting people to disable ad blockers to access content can produce the opposite effect —the incentive to visit a website declines.
  • Adding a distractor: Online ads can disrupt completely the user experience (UX). By letting your audience be caught up by disruptive ads, there’s a high chance it will interrupt their screening of your website. — This aspect is particularly relevant for websites with highly specialized content where much of their investments goes to content production.

The last argument can be explained by the heavy adoption of interactive formats in digital advertising such as rich media ads. Such type of ad includes advanced features like video, audio, and other elements that encourage viewers to interact and engage with their content (6). They are also known to be effective: they undoubtedly catch audience’s attention and increase consumers behavior (to click). Potentially, because they hold visual similarities with other digital contents proven to be successful in the past.

With the rise of mobile use resulting in a shift of audience’s behavior, the huge success of video formats on social media and more broadly on the internet (7), rich media ads are now riding the same wave. This is not a negative aspect per se, but it should be taken into consideration when thinking about user experience. Additionally, to identify if online ads are impacting UX some KPI metrics like audience growth, engagement, time-on-site, bounce rate, etc. can still be used as good estimators. (8)

Back to basics

“Consumer behavior should dictate strategy. The next phase for the ad industry should begin with an understanding of what creates value for consumers.”

While the type of business/industry a brand is in or the growth stage of a company is important, when thinking about digital strategies one relevant recommandation is to use the “customer-centric” approach: “consumer behavior should dictate strategy. The next phase for the ad industry should begin with an understanding of what creates value for consumers.” (4) For this reason, asking audiences for feedbacks and understanding blocking behaviors should become part of marketer’s best practices.

Having a holistic vision to tackle the problem is also recommended, as suggested by Vishveshwar Jatain, editor for AdPushup blog: “If developers, advertisers, and publishers really want a long-term solution to the problem of ad blocking, at some point, they’ll have to take responsibility for making ads faster, less intrusive, and more relevant.” (8)

You should decide what’s more important: To allocate money and time on ideating marketing strategies and tricky subterfuges to preserve revenues from online ads or to create creative ads and state-of-the-art digital content with added-value for customers? — For a better ad experience, the later is encouraged.

To bring the best of online advertising, publishers and marketers could gain in embracing a bottom-up approach where they meet audiences, listen to people’s needs, and adjust. Because going against each other will not solve the issue. Instead of fighting, let’s think about it this way:

There’s no “Admageddon” problem, there’s only creative solutions.

Case in point: latest news on the state of digital advertising

“[…] trusted quality publishers are so vital today for societal and democracy reasons, and for the new generations.”

Digiday UK published a recent confession of a digital media insider who confirmed that practices in digital advertising are indeed affecting UX and the overall relationship between people and brands. His description of the situation for audiences: “It’s the equivalent of throwing soapy water under a customer, or hitting them with a bat while they walk through a store.”(9) He also underlines the global effect of such practices: “It’s a parallel reality that premium publishers have allowed to develop. It’s a shame, because trusted quality publishers are so vital today for societal and democracy reasons, and for the new generations.”

On a more positive note, a report from the video advertising marketplace Teads shows that 93% of marketers envision collaborations with agencies and suppliers who provide transparency and brand safety (10) — letting us believe the industry is slowly taking measures against bad practices in online advertising. One star pupil who pivoted quickly and effectively by anticipating the problem is the lifestyle and culture magazine Dazed. In September 2017, Dazed’s online platform operated a complete redesign of its website to optimize the reader experience by focusing on displaying effective digital ads thanks to smart web design. According to the company, the strategy has proven to be successful.(11)



This article was originally created and written for Enhance on 22/11/2017, adapted for Medium on 23/11/2017. Updated with the additional “case in point” section on 24/11/2017.

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