Confronting Reality: The Case of Ad Blocking
Is Ad Blocking a red herring for what’s to come from those who control the Internet? Yes.
But, it is not from Apple, Microsoft, Comcast or others you might suggest. It’s the consumer pounding their own rules, so to speak, into their clicks and views. They don’t care whose business model gets disrupted, certainly not the ad community’s or publishers’. If they’re sick, are traveling somewhere and need help, checking scores for a local basketball game or seeing who’s performing at Carnegie Hall, they want easy, uncluttered, fast navigation and high-impact searching. If their need for NIKE Jordan Retro 7’s is right now, then they certainly want choices to shop, whether it’s through search, the brand itself, Amazon or shopping engines. Even Google, the ad titan it is, has altered paid and organic search algorithms to embrace and predict these emerging, more sophisticated behaviors. That’s not to say they’re giving up their profit practices, but they’re dead serious about their ‘You can make money without Doing Evil’ credo.
Consumers have a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction, particularly the emerging and ruling Millennial generation, with the state of the internet. We love our favorite brands and, often, their ads too, but web content continues to fall short of expectation, especially for what’s creative and innovative. And this dissatisfaction is influencing the rise of the ad blocking movement.
Some believe (and, legislators are rooting for it) that ad blocking is the existential threat that will fully disrupt Google-Yahoo-Bing, the advertising-based platform and ad agency business models, and that the bigs like Samsung, IBM, even Oracle and other technology players will forever shift the scale of power in their favor. But, that misses the point of what’s actually happening. Consumers aren’t literally saying, ‘No Ads’, but they are demanding richer, more connected relationships that serve a purpose, and not one that just grabs hold of their wallets. Brands need to earn that loyalty every day. Using the broadest definition of Content (big ‘C’), it’s not that it has just resumed its role as the gas in the motor that fuels revenue dollars. It is the car, the fuel and the motor. Search, Ad Networks, Cable, Satellite Broadcaster, Billboard, even Theme Parks are the platforms that support it.
With that twist, combined with a sophisticated user who types, clicks and swipes precisely the way we taught them to, this was inevitable. It happened slowly for a few years while the internet continued to disrupt everything in its tracks, cyber and physical. But, it has arrived, Apple’s new iOS be damned.
There is a deeper, more philosophical debate inside the concept of ad blocking. It’s an old argument around the rights of the consumer versus those of the publisher or advertiser. Are consumers intrinsically required to consume our content to get the best benefits? Must a part of their digital experience be the constant intrusion of unengaging display banners, irrelevant pop up ads or auto-play videos? The ethical answer might, in fact, be no. And, questions arise about the third party ad tech institutions that collect user data to provide “more targeted, relevant and customized experiences”. If this were their sole purpose, there wouldn’t be an ethical debate around consumer data collection. That, frequently, is not the case, but will be saved for another discussion. The real question is, how can we transform content so that it truly lives up to its intended experience? Only then will brands and their supporting cast overcome the growing inertia against “advertising”. Although consumers likely don’t recall or realize that advertising is what supports their cheap access, it’s somewhat irrelevant since we can all get on through various and alternative means. The threat of loss isn’t really an argument worth exploring, unfortunately.
Cultivation of relationships is our priority. We need to listen to a consumer’s needs, follow the paths they choose very carefully and build the kind of experiences they desire and expect. So the truth that is confronting us is this: ad blocking is not hard set out to undermine the entire infrastructure of the internet, nor motivated to steal or stop ad dollars from flowing to those who create, innovate and facilitate relationships. Conversely, they have stepped in to challenge us to enhance and curate the experience.
Brands must look internally at how they’re building and recognizing the screen shift that’s occurring, and at what kind of experience they’re creating. As professionals, these new challenges are pushing us to change. But, it’s more of a time to rebuild, reconnect and evolve than it is “adapt or die”.
This radical shift is very real, and it is now. The ultimate focus will be to support the paths that consumers are on, including what devices and channels become standard, and what technology changes as a result. When they choose to experience our content, we know we have been successful. We know that losing relevancy happens in a stealthy manner. We also know it is not polite.
This is the age of complex relationships between brands and consumers. The ad blocking conflict is something we may overcome in the short term through technology “work-arounds”, but in the long term, marketers and the industry that supports them must confront this reality and keep doing what it knows it must.