Ad Blocking: A Conundrum For Brands

Chris WrenJune 8, 20174 min

There’s nothing new about ad blocking. 3rd party extensions for popular web browsers have been available for many years. Two years ago, Apple added the ability to block content into their mobile operating system, iOS9, making them among the first big manufacturers to incorporate this into a platform. And just recently, they’ve announced they are bringing even greater blocking features to their Safari experience. Among other changes:

  • Safari will be able to prevent videos from auto-playing, which will kill pre-roll ads on autoplay videos. It’s widely known that video ads are generally much more highly regarded by advertisers as they drive higher engagement than static ads in almost every scenario.
  • Users can disable ad tracking, which generally uses cookies stored on people’s local computers to track them across different websites. Ad trackers is how ad networks can tell you just looked at sunglasses on Amazon, and then show you ads for sunglasses wherever you browse for the next week.

Google, too, announced a similar, but different capability it will include with Chrome, the world’s most popular ad browser. It will block the most “obnoxious” ads but allow those from a pre-cleared list managed by Google and the Coalition for Better Ads (an advisory board of big media companies and trade associations).

And the statistics are becoming quite troubling. According to the 2017 PageFair report:

  • 615 million devices now use adblocking technology
  • 11% of the global internet population is blocking ads on the web
  • Ad block usage grew 30% in 2016

The first conundrum is the most elementary: The entire web is essentially funded by advertising. Adblocking is a broad solution to more acute problems, and has the potential to weaken many of the online experiences enjoyed by most users.

The more likely source of the consumer frustration behind the ad block changes coming from Apple, Google and others is ad tech itself! What started as a benign venture into increased potential for brands to present relevant messages to customers has become an insatiable monster; rife with corruption, endlessly hungry for even more personal data, and seductive with metrics that can show lower cost and higher effectiveness.

Ad tech is powered by tracking. Without tracking, online advertisers would not be able to stalk (or ‘deliver timely and relevant messages’) to consumers everywhere they go. Without tracking, the programmatic ad buys that fund fake news sites would have significantly curbed the phenomena we see today. Without tracking, clickbait advertising would all but disappear. For an even stronger (and funnier) argument, check out Bob Hoffman’s opening remarks at Canada’s World Federation of Advertisers.

The point is: tracking as we are using it today is ruining the online experience to the point that Apple and Google have seen cause to intervene. And these interventions are themselves problematic as they pose ethical questions about whether their filtering will suppress information about, say, competitors.

So, at one end of the spectrum is a track-less web, where media buying and ad placement plays by the same rules as they do offline. If more people deploy ad blockers and deactivate their ability for browsers to track, this may indeed prove to be a more viable model. But at the other end of the spectrum is an almost dystopian vision of a hyper-targeted consumer, where all data collected can be mined and used to serve up the most personal experience imaginable. We are not that far away from The Minority Report.

While a rallying cry against tracking, or a more disciplined approach to using tracking data is all fine and good for the industry to be thinking about, the more immediate conundrum faced by brands is what to do. Here are a four things to consider:

1. Make Sure You Have A Crystal-Clear Privacy Policy –If legal reasons demand a long document, consider bringing the highlights of the privacy policy to the top of the page, and include key features such as data usage and collection, how information is shared, and what information the website might pass on via cookies.

2. Explore Sponsoring Partnerships –New possibilities are emerging for digital marketers to become partners with publishers. The growing popularity of theSkimm, a news aggregator delivered by email to a growing number of subscribers, are trying to work with brands that “represent the Skimm life,” as one of the founders says. “We’ve literally gotten thank you notes from users to say ‘thank you’ for working with a brand in this way,” she said. There’s no sales staff, however. They’re heavily involved in running “partnerships” with brands — their term for advertising.

3. Apps, For The Right Brands – For those brands who have good reason to have an app, they can be a great way to feedback information that’s collected to the customer. Oral-B has developed a connected toothbrush app which not only provides valuable data to the customer, it also opens up a channel for the app to use the notification layer.

4. Respect The Data You Have – Triggering an email after a customer visits your website that says “We saw you were looking at our product” isn’t a creative use of the data. Always keep the mindset of the customer in the foreground as you develop experiences for them.

Technology is neither a force for bad or good, that is determined by how the technology is used. For some, pursuing even a slight competitive advantage with tracking has set us on a slippery slope from which we may be too late to recover. And that might not be a bad thing.

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