If you’re a marketer, you’re probably very aware of the latest wave of panic sweeping through the industry – namely ad blocking. It looks like people have finally cottoned onto the fact that they don’t have to sit and be force fed ads on a daily basis like chickens in a battery farm.
Historically, ads have been the unspoken price society paid for free content. But it looks like it’s a price people are no longer willing to pay. When Apple released its latest version of iOS in September, it gave millions of users their first proper taste of a fully native ad blocking reality.
Whilst publishers and advertisers are the unwitting casualties of the new iOS operating system – many believe that there is a bigger strategy at play. One in which the pawns are now being sacrificed as Apple makes a decisive move against Google. Remember – Apple doesn’t make its money from ads, unlike Google.
In 2014 Google made almost $60billion from advertising but according to PageFair, during the same period, ad blocking cost it a further $6.6billion. It’s not only Google that will be feeling the pain.
Mike Germano, chief digital officer at Vice caused a stir earlier this year at a conference in New York when he said: ‘I love my audience, but fuck you, ad blockers – 20% of my revenue is gone’.
This raises an interesting conundrum. How do publishers pay for generating the quality content people want without advertising revenue? Some publishers have responded by introducing paywalls whilst others are exploring anti-ad blocking technology.
The FT is probably one of the best examples of a brand and business model to have adapted to the situation. Its subscription-based model has something in the region of 500,000 paying subscribers.
But ad blocking isn’t actually something new. For an old hand like me, I first encountered it way back in the early 90’s when I started out in the industry. Back then it wasn’t some piece of clever code created by a hipster in a trendy warehouse with cappuccinos on tap, it was a chunky piece of black plastic, usually made in China, though sometimes Thailand, that came with big coloured rubber buttons and we called it the remote control or ‘commercial killer’.
The remote control was one of the most fearful and powerful pieces of ad blocking technology ever invented. Yet I don’t recall their being the same level of fear as there is today. Back then, the industry just responded by creating better ads. We looked at the problem but better yet, we understood people and what led them to flick between channels.
Looking back on it, the answer really wasn’t that difficult. By creating content that people liked, we actually had them tuning into see the ads. People would talk in the pub about the ads they’d seen. Brand slogans worked their way into our everyday speech. Hell – the brands even started to merchandise characters from their campaigns, opening up new streams of revenue.
But when digital arrived, things started to change and it wasn’t necessarily for the better. Publishers and agencies made fortunes for doing very little and brands quickly realised that they didn’t have to put as much effort into reaching people. They had a captive audience. This led to a degree of arrogance and bit-by-bit, the relationship that existed with people changed. But what brands failed to recognise was that as publishers sought to standardise platforms with page templates set to basically allow for the maximum number of paid ads to appear, their hard won relationship with customers was being steadily eroded.
It was inevitable that society would eventually rise up against the meritocracy and arrogance of the industry. So when Apple introduced their upgrade to iOS in September it gave millions of users their first proper taste of a fully native ad blocking reality.
This brings us to an important crossroads. Whilst some publishers and brands are responding by exploring anti-ad-blocking technologies, testimony to just how deep rooted, the arrogance of the sector is, others are embracing the opportunity that now exists.
Think about it. If people are opting out of seeing ads, it means they won’t be seeing your competitors’ ads either. That allows you to get both imaginative and strategic with your messaging and positioning. It allows you to get up and go out into the real world and get to know your customers as something more than algorithms. Remember the old Ogilvisym, ‘your target audience are not A,B,C1 demographics. They are your mother, your father, your brother and your sister’. In other words they are real people.
It challenges you to think about the content you’re creating and makes you ask yourself, is this just all about me, or has it a worth and relevancy to the people I want to influence? You know that saying about thinking outside the box – well it’s time to start thinking outside the standard 728 x 90 pixel box.
For the first time in a long time, brands have an opportunity to get to know their customers again – as people and not digital personas. Ad blockers are not the end of digital advertising – instead they are simply a much needed kick up the backside that will force agencies, brands and publishers to respect their customers and stop taking them for granted.