Better Ad Experiences Start With Respect

Publishers are finally facing what may kindly be called the "Trumpification" of online advertising. Similar to voter frustration with campaign financing, government gridlock, and political rhetoric, consumers have about had it with the clutter, latency, and intrusiveness of the online experience. Ad blocking is to digital publishing what Trump is to politics: a blunt, perhaps reckless, instrument wielded by consumers because they don't feel as if they have any other recourse. 

Similar to politics, whether you love or hate the radical interlopers in the process, ad blocking is an unavoidable fact of publishing life that requires a response. Estimates of blocking levels in the U.S. vary greatly, but GroupM's recent estimate puts it at 25%. Tech and gaming sites may see up to half of their visitors block ads, while fashion and celebrity sites have cited below 10% to me, and Forbes says it is seeing under 20%.

Even sites that take the nuclear option and block users who block ads are being compelled to re-evaluate their user experience. Guidelines from Adblock Plus, Interactive Advertising Bureau's (IAB) LEAN initiative, and others suggest lighter ad loads, better policing of third-party cookies, and less intrusive units. There is no way around the fact that interruptive advertising works because it is interruptive. Adblock Plus argues that in its tests, more polite and lighter advertising increases both cost per mille (CPM) and ad response. We need to see more solid research on this in order to convince both publishers and advertisers that less is more.

The larger question that ad blocking should be raising is what really constitutes a better ad experience. Is merely tweaking the interruptive formats that governed free mass media for the last century enough? As devices get more intimate and media becomes more deeply woven into second-to-second everyday living, isn't ad support due for a major rethink? Or is it time for us to revisit some old ideas?

  • Old-fashioned sponsorships-Toyota has been sponsoring PEOPLE magazine's daily half-hour online video program PEOPLE Now for several years. It has full share of voice, which it asserts persistently but unobtrusively throughout the program (pre-roll, occasional brand visibility). This is good old-fashioned sponsorship, an alliance of a brand with a media audience that feels similar to a relationship, because it doesn't just get injected randomly.
  • Entertainment and awe-Information matters, of course, and that is why everyone is chasing the content marketing model-but joy and awe matter more. Why are the supposed ad "creatives" so bad at making ads that entertain rather than annoy? Have you seen the uproarious video campaign for toilet deodorant Poo-Pourri? The company built a business out of making fun of itself with rude, euphemistic digital videos that garner tens of millions of views. Really, if poop spray can sell itself through fun, then maybe brands and their agencies should try lightening up a bit.

If advertisers are after "relationships" with their audience, perhaps they should start by having genuine relationships with the media experiences their consumers like. If advertisers show that they respect our attention rather than scramble to capture it, then we would have the beginning of a real relationship. This is where publishers come in. It is time for media to be media again-to genuinely mediate between consumer and advertiser. That is, it is time for media brands to own their experience. Letting ad tech and its monetization models dictate the terms of the user experience has been a terrible mistake.

Ad blockers are bludgeons that smash anyone's ads before a site even has a chance to show that it is working to improve. This moment is an opportunity for publishers. They need to marshal the data to persuade advertisers that less is more-that persistence, subtle presence, and sustained commitment to a community translate into more than clicks. It yields audience loyalty. Publishers need to have real conversations with visitors about the value exchange of ad-supported content and what really constitutes an acceptable ad experience.  

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