Ad Blockers: One Big Distraction from the Real Issue
This has been a year of overblown topics. The list includes mobile payments and beacons, both of which are important, but attention to them has been disproportionate to actual adoption due to friction and lack of sufficient user value.
On that same measure, the grand prize for overrated topic of the year goes to mobile ad blockers. After dominating ad industry discussion and ink, UBS reports ad blockers only affect 0.5 percent of mobile ad revenues. Their limited impact results from narrow applicability. In Apple’s ecosystem for example, ads are only blocked on the Safari browser (apps get a pass for now) in iOS 9 when the user has actively downloaded and activated an ad blocker.
The backlash is not only disproportionate to real impact but also has fueled the wrong conversation. Beyond sky-is-falling rhetoric from clearly biased reports and knee jerk reactions from the IAB, this is about something much larger.
Instead of fighting ad blockers — or fueling them in the case of biased reports — the ad industry should ask itself how it got in this position to begin with. People are compelled to invent ways to intentionally avoid your product. Think about that.
Like taxis, cable TV, and other industry incumbents, the simple but denial-prone answer is that the marketplace just isn’t that into you. It invokes one of my purposefully simplistic laws of disruption: When something stinks, it will be disrupted.
Applied to mobile display ads, we’re talking bad creative and poorly targeted banners that slow down page loads, while burning the data I pay for. The real question isn’t blocking but how this was ever allowed to happen in the first place?
If one good thing can come out of these overblown reactions to ad blockers, it will be to motivate a lumbering industry to create something better. This is an area where the tech world has innovated circles around Madison Avenue.
Facebook and Instagram, for example, have performed exceedingly well with in-feed native ad units. This has been followed by the blitz of action buttons (buy, book, call, etc.) for functional utility and local commerce.
Predating the recent buy button trend are AdWords extensions and xAd secondary actions, which always have been about local action. Google’s recent try-before-you-buy streaming apps within search results likewise have real utility.
A common thread in these examples is native infusion. However, I’m not espousing thinly-veiled advertorials masquerading as news — a separate topic, commonly known as “native.” The key is what I like to call “action over ads.”
As I’ve said since 2009, user intent data supports the notion that mobile marketing is more effective when it’s an actionable medium rather than an awareness one. Save your Land Rover brand ads for when I’m watching TV.
Companies still intent on bringing more of a branding play to mobile can look at a few places where it’s been effective. On that list is Snapchat Stories, which can craftily — and locally — infuse branding into events like Coachella.
This has resonated especially with millennials — critical given that they now fully occupy the coveted 18-34 demographic. They famously want experiences, don’t like being told what to think, and don’t trust advertising.
This means marketers who craft messages and media accordingly (i.e. Snapchat Stories) will outperform those who stick with banner ads and 30-second spots, clumsily paired with content on a small screen.
Unfortunately, much of Madison Avenue — not known for its agility — will pick the latter path. Invoking the law of disruption number two, those who focus on ad blockers instead of fixing the root of the problem will fail. And they will deserve that fate.
Michael Boland is chief analyst and vice president of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.