Everything Will Be Questioned In 2016 (And Beyond)

1 January 2016 by Martin Delaney

cbWe’re often asked about the future of ad blocking, both in terms of consumer adoption and the digital ad industry’s reaction to it.

Fortunately, this is a marked change to the end of 2014, when we were testing our beta solution ‘in stealth mode’ with publishers.

Back then, ad blocking was a little-known phenomenon – barely on the industry’s radar as a whole.

At the time, we knew we were tackling an emerging problem that was becoming increasingly significant as time passed by, but to be honest, we did not anticipate what would transpire so quickly – a super nova explosion of media coverage, awareness and urgency that would push ad blocking to the front and center of conversation throughout 2015.

Week after week, month after month, last year, a constant barrage of headlines flooded industry news feeds spouting evermore alarming language of an encroaching ‘adpocalypse’.

It’s even captivated the interest of the mainstream media. So in case you didn’t notice, ad blocking is now a pop culture phenomenon.

It’s worth remembering that not long ago, ad blocking was largely ignored, considered a negligible issue, and dismissed as a niche pursuit of programmers and tech enthusiasts. Now, it is, rightfully, considered a symptom of a systemic problem – a symptom that has been pretty invisible up until recently, but a problem that many have known exists, deep-down, for a long time.

Like the wider natural world in which we live, there is an inconvenient truth. An overzealous attitude that ‘more is more’, and can therefore only be better, polluted the web beyond ad tolerance levels without real regard for longevity.

Ad technology budgets went into projects that questioned ‘can we? instead of ‘should we?’ – little-time was afforded to review the impact of this on end-users. In response consumers turned to a nuclear option, ad blocking software, as a kind of instant panacea to improve their browsing experience across the web. Palatable and desirable forms of advertising got caught up in the fallout as collateral damage, and now content production itself has been put at risk due to fears of a lack of income.

Considering the online advertising industry is barely 20 years old, audiences became disenfranchised with the overall ad experience the Internet had to offer remarkably quickly. Those that don’t block ads largely ignore them, as evidenced by the ever increasing prevalence of ‘banner blindness’.

So it’s more than just ad blocking we need to fix, it’s ad alienation.

Now, we’ve finally reached an inflection point. The people have clicked.

Big changes lie ahead

Although the future sounds like a terrifying journey into the unknown, it’s also a huge opportunity, and should be considered as such. So long as we put users first, the light at the end of the tunnel will be much brighter than at the entrance.

Ultimately, the fundamental business models that exist now will remain in place going forward. It is the execution of these models that will change.

Despite what recent rhetoric may have implied, the ad-funded web is not the walking dead – far from it.

Consumers aren’t intrinsically against all forms advertising, they just don’t like the format of advertising that has largely pervaded the web to date. So what’s broken is the ad experience, not the model.

We, as an industry, can do better. Much better. And we will, but it will take time.

By focusing our efforts on building ad experiences centered around the consumer, and not what is technically possible or available, we will regain their attention and trust, and along with that, much more valuable advertising real estate over the long term.

Micro-payments and subscriptions will have their rightful place as part of the value exchange between publishers and consumers too, but the vast majority of web traffic will still be monetized via advertising for the discernible future. And, even in those micro-payment and subscription environments, advertising will still have a role to play.

At the very core of this approach lies the fundamental question that every stake-holder should ask themselves before deploying anything into the digital advertising ecosystem, whether that be a new API, script or ad creative: What impact does this have on user experience?

If the answer to that question does not ultimately add value, or, if it detracts value from the user’s experience beyond a reasonable degree, it needs revisiting.

From initial thought this may sound like an unachievable goal – an ‘adtopia’. But it isn’t.

Avoiding the mistakes of the past

First of all, we must resist the ever-lurking temptation to default back to what we know, what we are comfortable with. The established way of doing things does not automatically make it the right way of doing things.

One of my concerns is that many incumbent advertising technology providers will not properly consider this. The default response will often be to ‘make what we already have work as best we can for ad blocking traffic’.

Attempting to rehash existing infrastructure and technology, alone, to resolve this problem will be nothing more than a stopgap. New ways of thinking must prevail. Everything must be questioned in a way we have not properly done before. Anything that negatively impacts user experience beyond a tolerable degree must be purged or restricted. New consumer-centric ideas must be tested and nurtured.

To that end, it is imperative that we look beyond the founding architects of the advertising technology industry, solely, for answers, and embrace new blood. At a minimum, include the younger generation in the conversation – those who are largely the driving force behind this movement.

Now that most publishers have measured their ad blocking audience rates, 2016 will be a year of experimentation with various counter-measures and strategies. There will be a lot of trial and error along the way, but, by the end of the year, a stronger consensus will have emerged on how to tackle the issue.

Every publisher will need to think holistically about what kind of experience they want to offer to their users. Those that employ blunt measures will falter or achieve short-term ‘wins’ at best. Those that put user experience first will succeed over the long term.