Tales From An Adblock Plus Survivor

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"Marketer's Note" is a weekly column informing marketers about the rapidly evolving digital marketing technology ecosystem.

This week it is written by Joanna O'Connell, Lead Analyst forAdExchanger Research.

As a research analyst, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the big challenges and opportunities we in the digital advertising industry face. But (and I have a feeling I’m not alone here) I don’t always get a chance to experience firsthand some of the phenomena I tackle in my research. Yet this New York Times article on ad-blocking software incensed me enough to sign up for Adblock Plus, just to see for myself what all the hype was about.

And if my experience is any gauge, we’d all do well to start paying attention. (Yes, I know anecdotes do not equal evidence. This recent Columbia Journalism Review article may convince you. It cited a Reuters study that found 47% of US Internet users now use ad-blocking software, with a full 55% of 18- to 24-year-olds doing it. Eek.)

The first day, all the web pages I visited felt, well, lonely… and a little dull. The content felt smaller somehow, trapped in the center of overly large, now mostly blank pages. I found myself wondering, what am I missing? Am I not seeing the ad for that rug I was looking at yesterday? Or those gold heels I was checking out for an upcoming stint as a bridesmaid? Messaging for a Labor Day fire sale at my favorite tack shop? (It’s a horse thing.) I felt the absence of the ads.

But then, not more than a day into my experiment, I caught myself no longer wondering about the missing ads. It’s not that I stopped missing them per se – I literally stopped even contemplating their existence. I started forgetting there were ever ads in the first place.

That’s when I got worried. And then I started feeling guilty and, frankly, confused about what it all meant: for a person who’s such a strong proponent for smart, data-driven digital advertising at scale to have such a human reaction to ad-blocking software.

On the one hand, ad blocking is the ultimate act of consumer will in the attention economy. “If I don’t want to see ads, I don’t have to.” But it begs the question, how does that short-term assertion of will play out over the long term?

It could spell a vicious download spiral – ads aren’t seen, advertisers’ campaign performance drops, CPMs take a hit, ad sales suffer… publishers pay the price*. (When a group of German publishers sued Adblock Plus’ parent company based on this very concern, they lost.) And in the meantime, all those blithely ad-blocking consumers will start griping, “Hey, what happened to all the great content I used to get for free?”

Or, something more Darwinian could happen. For my part, over the course of my experiment, I found myself selectively enabling the display of ads on certain sites I visited – ones I liked, generally felt good about. Ivery subjectively started adding ads back into my digital (in this experiment, desktop) life. But I also found myself wishing I had an additional layer of control – not just to enable ads on certain publishers,but to enable certain kinds of ads – for products I am interested in, or brands I like, trust or feel a sense of loyalty toward. In some ways, that wouldn’t be much different than having a master preference center for audience targeting, something I’ve advocated for a while. More than simply allowing me to opt in to or out of behavioral, attitudinal or demographic categories, it would allow me to opt in to – to have more direct control over – the categories with which I choose to align myself.

So, what did I come away with? First and foremost, it was a startling reminder of how much control today’s consumers have when it comes to the digital advertising they do or don’t choose to see. For me, it raises the pressing question of who’s really in control in an increasingly digital world – Advertisers? Publishers? Or consumers? The answer should lie in the center of the Venn diagram where the needs and desires of all three groups overlap. But in the meantime, maybe we should just make less crappy ads.

(In the midst of my week of ad blocking, yet another story on this subject hit the news: Howard Stern, apparently, is a big fan of the idea – “I’m sitting through all these ads and you’re telling me there’s a way to avoid them?” – and told his whole listening audience as much. This, from a man with millions of loyal fans. Not good, people.)

Joanna

*PageFair’s most recent ad-blocking report found that ad blocking is estimated to cost publishers nearly $22 billion during 2015. Yes, PageFair has skin in the game, but their point is fair. No pun intended.

 

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