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The digital advertising industry is facing its biggest challenge to date - ad blocking.
Agencies, brands, and marketers alike have to re-evaluate our approach if we want our industry to survive.
It has happened to everyone. You are sitting at your computer minding your own business, watching cat videos or clicking through “10 Celebrities With Weird Body Parts” - yes, that is a real article - when all of the sudden it happens.
But you can’t click out of it, and as soon as you try more windows open or even worse - spontaneous downloads take your computer hostage.
When you consider how many times this exact scenario has repeated itself over the course of your internet-using life, it is no surprise that the use of ad blocking software has ballooned in the last year.
Sorry, advertisements, consumers just aren’t that into you.
And just like the end of a bad relationship, all sides are left asking, “How did we get here? How did it get so bad?”
While there has been no shortage of finger-pointing between agencies, publishers, and brand marketers, it is safe to say that no one is void of blame.
Publishers make money by selling ads on their content, and media addicted consumers need their fix.
Publishers look at two things when deciding what pieces to finance: how much time and money a story takes to produce, and how much ad revenue it will generate.
But the need to create more content with the intention of generating more advertising revenue only served to kill real journalism.
Long form, investigative stories became too burdensome for our ADD riddled minds strung out on instant gratification.
This gave rise to the listicle and click bait designed only to cheaply generate traffic while turning our brains to mush. Au revoir journalistic integrity.
The industry is complicit
Advertising agencies, meanwhile, concerned with making brands happy, implicitly went along for the ride.
As purveyors of creativity and whit, agencies should have stood up to this rubbish rather than allowing brilliant strategy to be reduced to a pop-over ad.
For consumers, avoiding ads has long been a source of innovation. Television commercials bred the remote control, the VCR, Tivo, and eventually Netflix.
But internet advertising is a very different beast. It democratised advertising allowing anyone with a few quid and an internet connection to become a marketer.
Like a plague of biblical proportions, amateurish, spammy ads infected the internet with no concern for the user experience.
Primary school tactics of annoying someone to get them to like you simply don’t work for advertising, yet that didn’t deter us from using them.
Consumers want to be wooed, for their needs to be acknowledged - not to be interrupted while they are in the middle of reading. The problem has gotten so bad that even marketers themselves are fed up.
Now we are stuck in Limbo. Last year more than $21bn dollars in ad revenue were lost due to ad blockers.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is so livid about the situation that they not so politely disinvited Ad Block Plus from its annual conference.
Meanwhile, publishers are looking for ways to sweet talk visitors into turning off their ad blocking software which seems to have some positive effect. But are we just ignoring the larger problem?
The term “surprise and delight” has been thrown around a lot as the advertising industry debates how we should approach ads moving forward, but it might be too little, too late.
Some consumers have been burned by poor advertising so many times, that no amount of “surprise and delight” could usher them back into the fold.
For them, ads are manipulative and untrustworthy. Even the idea of sponsored content leaves a bad taste in their mouths.
In the movie The Matrix, Neo is offered two different pills. One will show him the truth, and the other will allow him to return to his life, blissfully ignorant.
While it may be a bitter pill to swallow, the advertising industry has to acknowledge our part in the fall of Rome to begin moving forward and build on top of the rubble.
Sure, some ad blockers are offering “whitelist” status for a price, but that just reeks of blackmail.
The industry must learn to bring value to consumers again while educating them that content comes at a cost. On that other hand, brands must learn they can’t produce shoddy products and expect them to sell based off an advertising strategy alone.
What we really need is a paradigm shift - to put the consumer back at the center.
South Park has the answer
At the end of last season, South Park quite poignantly satirised the current state of affairs in advertising, turning the lens on the “evolution” of ads from television, to mobile, to sponsored content.
According to South Park:
But the ads adapted. They became smarter. They disguised themselves as news. All around the world, people read news stories, completely unaware they were reading ads.
And now, the ads have taken the next step in their evolution. They've taken human form. Ads are among us, they could be your friend, your gardener.
The ads are trying to wipe us out. The question is... how?
While the hyperbole is a bit overblown - as all good hyperbole should be - Trey Parker and Matt Stone might just be onto something.
Instead of ads becoming people, shouldn’t our industry instead be focused on turning people into “ads”?
We already know that earned media works. 90% of consumers say they trust their peers’ recommendations, but only 33% trust ads.
Brand evangelism is a powerful thing and influencer marketing is already set to become one of the year’s biggest trends.
Why is it so effective? Because it breaks through all the online noise, drives awareness, and breeds purchase intent later on.
As marketers, we must become better at relationships, at building trust, at being human.
Selling products needs to become less of a shouting match between brands about who is better, and more of a conversation between brands and consumers about what consumers want.
We have to learn to listen to our audience because they certainly have stopped listening to us. The industry depends on marketers putting people back into the equation.
So what does the future hold for the advertising industry? In the age of “banner blindness”, the industry would be digging itself a deeper hole by ignoring what consumers are already telling us.
Advertising is such an ingrained part of our culture that it is unlikely to go quietly and certainly too big to go away completely.
But that doesn’t mean that it can’t evolve, as it has for centuries - that doesn’t mean that one day, very soon, advertising could live among us - your friend, your gardener.
Advertising could become - human.