My view on ad-blocking has always been pretty hostile.
I can’t understand why the same people who seem to value the web the most are the most likely to not want to make some kind of contribution to it.
Value this content, network or platform? Either pay for it directly or accept that you will have to make some other trade-off.
That’s perhaps an oversimplification, but generally I’ve always had the sense that ad-blockers aren’t considering how the sites they are frequenting are supposed to support themselves.
As someone who works in media and marketing, with clients on the delivery side and relationships on the publisher side, it smacks of ignorance, and ultimately selfishness.
A ‘let someone else pay’ attitude.
However, recent events have put ad-blocking to the fore. It’s no longer the preserve of a few geeky redditors.
It’s growing exponentially, and with Apple’s introduction of ad-blocking in iOS 9 it’s made its way to mobile.
Ad-blocking apps shooting to the top of the App Store is about as solid an affirmation of mainstream crossover as it’s possible to achieve.
And for the first time I am beginning to understand why people want to block ads. Because I think there’s a shift in motive.
Privacy to performance
There are two main arguments ad-blockers will normally cite.
The first is privacy – ‘I don’t want my behaviour to be tracked’. My stance here is ‘sorry, but that ship has sailed’.
Data and tracking is the foundation on which the web is built on, it’s the flip side to the openness we all value in it.
If you don’t want to be tracked, well, I hope you like paywalls.
By all means the way data is tracked, shared and used should be subject to regulation; Edward Snowden showed us that’s true. But that’s a separate discussion.
For the most part (as any Econsultancy reader is likely to know) data is used responsibly.
The worst motive most businesses have for tracking you is to try and sell you stuff. You have free will, you don’t have to buy it.
The second is around performance and experience. Everyone wants a faster, smoother, better experience on the web.
But for some reason, as device, mobile network and Wi-Fi speeds have increased exponentially, our experience on the web has failed to keep up.
And the reasons for this can be seen via a quick query on the HTTP Archive, which tracks various trends across the web’s top 1m sites.
Average web page size has steadily increased while page speed is actually slower than it was in 2010.
The ‘Overton Window’ of online advertising
As Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign gained momentum this year, there was a lot of talk of the ‘Overton Window’.
The concept is that the mere discussion of political policies to the left or right of what is in mainstream discourse shifts the ‘window’ of what is acceptable in the public view.
Corbyn’s rise to popularity has been as similarly, and surprisingly, meteoric as the sudden rise in ad-blocking.
Apple’s decision to allow ad-blocking in Safari (and even, seemingly, native apps) has thrust it into the mainstream.
And now the debate around ad-blocking is considerably broader than it was just a year ago, with the consumer backing to make it a genuine concern for publishers and ad tech vendors everywhere.
What ad-blocking is doing is shifting the ‘Overton Window’ of online advertising, changing the public view of what is an acceptable experience.
Why ad-blocking cannot be allowed to win
This is what ad-blocking should be doing. It’s a knock-on effect of the same openness that I earlier argued is the reason we have to allow data tracking.
If the web is a free market, ad-blocking is the people flexing their consumer buying power muscle, voting with their feet (or in this case, browser extensions).
However, the prospect of it going any further than that is a frightening one to me.
Here on Econsultancy recently, Jack Simpson asked ‘is native advertising the answer to ad-blocking?’.
My answer to that question is, ‘probably, yes’. Though I’d maybe phrase the question differently, more like ‘is native advertising the logical result of ad-blocking?’.
In a world where all technology-based advertising is blocked, native advertising reigns.
But I disagree with Jack’s conclusion that this ‘benefits all parties’.
I have no issue with native ads in a full marketing ecosystem. As a PR person, I’ve planned and written many an advertorial (what we used to call native ads before Buzzfeed came along and gave them a trendy new name) over the years.
But even as a brand marketer myself, a media landscape where they are the only vehicle for brand messaging is akin to some kind of post apocalyptic nightmare to me.
First of all, I don’t believe it is what even the staunchest original ad blockers want.
If they thought their actions were leading towards a web where all their favourite sites are 50% branded content (and they aren’t sure which 50%), they’d be distraught.
And it doesn’t benefit publishers. Their sites will likely load faster, but their editorial independence and integrity will inevitably falter as they struggle to keep the walls up between commercial and editorial.
They will also know less about their audience and, to marketers, knowing your audience is as important for the creation of content as it is for the selling of ads.
I don’t believe native ads benefits marketers either. Native advertising has its benefits, for presenting a brand message in an engaging way, but it’s poor for audience intelligence and targeting, and not the best medium for direct response.
There’s also the financial issue. Native ads are currently expensive, probably because they impact a publisher’s editorial independence and allow the brand to ‘buy’ some of that integrity.
If they’re the only advertising medium, native ads will get cheaper, and publishers’ already diminishing revenues will fall further.
But native ads will still likely be an expensive way for brands to attempt to target an audience, being as they are predominantly a brand messaging vehicle.
Again, bad for both sides.
Ad-blocking should be making advertising better, not worse
The point is that if ad-blocking was to get to the apocalyptic (and admittedly still far off) level where all tracking technology is defeated, I think the web will be a worse, not better, place. Which is not the point of ad-blocking.
Instead, the marketing technology vendors and buyers, publishers and marketers, should see ad-blocking neither as a minor irritant nor an unstoppable tidal wave.
It’s a market movement, the result of an open web that they can respond to by making ads and tracking less intrusive, and our digital experiences better.
Ultimately a web with more relevant, better implemented, faster ads really does benefit everyone – user, publisher and marketer.