One in ten Internet users in France, one in five in the UK, one in four in Germany – the development of ad blocking is anything but marginal. This phenomenon, which Luma Partners have called a critical issue in their 2016 report, is both lasting and on the rise, and it is limited neither to a specific category of the population nor to a region in particular.
In China and the US, two markets that are known to be more open to advertising, the rate of ad blocker use is comparable, if not superior, to the one measured in France. Forty-one billion dollars – such was the estimated amount of the losses incurred by the advertising industry in 2016. Faced with the rise of ad blockers, what should industry players do?
First of all, acknowledge the fact that there is currently a critical lack of understanding surrounding what we could call the implicit advertising value exchange, in other words the presence of ads in exchange for free content. If individuals are kitting themselves out with ad blockers, it is because they refuse to be exposed to digital advertising as they see it – namely something intrusive, inadequate and useless. As a result, the media and other content publishers, whose business model depends primarily – sometimes exclusively – on advertising revenues, are severely affected.
Secondly, come up with solutions to restore fairness for everyone in the advertising exchange.
Dispelling the uneasiness between individuals and advertisers calls for several things: market self-discipline on the one hand, with the invention and promotion of advertising formats and practices that are more respectful of user experience, and the establishment of a true dialogue with individuals on the other hand. This means paying closer attention to them and communicating more transparently, first and foremost as regards the purpose of advertising in today’s digital industry. In these respects, a number of initiatives have already come into being, often driven by trade associations. Examples include the LEAN initiative launched by the IAB or the Week without ad blockers organised by the GESTE (the French association of online service and content publishers).
For each party to feel that they are truly benefitting from the exchange, each of them must be able to take action or to withdraw if and when they no longer find the terms of the contract acceptable. Thus, the development of ad blocking solutions is not necessarily a bad thing insofar as it involves individuals taking back control over a digital space that has become an extension of their private sphere.
Digital advertising is unique in that it enabled personalisation very early on, as opposed to traditional advertising channels such as TV, the print media, the radio or OOH. By allowing the diffusion of nearly individualised messages that can be adjusted in real time based on context and/or behaviour, recent technological developments have ushered brands into the era of personalised customer experience.
Now, if brands and their platforms can influence our digital experience by personalising it to such an extent that it may someday become truly unique, it is only normal that we should share control over this personal space with them. Personalisation is turning the Internet into an increasingly private space, unlike the public space once formed by the traditional advertising channels, which broadcast one single content for all – that is, until their recent digitalisation, which has opened the way for the end of this “one-size-fits-all” model on these channels as well.
The use of ad blockers may seem excessive, but it illustrates the fact that other means to act upon this space (e.g. configure cookies fill out data use consent forms, use private browsing) are still little known or unsatisfactory. Admittedly, defining what an acceptable ad is turns out to be a tricky undertaking, but it seems reasonable that individuals should have their say in the matter. In this sense, ad blocking constitutes a means of expression.
Ad blocking should be interpreted as a form of user control over content display, much in the same way as content blocking, parental control or the reader mode offered by browsers. Ad blockers do not target advertising per se so much as a form of advertising that people wish to see disappear. Brands are already dedicating part of their budget to studies aiming to evaluate their own brand image and the success of advertising campaigns, so why not interpret the rise of ad blockers in the same spirit?
As in any system involving multiple players, the difficulty of altering current practices lies in the interdependence of stakeholders, as well as in the difficulty of monitoring general compliance. Moreover, the fragmented nature of the digital ecosystem – an issue that has been deemed vital by LUMA partners – and the increasingly leading role of technology mean that it has become difficult for brands to control the implementation of advertising campaigns from start to finish. Incidentally, a report commissioned by the American Association of National Advertisers (ANA) recently highlighted the lack of transparency in the practices of the North American advertising industry. It revealed the vital issue of trust to be highly topical not only between individuals and advertisers, but also between advertising experts and their agencies.
It is imperative for brands to implement practices promoting transparency and user control in order to secure user support in the long run and thus contribute to the development of a sustainable ecosystem. Technology, which is capable of enabling both the worst and the best as far as advertising is concerned, must be placed in the service of this brand vision based on clearly defined objectives and accountabilities. This is the foundation of a trusting relationship and of a sustainable value creation process. And what if the first step was to listen to the message sent by ad blocker users by promoting the development of solutions allowing individuals to recover the share of control that is rightfully theirs?
This interview was originally published on June 16th 2016 on Journal du Net, and translated from the original French by Marion Beaujard.