Ads on the World Wide Web. We have all encountered them.
Maybe you're trying to watch a new video on YouTube only to be met with an inescapable 15 second video before your content (with no option to "Skip Ad" after 5 seconds). Or, you go to your favorite news website to catch up on the day's latest developments just to encounter a large pop-up ad blocking your page view the very moment the URL loads. Each of these instances seem to be equally annoying!
The reason why both of these very different ads evoke very similar emotions of frustration and distain is because they do not take into consideration the user experience. More commonly referred to as UX, the user experience (in the context of navigating online) refers to the environment any given user encounters while viewing a web page; related to page load time, content, utility, efficiency, and ease of use.
Thinking of advertisements from the perspective of the consumer and UX, we can start to understand why the recent increase in use of ad blocking software has come to pass. Everyone, even advertisers, want to use the Internet freely and be able to consume content seamlessly. It is clear that this "inherent human need" to go about our business uninterrupted poses a direct paradox to how these specific ad formats are utilized.
Invasive ads are designed to be viewed no matter what, regardless of how the UX is impacted, so then the choice for particular publishers to utilize these methods of ad delivery contributes to the widespread (and continually increasing) use of ad blocking.
Just How Widespread Is It?
According to the PageFair and Adobe 2015 Ad Blocking Report, global use of ad blocking software has increased 41% from 2014 to 2015--a time when 45 million users were leveraging browser extensions like Adblock Plus in the U.S alone. Google Trends shows searches for the term "adblock" have increased dramatically from 2013 to 2015, experiencing a small dip in the beginning of 2016, but it now appears the trend for this search term is again on the rise.
The truth is, that just as much as advertising on the web has been considered the "Wild West" (especially prior to the formation of the Interactive Advertising Bureau in 1996); the way that technology companies, publishers, and even content networks are approaching ad blocking is just as disjointed and unregulated.
Shine, the provider of "pro-consumer services: ad blocking and privacy protection", has begun offering ad-blocking software to wireless carriers rather than individual users. The thinking is to provide users a mobile network that is entirely ad-free as a way to combat the burden on precious data-limitations that so often is the number one qualm of many mobile users. "How did I run out of data already?"--sounds pretty familiar, huh?
Adblock Plus, mentioned earlier, is targeting individual users who are fed up with ads and free up some bandwidth on their server (mostly avid gamers). Even Apple and Microsoft are making ad blocker applications and extensions available for their mobile and desktop users with their latest versions of software and browsers (Safari and Edge respectively). As you can tell, each of these technologies works independently from one another, but each of them are all after the same goal of providing a better UX and "protecting" users from ads. But is there a better way?
Almost oppositely, AdChoices is the company that presents you with that little blue play button in the top right corner of display ads. Their goal is to allow users some degree of control over what ads they see by asking, "is this ad relevant to you?". This sounds like a good plan on paper, but I am sure that upon reading this some of you are just now learning what that small blue triangle button actually is. Besides being wildly unclear, most of us must beg the question, "why is it necessary that we are maintaining the presence of ads for users to view (and potentially click)?"
So What Happens If We Completely Block Ads? Why Do We Need Them?
In short, ads allow the content that we know and love as being "for free", to remain exactly that: costing us users nothing. Content on the web is delivered in one of two ways: either based on a paid subscription, which circumvents the need for ads, or for free. By exposing users to ads that advertisers pay for, in order to offset the costs of content creation, web hosting, site maintenance... (and a bunch of other nerdy, technical stuff). So blocking advertisements may produce a nice short-term reward that is: not being pestered by the annoying distractions of ads, but in the long-term this is driving advertisers, marketers and publishers to become more and more desperate trying to still deliver sponsored content (paid for by brands) to consumers.
One relatively recent iteration of these crafty advertising means and methods is the rise of native advertisements. Essentially, native ads are advertorial content repackaged and disguised as an article or piece of content developed by the content provider, publishing it under the pretext of their own brand voice. A relatively regular example of this is NY Post's inclusion of the Hulu Trending TV on their homepage each day. While this example might not be particularly awful, do we really want to push the industry to the point where users need to be ever-watchful; always looking over our shoulder for the next piece of content, sizing it up to determine if it is safe...or just another ad? Sounds comical, and it sure is, as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z696bTiP8RoSouthpark already was able to allude to in the latter episodes of their most recent season. But pushing our luck can have some scary (and more importantly costly) ramifications.
United We Stand, Divided...We All Get Blocked!
As advertisers, publishers, content hubs, and at our very core--just plain old Internet users, we all need to unite in order to holistically and strategically address this issue in a way that makes sense for all involved parties. The battle should not be around how we can block ads for the users, and how advertisers can continue to disguise ads as a work-around to ad-blockers. Instead we should be focused on coming to a middle-ground, where a set of acceptable standards can be adopted across the entire web-advertising ecosystem. A combination of non-intrusive ad units that are still viewable and visually appealing.
The "best of both worlds" so to speak, would be an era of the web that we are already starting to see on social media sites. When Facebook users actively "Like" or "Follow" an advertisers page they are willingly opting in to receiving messages from this brand via their Newsfeed. Even further, some brands are realizing that allowing users to come to them, rather than trying to cram messaging down their throats, is the way of the future. One example that comes to mind is the Straight Outta Compton Meme Generator. It allowed users to engage with the film's brand, create personalized content, and share with friends--all at their own discretion and all the while further promoting the release of the movie.
This model of "come-at-your-own...choice" advertising echoes the goal that AdChoices seems to want to implement across the web. With a bit of tweaking, who's to say this could not be the norm of the near future? One thing is for sure, if we do not align and allow both sides (consumer and marketer) to come to a compromise, a very different World Wide Web that is based on a "pay-to-play" model will soon be the norm, and this is one that will likely not sit well with anyone.
This article was co-authored by Oliver Walsh @GravityMediaLLC