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Blaming the blockers: What’s the future of online advertising?

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The Internet Advertising Bureau and its members are stirred up by two trends in advertising technology: The release of future versions of web browsers such as Firefox that ship with third-party tracking cookies turned off by default, and the rise of ad blocking software such as AdBlocker Plus.

Congress is getting into the ad blocking game by filing legislation to make “Do Not Track” the law of the land, and consumers are on high alert about their personal privacy in the aftermath of the NSA Prism disclosure. While privacy concerns over digital advertising are as old as the Internet itself, the prospects are especially bleak for the digital advertising and marketing industry just as the category appears poised to dethrone television advertising as the dominant form of advertising.

The Adtech arms race

Randall Rothenberg, the president of the IAB, wrote in a blog post on the IAB website entitled, “Has Mozilla Lost Its Values?”:

“….the company’s civic positioning and public character are heavily freighted with antipathy toward advertising and the commercial Internet. For example, Mozilla is the world’s largest distributor of Adblock Plus …. ad blocking appears to be a victimless endeavor, but in fact is a possibly illegal activity that deprives a cascading chain of legitimate enterprises of income.”

The technology that targets and serves advertising, and the technology that blocks it is an escalating arms race with the advertising world blaming technology for enabling piracy and robbing publishers of the revenue they need to stay in business. Content producers and advertisers suing to stop technology is an old tactic, yet one that hasn’t worked yet and which only calls down more attention and awareness to the issue. From the VCR to Tivo, from the Hopper to Ad Blocker Plus – the reaction of the advertising and media industries to emerging threats is to blame the technology, file suit and hope the problem can be legislated or ruled out of existence.

What’s needed is a long, overdue look at the very broken process the Adtech world is trying to preserve and some brave innovation that will change the adversarial relationship between advertisers and the customers they want to reach.

The fall of the banner ad

It could be argued the last big advance in advertising models was the invention of contextual paid search by Bill Gross at in the late 90s; the very same model adopted by Google that is the foundation of the company’s $300 billion market capitalization and represents almost half of the entire interactive advertising spend in 2012.

Now, a decade and a half later, the next big thing is “native” advertising or “content marketing” – an old wolf in the sheep’s clothing formerly known as “custom publishing” that blurs the line between objective journalism and suspicious advertorial.

Hanging on in the background, refusing to die, is the lowly banner ad, the display unit invented by Hotwired, Wired’s pioneering website in 1995. It’s a form of advertising that has devolved from the standard of web advertising into a high-inventory, low-priced, unclicked and unloved ad unit that remains one of the bulwarks of bad advertising.


The reason the banner lives on (and the reason Ad Blocker Plus is the most downloaded and installed browser plug-in in history) is third-party tracking cookies. Before I switched off banner ads and third-party cookies two years ago I saw an ungodly number of ads from (among others) my former employer, PC maker Lenovo; the Seattle outfitter and clothing company, Filson; and my local boatyard supply company: Jamestown Distributors. The connection between my visits to those brands and their incessantly tailing me with banner ads was obvious, yet, over time, as they persisted with the retargeting they didn’t induce me to suddenly buy a new PC, flannel shirt, or gallon of epoxy. Instead I questioned their blind obliviousness to the state of my relationship with them.

A feedback loop is better than an opt-out

Third-party cookies don’t permit much in the way of a two-way interchange between a consumer and a mindless ad insertion engine. Yes, the IAB, the Direct Marketing Association and others are trying to dodge the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission with opt-out programs such as, but few display ads give the recipient the opportunity to click a box on the ad to let the vendor know, “No thanks, only looking” or “Hey, I’m already a loyal customer and I was just visiting to download some drivers.”

Retargeting works and it has breathed a second life into the flagging fortunes of banner display advertising. I used it during my time at Lenovo when I ran digital demand generation for the company’s e-commerce engine, and can attest that it works, or at least can be correlated to an uptick in “success events” such as e-commerce sales. But like second-class junk mail, digital advertising declares success in micro increments measured in basis points. A 1 percent yield is cause for celebration. One. Percent.

As Cloudera’s Jeff Hammerbacher infamously said in 2011, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

As the browser becomes less dominant of a delivery vehicle for advertising, and the rise of small, mobile device screens continue to unseat the old PC-Browser model for ad delivery, advertising is evolving in a few promising directions.

Meet the future of online ads: VRM

First, social advertising is putting some degree of intelligence into ad serving by associating a consumer’s social graph, or matrix of relationships, with their intentions and preferences. The crucial component of trust that comes with a friend’s recommendation is inherent in social networks, and there is no question that a first-person reference is the most powerful factor in determining and influencing purchase preference patterns.


Second, the capability for brands to detect desire in the social stream is going largely untapped. The paranoia that forced companies with bad customer service records — Dell, Comcast and JetBlue — to formally monitor the social streams for expressions of unhappiness and dissatisfaction can be turned into identifying potential customers turning to their personal networks for advice and guidance on future purchases.

How deftly a company intercepts and responds to those public utterances is a matter of diplomacy, but it does point to the most potentially powerful shift in advertising to come — a complete turning of the tables from advertisers interrupting consumers with blind, or semi-blind targeted messages to consumers using the two-way channels to invite brands to come back to them with offers, bids, discounts, etc..

The utopian vision of the future of advertising has always called for a higher level of intelligence and interaction between the advertiser and the customer. Go back to the first and very prescient thesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto: “Markets are conversations” and project forward to a future as imagined by one of the Cluetrain’s original authors, Doc Searls at Harvard University’s Beekman Center for Internet and Society. Searls is promoting a model called Vendor Relationship Management, or VRM, an about-face of the Customer Relationship Management model known as CRM.

Project VRM describes itself as follows:

VRM tools provide customers with the means to bear their side of the relationship burden. They relieve CRM of the perceived need to “capture,” “acquire,” “lock in,” “manage,” and otherwise employ the language and thinking of slave-owners when dealing with customers. With VRM operating on the customer’s side, CRM systems will no longer be alone in trying to improve the ways companies relate to customers. Customers will be also be involved, as fully empowered participants, rather than as captive followers.

Publishers are the sticky wicket

The big issue is the role of publishers as the go-between in the advertiser/customer transaction. Using impressions and page views to build brand awareness has never been the strong suit of digital advertising, where some estimates have 80 percent of the spending focused on the bottom of the mythical marketing funnel – last click tactics to get us to stick stuff in shopping carts or download execrable white-papers. A VRM model could cut publishers out of the transaction, or, accelerate the transaction between brands and buyers by aggregating a qualified audience and giving them the modern equivalent of the old “bingo” reader-service cards that used to litter the back pages of our parents’ magazines.

It has been said that technology has an uncanny ability to solve untenable problems. As my ex-editor at Forbes liked to point out, in the 1880s New York City was sinking under tons of horse manure, a stinking, pestilential horror until lo, along came the automobile and suddenly manure was a worry of the past. While technology is killing the digital advertising model that sustained the Internet for the past twenty years, it is also opening up an immense opportunity that is beginning to emerge dimly from the fog of the future.

David Churbuck is an ex-tech reporter and digital marketer who now gives solicited advice at Eastman Advisors in NYC and blogs at

16 Responses to “Blaming the blockers: What’s the future of online advertising?”

  1. Actually I thought you wrote “Blaming the BloGGers” – the usual excuse of conventional media when they lose media market share. Well, ad blockers are going to stay. I just read another story where market research claims, online ads to the tune of almost ten billion (!) each year (and counting) are wasted by paying out for “page impressions” by bots. Be that as it may – don’t these complainers think, NOT showing an ad (and thus NOT paying for it to be shown) might be a blessing in disguise? I do a lot of online research on various subjects and none of them are remotely areas I would ever consider buying in. What a waste it would be if I always deactivated the ad blocker!

  2. Readers want more from publications, they want to research without too many flashing lights… but revenue needs to be generated by the host to make it all worth while… ultimately we all want to sell more and so we need to work out new ways of selling that work in the 2020 world we live in where we can easily find whatever it is we are looking for within 10 seconds of the desire coming over us…

  3. I think people should be rewarded with backing from private or public individuals or organisations if they really have it.

    Online advertising is peanuts and helps little to nothing for anyone in actuality.

  4. Cynthia & Bunny

    I sold a banner ad to 3Com for $10K in the spring of 1995 for my startup, GolfWeb. I don’t know when Wired sold their first banner ad, but GolfWeb may have been the first. The second banner ad I sold was to NEC.

    Cynthia Typaldos
    Co-Founder, GolfWeb (website launched Jan 1995)
    (sold to CBS Sportsline)

  5. Doesn’t matter what idea anyone comes up with it wont become law. Google will make sure of that. There is no such thing as privacy on the internet as long as Google has deep pockets

  6. One big problem is that internet ads have an established reputation as being annoying, regardless of how they are presented. In contrast, TV ads (even though they can be skipped with TiVo) are more accepted and even celebrated at least once a year during the Superbowl. Take those same thirty-second ads and put them on YouTube, and what happens? Frustration. Even the mandatory, minimal five-second wait to click the skip button seem like an eternity because the internet is perceived as and ever accelerating platform for entertainment and information. TV is not. TV advances via visual quality, so a thirty second break – or several consecutive breaks – will never be the view as the same hassle as a five-second delay hat is keeping me from the immediate gratification the internet is “supposed” deliver. It doesn’t matter if they banners, pop-ups, overlays, mobile ads, or full-fledged commercials; it will be a long time before they shed their reputation of being flat-out annoying.

  7. Re: the above comment. Yeah, I just read the first half of the article and got fed up because it read like an apology for advertisers. People have run out of patience for that stuff. Doc has been on about this for a long time.

  8. Don Dekalp

    I believe it’s the interruption marketing who is dying, and not only online.
    As consumers grow savvy, they wan’t to be in the driver’s sit when it comes to browse brands and buy.
    Not interrupted.
    I see publishers being the future of advertising, in fact, fully incorporated within brands, and being THE ads that consumers can pull when they’re in shopping mode.
    It’s a cultural transition we’re in. May take one generation to switch from a model to the next one.
    I don’t see ads as evil. Commerce, like social things, are some of the pillars of what we are as an evolved race.

  9. gregorylent

    advertising is a disease … it diminishes the human spirit, it rewards the wrong values, it dehumanizes humans, it is totally about manipulation, it creates a false economy, one that ignores human needs ,,

    the sooner advertising ends, the sooner the human race evolves ..

    • Bryan Ruby

      So what are you advocating as an alternative to advertising? I realize you’re probably trolling, but I personally would rather deal with advertising than paywall solutions (you pay before you can read the content). I also would rather see banner ads than “pay to play” articles where the line between article and advertisement is blurred.

      • Valentine North

        And does it work?
        You could call it trolling, but that solution hasn’t been tried yet.

        “[…]“pay to play” articles where the line between article and advertisement is blurred.”
        We already have those. In fact most websites work on that principle. A lot of tech news websites do the occasional “book review” or “laptop review” supposedly an article for their readers, not a blatant full page ad.

        How bad are things today? Incredibly bad. Look at game reviews sites. They make money from ads, right? Wrong, they make money from game publishers. The one that suffers the most is the consumer, the one that buys the product based on those fake reviews. I should know, I fell for it a couple of times. But that’s just me the stupid client. I took a hit, got smarter about it. The other competing game companies, not so much. Because for every copy someone got conned into buying, that’s one less for them to sell.

        What about, mobile devices? Tablets and smart phones? Those reviewers are so crooked, they could travel back in time. Find a gadget you like that just came out, just a month or two old, and search the reviews. They’ll all be identical.

        Ads bring you “free” internet, but most of it is crap.

        Ads work, I have a very agressive ad blocker, but I disable it only for the websites that have good content. Which is getting increasingly scarce.