2015 was the year when an unprecedented number of users took action against the ads that slowed web pages and turned the online content experience into a frustrating game of close-that-ad. According to a PageFair and Adobe report, U.S. ad blocking grew 48% in the twelve months leading up to June 2015. That’s 45 million users—16% of the population—who just said no to digital and, in particular, mobile web advertising by downloading ad blocking applications.
With eyeballs and revenue on the line, thought leaders debated whether the ad blocking trend would destroy or save advertising. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) blamed the digital ecosystem. The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) blamed themselves for having “lost track of the user experience.” (They also notably took ad blockers to task for disingenuous practices, most specifically paid “whitelists” for publishers.)
The cost of ad blocking is significant, with an estimated $781 million dollar loss for the industry. But another resonating impact of the Great Ad Rebellion of 2015 will be found in its influence on marketing investments. What will marketers do differently to navigate the digital/mobile landscape in 2016?
Lest there is any question, ad blocking will not prompt an all-out surrender by the ad ecosystem. Some publishers, like GQ, Forbes and more recently Wired, are fighting fire with fire, by blocking users with ad blockers. But the longer term strategy is to address the issues with ad experience. Some of this responsibility falls on publishers, who determine the degree of disruption that must be tolerated to access content, as well as the ad tech landscape, where fierce competition can inspire extreme approaches to ad engagement. (To steer publishers and platforms to a more user-friendly approach, and as part of its mea culpa, the IAB introduced new guidelines that emphasize ‘light, encrypted, ad choice supported, non-invasive ads’.)
But no change can succeed unless marketers direct ad dollars to those that are innovating in favor of an improved experience. This isn’t a simple task, given that site-by-site scrutiny can work against the efficiency gains of programmatic buying, a practice that has itself been blamed for the surge in ad blocking. As such, there will also be other moves to optimize ad impact, including increased investment in emotionally-aware ads, where data is used to extrapolate insights about a user’s psychological state in a given moment. Incorporating a measure of receptivity into ad delivery could prove to be the much-needed difference between engaging a consumer and ticking them off.
Thinking beyond advertising
Ongoing concerns about ad ROI will prompt more marketers to deepen investments in other approaches. Native advertising, the modern day equivalent of the advertorial, offers a worthy complement to traditional ads. Content marketing and branded content will help brands meet the need to feed social channels. Influencer marketing will gain practitioners as marketers struggle to connect with elusive millennial audiences. We’ll also see more brands practicing corporate social responsibility and, of course, promoting those good deeds via social channels.
Each of these tactics offer a subtler alternative to the traditional advertising message. And while this can be a strength in an oversaturated landscape, there is a fine line between subtle marketing and the calculated manipulation of audiences. The FTC tuned into this, releasing guidelines to ensure consumers can distinguish native advertising from content. But marketing’s most powerful critics are the consumers themselves, which leads to the next point…
Embracing feedback—in all forms
In a world of 24/7 marketing, brands are constantly challenged to creatively and authentically engage consumers in “conversation”. The always-on dialogue represents tremendous opportunity, but it doesn’t come without risk. Today consumers are quick to call brands out when they’ve missed the mark, even when it’s as seemingly innocuous as Red Lobster’s slow response to a shout out from Beyoncé. Success doesn’t grant immunity either, as is evidenced by the less than warm welcome REI received on Reddit following its widely-celebrated #optoutside campaign.
This vulnerability could make one want to crawl back into the safe confines of traditional marketing, but of course that’s not an option. In 2016, more marketers will have strategies in place that allow them to creatively participate in the two-way dialogue while also managing the inherent risk. This means more than having an ear to the ground; brands need a plan that allows them to quickly gauge when and how—or if—it makes sense to engage or respond. (Arby’s farewell to their consistent critic Jon Stewart is a stellar example of a brand creatively and effectively steering into negative feedback.)
It may be that consumer ad blocking is really only part of this feedback cycle— less a mass exodus from advertising than it is an aggressive critique of its current form. Either way, it is a milestone in the ongoing transition from one-way marketing, perhaps one of the last nails in the coffin. Today, consumers have more than just a voice—they control the levers on which messages they receive and when. Marketers will need to keep in mind throughout the execution of every strategy and tactic to have an edge in 2016 and beyond.