Think of the last ad you saw when browsing on your phone or tablet. Maybe it provided a laugh, captured your attention, or presented information that was relevant to you, but it’s far more likely that your immediate reaction was one of annoyance rather than interest. And that’s not surprising, as most ads are intrusive, exasperating and often mean nothing to the audience they’re reaching.
That’s why, more and more, users are turning to ad blockers to eliminate this frustration completely.
To illustrate the demand for this kind of tool, take Peace, a $2.99 ad-blocking application. Shortly after its launch, it became the best-selling application in the app store, meaning more people were more focused on blocking ads than on, say, playing Tetris, keeping up with the Kardashians, or right-swiping their way to true love.
(Which are all completely honorable endeavors, for the record.)
But Peace’s success was short-lived. Despite its popularity, it was quickly pulled from the app store by its creator, who claimed that the success of the app “doesn’t feel good.”
Peace founder (and Tumblr co-founder) Marco Arment’s conscience apparently kicked in because—despite the app’s focus on improving the individual user’s online experience—by eliminating ads, it also eliminated a stream of potential ad revenue. By making content more enjoyable to ingest online, Peace was unintentionally punishing the people and publishers who were producing said content.
And while the idea of ad blocking isn’t brand new and there are plenty of other ad blockers on the market, this specific case (especially when paired by Apple’s newest update) serves as a catalyst for a conversation about online advertising as a whole and what everyone in media—from advertisers to designers to publishers—must do to adapt, survive and thrive online.
THE FAILURE OF ADVERTISING
In a sense, the arrival of the ad blocker—and the increasing popularity and acceptance of the tool—was sparked by something simple: Advertising is failing.
The rise of ad blockers (and upgraded, ad-free versions of services like Spotify Premium) really demonstrates that people will go out of their way and actually pay money to eliminate information that isn’t relevant or interesting to them. They’ll figure out a way to hack the digital space to remove this frustration—particularly when it comes to mobile ads, which are basically the worst of traditional IAB online ads and are just as pervasive and disruptive.
“The advertising industry really dropped the ball on even figuring out ads in the mobile space,” says Chaotic Moon Content Director Hawk Thompson. “Unfortunately the downside of ad blockers is even if they’re great for users, often they adversely affect the sites users love the most. That’s why you see a pathetic pop-up: ‘Please consider disabling your ad blocker because we rely on ads for revenue.’ There’s so much dependence on this revenue stream that rather than innovate, we have to beg people to act against their own best interests.”
Essentially, while ad blocking presents problems for many people who depend on ads for revenue, the phenomenon is illustrative of an inherent problem in advertising and the lackluster, often lazy approach that is being used to reach users.
AD BLOCKING AND APPLE’S POWER PLAY
The immediate success of Peace (and its almost-as-immediate removal from the app store) wasn’t the only news in the world of ad blocking recently: Apple itself instigated a recent freakout of sorts in the media world with the September release of iOS 9, which actually allows for the download of browser extensions that can block ads from being shown while the user browses.
Now on the surface, this obviously sounds like great news for Apple loyalists (“No more pop-up ads for Cialis?! HALLELUJAH!”), and the company is being heralded as a hero by users sick of the visual and experiential assault that is mobile advertising. However, it isn’t Apple’s goal to create an ad-free utopia, and in all actuality, they’re not blocking all ads; they’re just blocking ads that aren’t theirs. And by doing this, the company has managed to build a full-fledged walled garden ecosystem that will allow them to be able to exert more control than ever, all while appearing altruistic and dedicated to improving the user experience.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR MEDIA
At its core (that’s an Apple joke…sorry), this bold but undeniably brilliant move won’t just affect the company and its users, but is slated to change the way anyone in the media world has to deal with advertising.
From a publishing perspective, take reporter Seth Weintraub, whom The Guardian references in their story on Apple’s ad-blocking decision. The mastermind behind 9to5mac.com, a website dedicated to reporting Apple news, Weintraub gets the majority of his traffic from visitors on iPhones or iPads, and this new ad-blocking feature means that he’ll have to innovate a new way to make up for the ad revenue he’ll lose.
So how does one deal with that?
One way a publisher can combat this issue is through the use of native advertisements, which often defy these ad blockers and even serve as content that’s actually of value to the user. (In terms of native advertisements, think a typical Buzzfeed list sponsored by a company—say, “25 GIFsThat Explain Your Relationship with Cheese!” brought to you by Easy Mac.) These are typically advertisements that the reader doesn’t mind engaging with and—by proxy—they are likely to be far more successful. (At the very least in the sense that they won’t be blocked.)
From the perspective of the designer, ad blocking actually makes for a lot more work, as a one-size-fits-all approach to ad design is no longer applicable. For example, standard display ads are all in IAB units, so advertisers have to play by those rules if they want to leverage ad-serving networks. Apple, however, is not going to conform to those standards, meaning that twice as much time and effort will be required to create ads that work in each situation.
This means that designers will now have to familiarize themselves with more platforms and design in a way that’s especially relevant for each. And while it will be a challenge, it also allows for telling more cohesive and compelling stories through meaningful content that’s specifically tailored to brands, audiences and platforms. For advertisers, it presents the opportunity to actually engage people in a relevant way by providing truly personalized content in context.
In short, while advertising has been failing, with the rise of ad blocking, now it simply can’t afford to. This means advertising will be forced to step it up and innovate, and this, ultimately, is actually a very good thing.