A simple way to beat the ad-blockers

One of the key challenges for marketers in today’s digital world is the rise of ad-blocking: the ability for consumers to choose not to receive advertising on their computers, tablets or smartphones. It’s today’s version of “no junk mail” stickers on letterboxes, putting your phone number on the Do Not Call Register, or ad-skipping technology for recorded shows on your TV.

A report from August 2015 showed that around 200 million people are using ad-blocking technology around the globe, a 41 per cent increase on the previous year. But as The New York Times president and CEO Mark Thompson pointed out at last month’s Cannes Creative Festival, “the root cause of digital ad-blocking is digital ads”. In other words, bland, irrelevant and impersonal ads are what drive people to install ad-blocking in the first place. Randall Rothenberg, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, told the same panel that marketers “cannot rely on disrupting and distracting tactics any more. The next generation of advertising must entertain, inform and have utility.”

The norms around the development of digital ads have been that they’re short-term, inexpensive, able to be turned around quickly, and easy to do in multiple forms. It’s the opposite of large outdoor advertising, for example, which lives for a month, is more expensive, and is usually better crafted and more engaging. It’s easy to see that the balance between technology and creativity has fallen heavily on the technology end of the scale when it comes to digital advertising.

That is due to marketers chasing the most fundamental pillar of brand success: differentiation. It is an easy win to be first to market in digital advertising’s newest forms, regardless of the quality of the communication. Yet as digital technology becomes ubiquitous and therefore a more level playing field, there will be a swing back to creativity as a differentiator.

This was reiterated at Cannes by Pepsi’s group president Brad Jakeman, who said: “We have to change the way we engage with consumers to actually produce stuff they want to see. Ad-blocking is something we’ve all created.”

The proponents of artificial intelligence and Big Data still feel that differentiating through digital technology has a long way to run. At the other end of the scale, there’s wisdom in Einstein’s quote that “the human spirit must prevail over technology”, as well as Gandhi’s thought that science without humanity is one of the seven deadly sins.

The brands that have already made the swing back to creativity in their digital efforts are seeing success. Some are using storytelling well, others are doing it around strong brand purposes, such as P & G’s “Like a girl” campaign for its Always product, and Australian brand Skins’ ambition around fueling the true spirit of competition, and its push against doping and corruption in sport.

While marketers strive to solve the growing issue of ad blocking so that they can continue to reach the audiences they want, the short-term losers in this are the media outlets. Marketers only want to pay for the audience they reach, and if that audience is reduced by 20 per cent, then media revenues fall as well. It’s then harder for them to pay journalists to develop their quality content.

In response to this short-term issue, the media’s short-term answer has been to block the ad-blockers. Mastheads such as Forbes and Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph have deployed pop-ups on your screen when they detect ad-blocking software. These pop-ups ask the reader to either stop ad-blocking the site, or subscribe to see the content. Research shows that pop-ups highlighting the link between paying journalists for quality content via advertising revenue, reduce ad-blocking by 40 per cent.

But in the end, there is a lot of choice around content via various sites, and the majority agree that this strategy won’t halt ad-blocking in the long term.

For marketers, while ad-blocking is a growing obstacle to reaching a target audience, it’s also a reminder that digital advertising needs to be engaging and a pleasure to watch for consumers, who are real people, and not technology targets. Those who move quickly to best balance the alchemy between creativity and technology will come out on top.