It’s one of those weird things. I can remember the exact moment when I stopped using Yahoo forever. It was many years ago on the day that Yahoo placed a new and intrusive advertisement on its home page. This particular ad was at the time beyond anything I had ever experienced before. A few seconds after loading the home page a flock of crows would take off and fly around the screen. After about 5 seconds they would land on top of an advertisement. Do you remember this horror? When Yahoo ran this advertisement it interfered with me finding meaningful search results. I switched right then and there to Google and never came back. It was a sign of things to come.
Since then there has been a steady increase in the number of ever more annoying display ads. This has created two negative consequences for media companies and advertisers. Users have learned to ignore display advertisements leading to lower click through rates. And record numbers of users are now deploying ad blocking software to stop intrusive ads. Today there is a nasty arms race between media companies and ad blocking technology, and on the open web it is clear that ad blocking is winning.
Anti ad-blocking startup PageFair says that ad blocking users grew by 41% to 198 million users and is expected to cost media companies an estimated $22 billion in 2015. That helps to explain why every media site on the web seems so eager to have you install their useless mobile app. I say useless because these often have the same features as the mobile site except that its impossible for the user to block ads. This means that the company invests in a mobile app no one wants to use while continuing to destroy its own revenue stream with click bait. Lose, lose.
The web is not a passive form of entertainment. Users are on a quest for information in a world where they are being driven to distraction. Media companies and advertisers have now trained users to be experts at avoiding advertising. To get beyond this problem advertisers will need to quickly improve the information content of their ads. There are some signs that the trend towards more informative and less distracting advertising is already underway.
Adblock Plus, the leading ad blocking solution, has made a business out of whitelisting advertisements that conform to its acceptable ads criteria. Natasha Lomas wrote this nice piece on Techcrunch where Adblock Plus says that very few users opt out of these whitelisted advertisements. Adblock Plus now faces competition from anti-adblocking start-ups PageFair and Sourcepoint. These solutions attempt to create a sense of guilt for users by encouraging them not to use ad blocking software. Good luck with that one. Natasha writes, “you can’t help but feel that if the digital ad industry just stopped to look at how awful ads and ad tactics have become … there might be no need for adblockers (or anti-adblockers) at all”.
Is the advertising industry finally starting to catch on? The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) recently released a report detailing the effectiveness of a new display ad format. In the report, IAB cited a number of metrics showing that users regarded these new ads as less intrusive and annoying. Users like the new ad format because ads did not flash, take over the screen, or interrupt what the user was doing. Those sentiments align well with with at least a few of the Adblock Plus criteria, even though the IAB format is still very far from qualifying for the whitelist. Only time will tell if the trend toward less intrusive ads will take hold quick enough to save the digital advertising industry from itself.
The technology genie is already way out of the bottle with ad blocking software. That battle cannot be won by advertisers. Time to stop investing in ways to force users to look at ads, and to start investing in ways to make them want to look at ads.