Ad block usage is on the rise. In their most recent report, PageFair found that 198 million people worldwide now use ad blocking software—representing a 41% increase year over year. Though that number only represents 6% of the global internet population, estimated global revenue loss as a result of ad blocking proclivity was $21.8 billion in 2015—14% of the global ad spend. In 2016, that number is expected to inflate to a startling $41.4 billion.
Is it any wonder that digital marketers and advertisers are feeling nervous about the future of their advertising campaigns?
To combat the rise of ad blocking, companies are turning to a variety of solutions, including pleas (sometime incentivized) to be whitelisted, anti-blocking software, and even lawsuits. Others are diversifying how they advertise, which is what we will discuss below.
NOTE: Different software offers different degrees of ad removal—some are more merciless in their removal than others (even blocking out helpful ads). While the advertising channels listed below are generally more effective, there is no 100% foolproof way to bypass ad blockers.
1. Native Advertising
Native ads are paid media which feel like a natural extension of a publisher’s website. They match the form and function of their host website, mimicking the look and feel of the host site’s other content as closely as possible.
PROS: Native advertising has an easier time getting in front of consumers, because they blend so well with a host’s website. These ads are usually long-form, and their purpose is brand promotion. Generally, you want your advertorial to persuade an audience—which means your ad includes a distinct call to action (CTA) and clear links to your promoted brand.
Native ads have been advertiser’s go-to solution for “banner blindness”, since before we had banner blindness (or internet, for that matter). The most famous example is the 1951 Guinness Guide to Oysters by David Ogilvy, which detailed nine types of oysters and how they taste, before ending with a CTA to wash those oysters down “with drafts of Guinness”.
CONS: While native advertising might be the advertorial of the internet age, be warned: the FTC published new advertising rules as of December 15, 2015, which might result in serious penalties for native advertising that’s disguised too well.
Specifically, they’ll be penalizing “deceptively formatted advertising … that are closely integrated with and less distinguishable from regular content so that they can capture the attention and clicks of ad-avoiding consumers.” (Source: FTC Enforcement Policy Statement)
This policy crackdown isn’t limited to the US, either. On January 13, 2015, the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK censured BuzzFeed for a Dylon-sponsored ad. While their ad was clearly identified as a sponsored post, the verdict was that ads must be “obviously identifiable as marketing communications, including by using labels other than ‘Brand Publisher’ for advertorials.” (Source: ASA Ruling on Henkel Ltd)
2. Sponsored Content
Sponsored content is another form of native advertising. As with advertorials, you want your content to blend seamlessly with a site’s native content, so that it feels like a natural part of a user’s experience.
PROS: The difference between a native advertorial and sponsored content is nebulous, but generally sponsored content has a softer touch. While native advertorials include a distinct CTA or a heavy brand bias, sponsored posts aim to inform your audience, not persuade them.
One of the best examples in recent years is the New York Times’ article “The Surprising Cost of Not Taking a Vacation” (sponsored by MasterCard). MasterCard’s logo and the permalink URL extension “paid post” makes it hard to miss that this is an ad, but the content is well-written, well-researched, and exceedingly informative.
From my personal experience, sponsored content may be quite successful for advertisers if the topic resonates with the audience and the author puts effort into writing it. Many of you might have seen sponsored content of SEO PowerSuite’s (I’m the founder) here at Search Engine Journal. The most successful articles were these two: Avoid the Next Penguin Update: A Guide to Identifying and Removing Bad Links (2.2k reads) and 5 Steps to The Most Efficient Keywords With Rank Tracker (3.5k reads).
CONS: In addition to the FTC policy change (which affects all native ads, including sponsored content), it’s vital that you understand your audience and select your venue wisely when purchasing sponsored ad space. One of the most spectacular sponsored content failures was the Atlantic’s post advertising Scientology in January 2013. Blowback against the Atlantic was instantaneous and brutal—even though they quickly pulled the article, it’s now been immortalized as a cautionary tale.
3. Interstitial Ads
Interstitial ads are full-screen advertisements, typically appearing in smartphone apps at timed intervals, on a pause screen, or between levels on a mobile game. These ads completely cover the host app, forcing the user to either close the ad or follow it to its destination.
PROS: Though mobile ad blockers exist, consumers don’t seem to mind mobile ads nearly as much as they mind browser-based advertising. Stats from PageFair show that mobile activity accounts for 38% of all web browsing, but only 1.6% of ad block traffic was from mobile devices. Perhaps this is because consumers are often given the choice to download a free version of a game or app that includes ads or a paid model without ads—the choice rests in their hands.
CONS: Until this past year, ad blocking apps didn’t block interstitial ads—only ads on mobile browsers. This all changed recently. Other changes also make the future of mobile advertising uncertain, such as iOS9’s prolific support for ad blocking apps, where virtually none had previously existed on Apple devices.
As more and more companies optimize their advertising for mobile viewership, mobile users, fed up with ad-riddled browsing experiences, might turn to the same solution as desktop users. Current predictions state that 2016 might see the rise of the mobile ad blocker.
4. Email/Newsletter Advertising
Newsletter advertisements are self-explanatory—you purchase ad space in another company’s newsletter. These can either be dedicated sponsor messages, or ads that run alongside their newsletter’s content.
PROS: Email advertising has many benefits, but the biggest and most important is that you get advertising targeted specifically at your niche market, if you choose your partner carefully. This means that your ads always find your audience, and when they do generate leads, they tend to be of higher quality.
Another benefit of newsletter advertising is that it’s generally cheaper, and will get you past the spam filter far better than a cold email.
CONS: Seeing meaningful results from a newsletter advertising campaign can be difficult, especially when studies show that open-rates and click-through rates are usually low to begin with.
To get the most from your email advertising campaign, the most important thing you can do is leverage another company’s reputation. Make sure that you offer appeals to the target audience they’re already engaged with, or else your email ad campaign will be nothing but a waste of time.
5. In-Stream and Video Overlay Ads
In-stream and video overlay usually play before a video on YouTube or other streaming services, though sometimes they’ll interrupt a longer, continuous stream. These ads allow you the flexibility of the visual medium, offering more interactive and creative possibilities.
PROS: YouTube is the internet’s second largest search engine, so it’s hard to overstate the value of video ads. With interactive cards, CTA overlays, and shopping cards, YouTube’s made it easy to get in front of your customers.
You also have the benefit of knowing that Google’s in your corner—most of their revenue stems from advertising, and YouTube is one of their most lucrative platforms. In September 2015, an update made YouTube ads appear even through ad blocker.
CONS: This is by no means a perfect bypass. Ad blockers continuously match Google tit for tat with updates, meaning that video ads are, quite often, still blocked by ad blocking software.
Even when you do get through, advertisers on YouTube also have to contend with the “skip” feature. You only have five seconds to hook your audience and compel them to keep watching, meaning that your advertising had better be at least as interesting as the video they came to watch.
The Only Permanent Solution
The truth is that all of the above bypasses actually address symptoms—they don’t cure the real problem. If we subject our consumers to more of the same content that they’re trying to escape from, we’re more likely to alienate them before we convert them.
All of our digital content has always been at the whim and mercy of our consumers. We tailor headlines to capture their attention, we carefully monitor length and brevity to best convey our messages, and we’ve even exhaustively studied where consumer attention lingers on a webpage to maximize design and on-page SEO. We do this to better understand and appeal to our consumers.
Today, our consumers are telling us that they use ad blocking software as a result of the misuse of their personal information (according to 50% of consumers) and because they’ve been bombarded with a higher volume of advertising than ever before (according to 41% of consumers).
Given this, the only sure-fire way to get in front of our audience is to rethink our strategy: instead of crafting ads designed to deceive or annoy, we should be focusing our efforts on content-rich advertising.
As JR Little from Carat writes, “Instead of trying to regulate ad blockers out of our industry, why don’t we innovate around them? Make them irrelevant by outsmarting them. In the end, our work will be more effective and more interesting as a result.”
When customers find quality content that genuinely entertains or informs them, they don’t mind knowing that they’re being advertised to—as BuzzFeed and Friskies proved earlier last year, with their hugely viral “Dear Kitten” ad campaign.
As with all digital content, our focus in advertising should be on value first, and landing sales second.