Click Here: How Advertisers Can Beat Ad Blockers

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The battle between digital publishers and consumers over ad blockers has intensified, with Apple for the first time allowing them to be embedded in its Safari browser on iPhones and iPads. The use of ad blockers — software extensions that stop digital ads from appearing — rose 41% globally in the past 12 months, according to the 2015 Ad Blocking Report by PageFair and Adobe. In the U.S., ad blocking grew by 48%, reaching 45 million active users. While blocking is still mainly done on desktop computers, Apple’s move gave a boost to mobile ad blocking. Last year, the practice cost ad-supported publishers and brands an estimated $5.8 billion in lost revenue, a figure that is expected to rise to $20.3 billion in 2016.

But instead of thinking of new ways to manipulate people to see their ads, advertisers should craft ones that people want to see and share. An ad that resonates is relevant and respectful, actionable, valuable and value-generating, purveys an exceptional experience and a shareworthy story, according to this opinion piece by Wharton marketing professor and academic director of the Wharton Future of Advertising Program Jerry (Yoram) Wind and Alexa de los Reyes, the Program’s editorial manager. Wind is co-author with WFoA executive director Catharine Findiesen Hays of an upcoming book, Beyond Advertising: Creating Value Through All Customer Touchpoints.

Many users of Yahoo Mail encountered an off-putting message recently when trying to log in: “Uh oh… We are unable to display Yahoo Mail. Please disable Ad Blocker to continue using Yahoo Mail.” For those paying attention to how the digital age has transformed relationships between brands, people, and society, it won’t be surprising to learn that users immediately expressed their outrage across social media, telling Yahoo, with varying degrees of civility, “No more Ad Blocker? See ya, Yahoo.”

Publishers and brands that grapple with diminishing advertising revenues and are considering similar tactics must wake up to reality. With rapid advances in technology, the rise of social media, and an abundance of media choices, people have many powerful means of recourse against unwanted policies, including excessive and invasive ads. Whether or not Yahoo and other publishers persevere with this access policy, the experiment is indicative of an outdated yet pervasive mental model of advertising that we must challenge and change.

“The old mental model of advertising assumes that the only way to get people to view ads is by tricking or forcing them, by interrupting them while they’re doing something else.”

In addition to Yahoo, companies such as the NFL, The Atlantic, Hulu, and many others, are experimenting with ways of restricting access to ad blockers. Readers of The Washington Post who use ad blockers are encountering pop-up messages such as, “We’re committed to hosting safe ads and respecting your privacy. To keep reading, please disable your ad blocker.” In response, online forums are rife with coding work-arounds that teach people how to continue accessing the (ad-free) content they want.

It is still too early to tell what effects these different experiments will have on readership and subscriptions, but the solution we propose to companies is different: Don’t fight back. Instead, listen to what people want and give them something of value.

Us Against Them?

The old mental model of advertising assumes that the only way to get people to view ads is by tricking or forcing them, by interrupting them while they’re doing something else.

There are two critical flaws in this approach. First, an “us against them” mentality is a relic of the past. For businesses and organizations that aim to cultivate life-long users, preventing people from improving their experience with a product is a quick way to earn their ire, not their loyalty.

Numerous companies have suffered from backlash after attempting to make changes that don’t take their customers’ preferences into account. Look at Netflix, which in 2011 split its streaming services from its mail-order DVD service and subjected users to a 60% price hike. This led to a loss of 800,000 subscribers, a 77% drop in the stock price, a stymied plan for a spin-off company (Qwikster), a 12% decline in customer satisfaction, and millions in lost revenue.

The music industry at the turn of this century provides another case study in the pitfalls of ignoring consumer preferences.

Instead of listening to what people wanted — which was to find and buy just the music they liked, not a limited selection of expensive bundled packages — it took many years (and billions of dollars in lost revenue) before the industry changed its mental model from selling CDs to selling access in the form of paid downloads or subscription models (like Spotify and iTunes). Taking legal action against individual music fans for illegal downloads certainly did not solve the crisis. Napster users were not trying to crush the music industry — they wanted choice; they wanted access to music and artists that the industry wasn’t supporting.

Invasive Ads Lose Eyeballs

The rise in ad blocking once more delivers a crystal clear message to publishers and brands: Stop the barrage of invasive ads, or you will lose us.

Fortunately, companies today have the ability to listen and respond to their customers like never before. This requires companies to align their objectives for triple-win outcomes: positive for brand, people, and society. Mechanisms for listening and responding to users must be implemented holistically throughout the company, not as a separate, siloed set of functions, as is too often the case. Consumer-centric companies and organizations that can respond with agility and transparency to changing needs and demands are the way of the future.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), once vehemently opposed to ad blockers, recently acknowledged that online advertisers had “messed up” by not considering the users’ experience or preferences. In a post on the bureau’s website in October 2015, Scott Cunningham, IAB’s senior vice president of technology and ad operations, mused: “As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience… Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty.”

“Advertising of the future [should] be a ‘gift,’ ‘delightful and informative,’ ‘useful,’ ‘meaningful,’ and ‘an invisible, inspirational, and indispensable part of product and service experiences’.”

Commenting on a 2015 report on ad blocking by PageFair, one reader echoed the IAB’s sentiments: “Maybe if the ads weren’t so bloated, annoying, difficult to distinguish from content, and didn’t spread infections through ad servers that are poorly maintained, they wouldn’t be blocked as much. The ad companies made their own bed by letting things get so bad in the name of profit and people found a way around them and will continue to do so especially when they are attack paths for infections.”

Another commenter wrote on an online complaint forum that “[Yahoo] obviously thinks they can survive by selling ads and ignoring the subscribers that make it possible to attract ads.”

Online magazine Slate is one publisher taking a user-centric approach to ad blocking. David Stern, director of product development, said in a recent NiemanLab article that “we’re improving page load time, removing intrusive ads, and working toward fewer ads, but for those that stay we want them to be more impactful. We want the kinds of ads that people who read fashion magazines — that’s not me — but the kinds of ads that people say are part of the experience of reading the magazine.”

Advertising of the Future

This brings us to the second flaw in the old mental model of advertising: the assumption that ads are unwanted, disrespectful, irrelevant, and something to be suffered through.

Well, we can all agree that too often they are exactly that, and are especially infuriating when they infringe on a product’s usability, slowing page-load times and blocking access with pop-ups and scroll-overs. But they don’t have to be. In fact, insights from the Wharton Future of Advertising (WFoA) Program’s “Advertising 2020 Project” show that advertising could and should be R.A.V.E.S. — relevant and respectful, actionable, valuable and value-generating, with an exceptional experience and a share-worthy story.

Advertising 2020 contributors — a group of over 200 thought-leaders from 22 countries and across industries — envisioned the advertising of the future to be “a gift,” “delightful and informative,” “useful,” “meaningful,” and “an invisible, inspirational, and indispensable part of product and service experiences.” If today’s technology makes ad blocking possible, it also makes it possible to attain all of the above qualities.

So, which is a better use of resources — a battle against consumer preferences or a mutually beneficial interaction? Twitter 

Creating Ads That Delight

Wharton’s 2020 project advocates that R.A.V.E.S. advertising should be orchestrated through every point of interaction between a person and a brand. Moreover, it should be optimized for the specific audience, context, and delivery platform. When we redefine “advertising” in this way, we are talking about going beyond the term and its negative implications.

Let’s look at a fine example. In #likeagirl, the 2014 award-winning video from the feminine hygiene brand Always, people from both genders are asked to perform tasks “like a girl,” such as running like a girl or fighting like a girl. The result is stereotypically weak and silly behavior, such as flapping their hands when they run. But when young girls are asked to do those tasks “like a girl,” they do not incorporate the negative stereotype but instead are powerful and uninhibited.

The videos capture an emotionally impactful human truth — girls can be powerful, and we ought to change the connotation of what “like a girl” means. In the video, the company says it wants to change this perception — and the message is backed by its funding of puberty education initiatives around the world.

“To earn the attention of increasingly savvy and selective individuals — listen to what they are telling you, and give them something of value.”

Since June 2014, the video has been viewed more than 60 million times on YouTube — not because people were tricked into it, but because it has meaning and value. It was entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking. This is “advertising” that creates a triple-win outcome. And, it didn’t need to pop-up or spread invasively over someone’s screen in order to be viewed — it was shared by millions, voluntarily.

Other R.A.V.E.S. examples include offline, opt-in experiences as well as products that solve personal and social problems, such as Optus Network’s wireless shark notification system in Australia; DePaul UK’s moving box company that funds services for homeless youth; and IBM’s use of cognitive computing system Watson to create unique menu combinations for a food truck in Austin, Tex.

The lessons here apply to all businesses that are aiming to earn the attention of increasingly savvy and selective individuals: listen to what they are telling you, and give them something of value. Experiment with different strategies and learn what works. In the digital age, how we produce, distribute, and consume content has been revolutionized. If Yahoo and other publishers and brands want people to opt-in to their services, they have to go beyond “advertising.”

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