If the audience hates ads, what does the future of digital advertising look like?

Last week, Martin wrote about how necessary content could make it simpler for B2B media firms to carve out a significant piece of the digital landscape for themselves.

The problem for a lot of content businesses, particularly consumer-facing ones, is that despite the merits of what they produce, it’s not essential for their readers.

A snapshot of the digital landscape inhabited by these publishers is daunting: audiences are fragmented across multiple sites and platforms, and are just as interested in producing and reading user-generated content as reading or watching that produced by professionals. As a result, publishers know little about their audiences and find it hard to connect in meaningful ways. Advertisers know equally little, yet they’re pumping ever increasing volumes of cash into ads that are being blocked by the public on an almost industrial scale.

That’s an odd situation and surely can’t be maintained. So, the question arises: how can we reach a place of greater stability where the expectations of advertisers, publishers and audiences are met?

The blocked web

The latest figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau UK suggest that 22% of British adults online are currently using ad blocking software (a 50% increase from when we first covered the subject a few months ago). So significant has the situation become for publishers that those employing the technology have been granted a moniker of their own: the blocked web.

The term was coined collectively by PageFair, trade body Digital Content Next, and Mozilla as they try to find a way to work around the blockers. As The Drum highlights, this group has been meeting on a regular basis with other interested parties to look for a way forward.

Last week, PageFair’s Dr. Johnny Ryan outlined seven key points which form the consensus of this groups’ thinking and could become the basis for anti-blocking guidelines that could be issued to publishers.

I’m not outlining all seven here – it’s probably best for you to read them at source – but it’s interesting to note how there’s almost an acceptance of the blocked web. These notes deal, in practical terms, in working with the problem, rather than trying to eradicate it or somehow curtail the activity of ad-blocking technologies.

Standard ad formats

Independent of the PageFair collective, Google is working on an ad-blocking solution of its own – this is anticipated for launch next year. Many hope Google, with its sizeable heft when it comes to digital advertising, can come up with a solution that represents a definitive move beyond the current impasse.

It might well be that a technological solution is better than a set of rules or guidelines. Whatever the solution, leading Google executives have spoken publicly about the need for the online advertising industry to find a unified answer to the problem.

Digiday now reports that Google is ‘exploring the creation of an acceptable ads policy’ which could suggest a desire to create an industry-standard for online ads. How this will work in practice is anyone’s guess, but Techinsider suggests it could ‘lean heavily on new research Google is due to publish in the coming weeks about the types of ads consumers find unacceptable’.

Ads that don’t feel like ads?

One of the bugbears of using digital platforms is the disruptive nature of advertising: pre- and post-roll ads, commercials that break up our favourite shows, and display that hogs the page. Publishers recognise this and have been trying to encourage advertisers to make ads that don’t look or feel like advertising – either through involving them in the creative process or through encouraging sponsorship of original content that could reduce the reliance on static display advertising.

Going backward to go forward

Product placement isn’t new, but at the very conference digital publishers use to sell their new advertising initiatives to the ad industry – the Digital Content NewFronts get-together – this was being promoted as an alternative to traditional commercial slots for TV.

Talking at the conference Peter Naylor, head of advertising sales at online streaming service Hulu, offered advertisers the ‘chance to become part of the creative process,’ according to the New York Times.

“Goose Island IPA has signed on to sponsor our hit series ‘Casual’ and integrate into the show,” Mr. Naylor was reported saying. In the current season of “The Mindy Project,” he added, “not only does Mindy fall in love with her new Microsoft Surface Book, but she also gets to escape the city in her newly designed Lexus RX.”

Fewer ad breaks?

It may have been a one-off, but on February 29th this year NBC included additional content from its The Voice reality TV show in place of ads during commercial breaks in its network TV broadcast. The extra content was provided by American Express to promote a new credit card.; it took the form of interviews with past winners of The Voice, opening up a possible new avenue for sponsored content on TV that works in tune with the original piece of programming.

The New York Times said the event could ‘provide a glimpse into the future of television advertising’ and highlighted how other networks were experimenting with being less reliant on traditional ad slots. It’s interesting to note that away from broadcast television, many online publishers are also looking to breakdown their reliance on traditional advertising forms (for them this is ‘on page’ banner and display ads) by experimenting with sponsored content alongside their core editorial output.

Of course, only time will tell if innovations such as these meet their dual goals of offering the audience something with which they’d like to engage and offering the advertiser meaningful airtime or editorial space.

My hunch is that, as the consumer becomes more sceptical and tech-savvy, advertisers will increasingly have to serve them content that enhances their media experience. Otherwise, they will opt-out in their droves.