Ad blocking: How did we get here?

This past Yom Kippur, I found myself not only reflecting on the myriad sins, affronts and minor transgressions I’ve committed over the past year, but the recent and on-going controversy about ad blocking. Publishers working against advertisers, advertisers working against publishers and both working against the consumer – how did we get here?

I found the recent piece by Ben Thompson “Popping the Publisher Bubble” on Stratechery to be informative. While I don’t agree with all his conclusions, it is clear that the abundance of advertising inventory online and the scale at which advertisers need to operate have clearly created some misaligned incentives.

In traditional media, publishers created content and dictated the kinds of brands they wanted to advertise and the terms that they needed to abide by if they wanted to do so. That was the way it started in the online space as well, but then ad networks came into being helping advertisers gain scale. At first advertising on networks was bought based on the content of the sites, but soon it started to turn to the data on the users across those sites. Fast forward to today, where advertisers are doing all they can to aggregate as much data as possible about users and leveraging full technology stacks to activate that data across as many marketing activities as they can; publishers are often unsure how to leverage and control their data and deploying ads on their sites, which don’t benefit users or advertisers.

How can we fix this situation? One obvious solution that many people have commented on is to make advertising better. Of course. But how?

It is my belief that we need to affirmatively make advertising an integrated part of the overall consumer brand experience. We’ve all read the apologetic, privacy policies that talk about data usage and obliquely refer to third parties with whom the brand reserves the right to work with using that data. Marketing organizations largely follow this disjointed construct as well where advertising is an adjunct to brand experience marketing practices and treated separately with separate budgets, internal teams, partners (agencies) and objectives.

As the ones who pay for it, marketers are the logical place to start to build more trust into the advertising ecosystem. They would do themselves and their consumers a big favor if they started with more transparency about their data related advertising and practices, and actually communicated how these experiences benefit the consumer. Consumers have a right and a growing expectation that ads will be relevant to their needs and engaging. To do that, brands need data and instead of being evasive, brands should talk about how they are using data to enhance the overall consumer experience, including the advertising experience. What consumers wouldn’t want to stop seeing ads for products they’ve already bought?

As we’ve seen by the recent popularity of Ad Blocking software, many consumers are taking control themselves and eliminating ads that don’t enhance their experience. However, if those ads were relevant and enhanced the user experience there would be fewer complaints and engagement would be higher – see Google Search ads for example.

Many brands have already done a lot of the hard part. They’ve built loyalty programs and CRM infrastructure to capture data. They’ve built data security policies and governance. They treat privacy with the utmost of importance (with exception). From here, to refining some of their marketing practices and affirming how it benefits consumers should not be too big of a leap. For example, show consumers how data gathering and authentication helps to ensure they won’t see ads for the same product dozens of times after they‘ve already bought it. You can be sure the ads that result from these revised practices will be more widely accepted by consumers than the generic, “creepy” ones with which they are often overwhelmed today.

Will it be solved by next year so I can focus on my own personal shortcomings? I’m not sure, but here’s hoping that I and the industry in which I work can continue to make progress.