Ever since Apple announced that it would enable "content blockers" (Apple-speak for ad blockers) in iOS9, we have seen a flurry of media and industry attention on this issue.
The reality is that this has been an issue for far longer. AdBlock Plus has been available on Chrome (the world's No. 1 browser) since 2006, and if we want to go broader, ad blocking has been around since at least the 1950s, when the first TV remote control was invented.
However, it is now when digital ad spending has hit critical mass, and mobile is beginning to erode TV viewership, that this becomes a "major" issue for brands and content creators alike. There are obvious things most marketers are already thinking about or doing, such as ramping up investment in content marketing, branded content, and native advertising. However, being on the content/publisher side, I want to provide our partners on the brand/agency side with a different perspective on this issue and urge marketers to consider the following:
Understand the (mobile) user
Most experts attribute the rise of ad blocking to three main issues: slow load times, increased data costs, and privacy concerns. I agree with all three, although I feel the first two are the major drivers, and have the potential of pushing ad blocking into the mainstream.
The New York Times published a great infographic (make sure to toggle to the "cost per page" tab) on the cost of mobile ads for end-users. In it, the data shows that users of many mainstream mobile sites have to pay upwards of 10 cents in data charges simply to load the advertising that is bundled with the content they elect to consume.
So while many have pegged this as a moral "right versus wrong" argument, I see this differently. As a user, I feel our industry is failing me. Trying to access content on my mobile device is a challenge, and I catch myself thinking twice before clicking on a link I find interesting for fear of being hit with pre-rolls, overlays, or simply very long load times for a piece of content I intend to "snack" on rather than indulge on a five-course meal.
Currently, the IAB is developing best practices that encourage publishers to block or limit users with ad blockers. While its goal may be to stem the tide under the banner of fairness, this strategy is not practical in my view. There is simply too much competition for users' attention for this to work. Instead, we will all have to innovate quickly in order to make the mobile user experience a great one and to grow our business in this environment.
Big data can sometimes be too big
I write this only half-jokingly. There is tremendous value in leveraging data in marketing, we have all seen it. However, when it comes to the mobile user experience, every bit of data makes a difference in content load time and data costs. As a content provider, I can attest to how simply reducing 1 second of load time can often lead to disproportionate increases in traffic. Everyone in digital publishing gets this, however, I am afraid that is not the case for everyone in marketing. This is a chronic problem in digital advertising today.
Marketers make viewability a mandate for digital ad units, at the same time they are pushing a 2 megabyte ad (tags plus actual creative) into a mobile device, which by the time it loads will have been scrolled over by the user. This unit was never given a shot at being viewable, and it slowed the content down and cost the end-user money.
I believe this is the result of trying to port over desktop tactics (and executions) into the mobile environment. I ask you, does a 30-second pre-roll make sense in a mobile environment? We all know that some of the most successful mobile apps have thrived with 6-second video (see Instagram, Vine). If a 19-year old influencer can connect with an audience in 6 seconds, shouldn't a brand be able to? Publishers and advertisers, we have all been guilty of this and in the process have created a suboptimal, sometimes outright poor mobile user experience in the process. We need to fix this, quickly (see next point).
Pay attention to the big three
Apple, Google, and Facebook are all playing important roles in this issue. While Apple is taking the heat for allowing ad blockers into their ecosystem, Facebook brought the underlying issue of poor mobile user-experience to light when it launched instant articles, with the goal of not only developing a mobile-only experience, but also limiting the number of ads and ensuring faster load times.
Now that Apple is allowing ad blockers on Safari and pushing Apple News as an alternative for your mobile content feed, Facebook will have to respond quickly. It surely doesn't want its users browsing on Safari or Apple News instead of the Facebook mobile app where most of the browsing takes place today. It may enable the same content blockers on its native app, or ramp up instant articles.
Google, for all its investment in the digital advertising ecosystem, will have to react. Its first move is AMP, short for accelerated mobile pages, which tries to improve the mobile user experience while preserving at least some of the advertising originally associated with that content. Ultimately however, if Apple and Facebook are providing a better user experience, Google will also have to be aggressive in order to keep Android relevant.
All of this points to the very real possibility of a private internet, a new 1990s AOL-type walled garden if you will, and the open web as we know it becoming irrelevant. This will undoubtedly favor content creators that have scale, as it creates significant barriers of entry for small content creators, who in the past could get distribution (Google and Facebook) and monetization (SSPs, exchanges) out of the gate on the open web.
If we move to a "private internet" model, and to a certain extent we already have with Facebook and Google (YouTube) becoming major gatekeepers (really the only companies that can deliver video at scale today), advertisers will face a future where they will have to buy most of their eyeballs from these companies and, in many cases, accept their metrics and data as the currency for media buying.
If the "open web" user experience doesn't quickly improve, the big three will fix it for consumers. The giants will gain even more market power and, in the process, limit content creators and advertisers alike. Let's get to work!
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