The best way to beat ad blockers? Let them win

Kurt Gessler on 2016-04-18

That’s right. They are victorious. Shelve those lawsuits. It’s the only decision that makes sense, really. And if you’re expecting misdirection or a Swiftian modest proposal here, you will not find it. Ad blockers were engineered to solve what many perceived as a problem — lack of value in display ads relative to their nuisance and risk. And to be honest, digital publishers have only themselves to blame.

I’m tired of reading posts like “7 possible ways for publishers to deal with adblockers.” They always dance around the problem — publishers are rife with lousy ads for products you’d never buy. The solution, if there is one, is to understand and accept why ad blockers exist and, in turn, co-exist with their existence.

Before I begin, it’s important to limit my scope. I’m neither endorsing nor rejecting strategies like paywalls, sponsorships, brand content, micropayments, video ads etc. Those all may have a role in a comprehensive business strategy. I’m focusing solely on ad block-vulnerable display ads for this discussion.

Sites, and to a lesser degree, apps, have been larded up with mobile-toxic ads, crafted with little care to shill merchandise that a brick-and-mortar retailer would embarrassingly keep in a back room behind a black curtain. IAB standard internet display ads like banners have proven ineffective, especially on mobile.

Even as audiences have transitioned to smaller screens, agencies and reps have clung to old advertising philosophies. This has created user experiences ranging from awkward to terrible. There’s the data-hogging slow-to-load interstitial takeover ads, replete with a high degree of difficultly to close.

But that’s just the first onslaught. Once you get past those, this is the UX that awaits beneath. I count 9 words from the original article on an iPhone 5 screen.

Next is a comparative embarrassment of text riches, although you do have to navigate around two ads on that same 1136px by 640px screen.

And navigating around is exactly what people are doing.

According to benchmark data from Google’s DoubleClick, traditional non-native display ads saw an average click-through rate of 0.08%. Let that sink in. Less than one-tenth of a percent. Just how do you sell that to a client? “Don’t worry, one in every 1,250 will click on it — well, less those inevitable accidental ones.”

Will Federman is right. The click economy is stone dead.

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That’s why many publishers are resorting to desperate measures to buttress revenue. Super-saturating story-level pages with ad positions, serving non-viewable display ads that load off-screen, carpet-bombing articles with content marketing widgets and trackers, and autoplaying pre-roll video ads. These methods respect neither the advertiser nor your reader/viewer.

And let’s not forget about the $7.2 billion bot impression crisis that’s undermining the publishing industry. Even TV ads are looking good comparatively.

Given increasing fraud and inventory, it’s not surprising that the price of programmatic ads continues to plummet. The average display CPM (cost per thousand of impressions) for sports, politics and entertainment content runs $1.27 to $1.48. That’s not custom work or native ads; just raw tonnage. And it’s not making anyone rich. Well, almost anybody. In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent on online ads will go to Google or Facebook, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak.

In summary, publishers are waging a war for survival over 15 percent of the digital ad buy using a tool (display ads) that has diminishing efficacy and margins and is considered unpopular, bloated and invasive.

And readers/viewers recognize this. The Media Insight Project identified the top three factors that affect digital news experience as: ad placement, load speed and mobile-friendliness.

Naturally, smart people found solutions to parts of this problem. One innovation is mobile-first publishing platforms from three of Emily Bell’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse” — Google, Facebook and Apple. Google’s open-source AMP project, Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News offer clean and lean user experiences and rev share opportunities. Page loads are shockingly quick. But these also sever the ties between reader and publisher, ties already somewhat frayed by social discovery of news and atomization of content. And it’s the people who already have 85 percent of the revenue.

But no innovation has hit the digital adverting landscape as hard as the rise of ad blockers. PageFair said that software to block online ads hit 200 million worldwide users in mid-2015, with 45 million in the U.S. alone. Popular solutions include AdBlock Plus, Ghostery and Crystal. ABP alone is reportedly active on 100 million devices. And these apps will cost publishers $12 billion by 2020. Given everything we’ve seen — low value to the consumer paired with a high nuisance factor — who should be surprised? It was self defense; readers/viewers were just protecting their data plans and their dignity.

Why were they created? The evolution is basically a straight path. Narrowing margins prompted a few bad UX decisions (add a tracker, a content marketing widget). Margins narrow further; more bad UX decisions are layered and the problem compounded (10 ads on page; autoplay sound). Faced with this, developers created ad blocking apps to manage concerns that they publishers created. Welcome to today.

But what if the publisher — not a third party like Apple or ADP— addressed the problem created by, well, the publisher?

What I propose is that publishers create (or use) an ultra-light mobile environment where your site/app displays only high-quality, high-value ads that users would actually want to see — the Sunday coupons of 2016. You know, that towering stack of inserts that more than paid for the cost of the paper in 2007. People by the millions would get the Sunday broadsheet just for those coupons. What if digital display ads had that value? Ad blockers? They’d be disabled by choice.

My plan calls for a four-part strategy anchored by rethinking technology, design and value. In short, basically just giving a damn about the advertising experience.

1. Mobile-first approach

The next generation of digital ads must be built mobile out not desktop in. Your customers are mostly on devices that are interconnected to other devices; stop selling homepage takeover ads.

First, being mobile first will allow geotargeting via NFC, beacon or GPS. Proximity could help determine which ads to serve and when. This also could allow integration with other apps. If enabled, plot directions on Google Maps, put event info on your Outlook calendar, Kik details to a friend. Use these advantages to create a simple yet complete experience.

2. A clear value proposition

Every ad you publish should have some form of consumer value, the more direct the better. Kohl’s. Chipotle. Macy’s. Starbucks. McDonald’s. Kraft. Nike. Sara Lee. Event tickets. Pepsi. If I knew I could get 50 cents off my morning Peet’s large coffee or $5 off shoes, I may never disable an ad again. Again, the Sunday coupon approach every day.

Of course I might have just purchased coffee, so you’d need a platform to save the coupon to a secure keychain of sorts. See an ad you like, click it to save it, and later redeem it.

But why only offer static coupons? Publishers crave loyal readers who frequently visit rather than one-off visits driven by social. So rather than a set value on the digital coupon, why not use a progressive model with a cap? My Peet’s coupon could grow to $1 if I visited and activated the ad for four consecutive days. Of course, it could be redeemed at any time as well. Make sure the experience both encourages and rewards frequency.

And of course the most valuable part of these transactions — saving and redeeming — is the profile you start to build of individuals users. You not only know that user 201,950 visited these pages over his or her 92 second visit, but now you also know what offers got attention, were saved and were eventually redeemed. This allows you to better refine your messages (and offer).

3. Completely re-imagine display ads

So what would a display ad 2.0 look like? I find a lot of inspiration in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” especially the anecdote of marketing guru Lester Wunderman. In truth, nothing about today’s online ads measure up to his successful Colombia House “gold box” music club campaign. Is there a clear call to action? Are transactions through display ads frictionless? Are those ads practical and personal? Is the message sticky (memorable)?

What’s the call to action on the ad below? How is value communicated? The typography is small and hard to read. The “We See You” takeaway is fairly unclear — unless they just activated your laptop’s camera. It includes too little info to be useful and memorable.

Conversely, this ad is selling everything. Loudly. You get that there’s a sale, but it’s fairly impossible to determine on what. It’s just a full-on visual assault.

Or this.

All those ads pretty much deserve to be blocked. But in our model, ads will be designed to be clear and concise, putting the offer front and center.

Given the platform is mobile, there also should be some basic design rules, too. Ads should never be more than half your screen. Never leave a user wondering if a story is actually over, like those earlier examples. No ad should ever take you off site initially. The first click only expands the ad, offering swipe functionality for other features. Online publishers have trained a generation of readers/viewers to fear clicking on ads because you never know what malware-infested Petri dish to which you’re being re-directed.

So what’s a good experience? This is a start, although the design is meh.

This dude is playing June 2. You can buy a ticket. Simple and direct. Might be nice to hear his big hit. Expand and swipe. Maybe a deal on a concert T-shirt? Click and save. Maybe it also could check your calendar to see if you’re busy, or give you a map to the venue. Or even link to that Q&A your music critic just did with him. Ideally we might know if you personally like the artist based on iTunes or Spotify. But at least this is closer.

Maybe for that hot new movie you can expand an ad to watch a trailer, find a theater nearby, read a review and buy tickets. You see the product, you’re given necessary information even value in the form of a trailer, and then you can take frictionless action.

This kind of creation process and technology are pretty much the antithesis of backfilling your available inventory with nameless third-party programmatic ads. You care about the UX of your site. You care about the quality of your content. Isn’t it time to extend the same common-sense standards to your ads?

4. Better align ads with content … and eventually your users

Most publishing companies generally try to put travel ads with travel content and theatre ads with theatre content. But there’s insufficient nuance in that approach. Geography might play a role in a transaction. Time of day or day of week. A drink special ad isn’t just for entertainment news if it’s offered to a Wrigleyville bar, on sports content after a Cubs game to people within the GPS footprint of Wrigley Field. Or if you found a particular reader consistently saves and redeems coupons for a lunch special near his or her work regardless of what section the content is on. Time and proximity are key here. Does your ad serving software support this?

To accomplish this model you need a far more robust underlayment of ad types and categories. Sure, it may just be as simple as an ad for White Sox merchendise in a White Sox story, but it’s not that direct all the time.

I’m not suggesting most of this will be easy. In fact, it will be hard if not impossible, I freely admit. We’re talking new tech, new relationships and in-house design. It’s not ripping off a band-aid. It’s ripping a cast off while your leg’s still broken. But the business side of the internet is wounded and healing wrong. Publishers need to re-break the bone and reset it. And soon. Because we know the path we’re on.

Am I suggesting you strip every third-party or ill-designed ad off your site tomorrow? No, not yet. But it’s imperative to start building a future without them and their waning revenue. Because here’s the spoiler — as bad as it is now, it will only get worse. One recent survey suggests almost half the people who didn’t use ad blockers only did so because weren’t aware of them. Not surprisingly, ad blocker usage in the U.S. is expected to double by 2020. We’re on the cusp of mass public acceptance.

You have 43 months. Innovate or die.

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