Ad Blocking: What Readers Think – And Three Tips Publishers Can Use
Over the last year, ad blocking software has transformed digital publishing. Readers are using ad blockers in rapidly increasing numbers, creating a ripple effect across the industry -- some would call it more of a tidal wave -- that impacts the very nature of how publishers make money. Trying to navigate this new reality, the industry -- ad technologists, publishers, and advertisers -- are talking to each other, when who they really need to be talking to are the actual users who read their content.
To better understand this sudden sea change in an industry where we earn our keep, Fell Swoop went and did just that, conducting one-on-one interviews and an online survey to determine how web users feel about ad blocking. Our findings were thought-provoking and gave us insights on this real and growing challenge to the publishing industry.
People Don’t Hate Ads -- As Long As They’re Good
We interviewed ten people, five who use ad blocking software and five who do not, presenting them with a variety of ads. The big takeaway? People are loyal to the content they care about and they want to support it. That means they don’t so much hate ads as they hate bad ad experiences. “I do not find it ethical,” said one person, “to punish the majority of websites, who are providing valuable content, because of the few ‘bad actors.’” Another respondent reported that, “Most, of the websites I use are supported by ads and using an ad blocker would harm them.” Another spoke to the sense of ads playing the same role as highway billboards -- they’re expected and not a big issue unless they’re eyesores: “Most online advertising isn’t that intrusive. Sometimes the ads can be interesting or entertaining.”
So what makes a good ad experience? We can sum it up in two words: mode and context. Mode is the state of mind that the user is in: Are users doing research at work? Browsing Facebook on a Sunday morning? On a packed train on their way home from work? That can make all the difference in how they perceive ads. Meanwhile, context can be determined by asking the following questions: Is the ad related to the content around it? Is it well-targeted? Because if it isn’t, it’s random -- and annoying. One example of an effective contextual ad experience is the ads you see in your Facebook stream. “I like them,” said a respondent, “because usually people on my timeline have the same taste, and I find new pages for things I didn’t even know were out there.” Events located near the user were also deemed worthwhile. “Give me something that is going on locally,” said another. “I like that as it’s actually giving me an idea of something I would like to spend my money on.”
Another variety of contextual ads are ones that shows up after you have searched Google for a similar product, for example, if you search for airline tickets to Miami and ads come up for hotel deals on South Beach. This is very different from being retargeted later, while looking at cute kitten pics on your phone. While the industry would say this is an effective ad experience, our respondents would disagree, and if there’s one thing we learned from our survey, it’s that careful targeting simply makes people less likely to use ad blockers.
3 Approaches to a New Terrain
So readers don’t mind -- and can even enjoy -- ad experiences, provided the ad accommodates for mode and appears in the proper context. Here are 3 tips to help publishers capitalize on these findings:
- Make ads a valuable part of the reading experience. One solution is for publishers to also be marketers, selling products and services directly that they know their readers like. For example, People has curated relevant products for its ecommerce store people.com.
- Publishers should ask readers at the start of their reading experience what kind of ads they want to see, and give them a series of options based on the range of interests the publication caters to, a page they see before they look at content.
- Publishers must work with advertisers to create entirely new ad experiences that are both targeted and capitalize on the interactive capabilities of the web and mobile.
With experience in product, graphic, and interaction design, Ryan leads the teams behind digital agency Fell Swoop's work for TIME Inc. and Condé Nast, delivering for titles such as The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and PEOPLE. Prior to joining Fell Swoop, Ryan helped define the product vision for AdReady, an ad tech company and Evri, a semantic news startup, and served as the Creative Director for a financial services firm.