Opinion

User experience is the key to surviving the adblockalypse

By Joshua Schnell | 20 July 2016

Most media companies will survive the Adblockalypse, but on the whole, the industry is going to have to start considering the cultivation of innovative user experiences as a top priority before it’s too late. This long journey we’re all on of rebuilding customer trust and intrigue isn’t as difficult of a task as it may seem on the surface. It all starts with providing excellent user experience. Both, fantastic content experiences and unique advertising experiences are the keys to turning the industry around. Right now, both experiences are severely lacking online. It’s time media companies stop focusing energy on debating the merits of ad-blocking and instead start focusing efforts on solving the biggest problem: the majority of content online is frustratingly difficult to consume, and advertisements are typically getting in the way of a great user experience not enhancing them.

As an industry, we have to admit, at least for a moment, that advertising placement online has taken a drastic turn for the worst over the last decade. As a result, ad-blocking technology has gone from a niche product aimed at tech-savvy users tired of being bombarded with display advertising to a universal solution for everything plaguing the internet today. As it stands, it’s going to be tremendously difficult to wrestle that panacea from consumer’s hands.

How’d We Get Here?

Simply stated, media companies have continuously prioritized short-term profits over user experiences. It’s started to add up. A poor experience is the first thing that stands out to users online. Consumers aren’t just installing ad-blockers because of data privacy issues (that’s a huge reason, as are data problems). Once we take a step back, it becomes evident that the largest driver is, in fact, a poor user experience. Too many ads. Ugly ads. Ads out of context. Ads that dominate the screen. Ads that are irrelevant. Ads that play video automatically. Ads that collect your data. Ads that sell your data to third-parties. Ads that deliver malware. Ads that kill your data plan. Ads. Ads. Ads. Here an ad. There an ad. Everywhere an ad-ad.

For the longest time, and despite better judgments, the solution to monetizing content online has always been “throw more ads on the page.” Is it a surprise that consumers have finally reached a tipping point?

There’s a reason Facebook is eating up the advertising market. There’s a reason Snapchat is collecting $40 CPMs. Platform audiences are rewarded with better experiences than they are getting with traditional media sites currently. In the case of these social platforms, the user experiences are so refined that advertisements are now considered part of the experience.

Advertisements can be fun. They can be whimsical. They can be memorable. Sadly, I can’t remember the last time I experienced that kind of ad on a traditional news website. Sure, it may be confirmation bias on my part, but maybe it’s not. In contrast, Snapchat continuously engages me with campaigns that capture my attention. I even share them with friends and family. That rarely happens on the media sites I visit.

How successful is Snapchat at advertising? Just ask Taco Bell about its Cinco De Mayo campaign:

“The average user played with Taco Bell’s ad for 24 seconds before sending it as a “snap.” In terms of unique plays — or the number of times individual people interacted with the ad — the campaign generated 12.5 years’ worth of play in a day, according to Snapchat.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Not only do people see the advertisements, but they’re stopping to engage with them. Consumers that read traditional online media, outside of platforms, are mostly reaching for the block button when ads pop up. It’s a huge difference in user behavior and that behavior is cultivated by companies who understand that users are trusting their brands to provide unobtrusive and inoffensive advertisements.

There’s only one way to the bottom of this ad-blocking quagmire. It’s simple, and often it’s often overcomplicated by those standing to gain in the industry. The industry needs to immediately start prioritizing the concerns of end users. A reader-first approach is the only solution. Solving the user experience is synonymous with solving the privacy and data concerns of end users, and it’s synonymous with growing ad revenue.

How do we turn this around?

1. Assume Ad-Block Users Are Never Coming Back

Let it go. Consider ad-blocking a pandora’s box. For most media companies, it’s probably too late. Getting someone to disable an ad-blocker is futile. It’s not going to happen. Media companies have ‘developed a past’. No matter what’s being said, or changed, ad-block users won’t believe us. We’ve lost their confidence. The only way out of this predicament is building a better solution for future consumers, and then keeping Pandora in that damn box the next time you start to hear her getting fired up.

How can we do that?

We should be focusing all of our energy on prioritizing user experience, and not short-term revenue gains. Start re-building content experiences for those who haven’t installed ad-blockers yet. We need to give those users every reason we can to not install ad-blockers.

Cut your losses, and start focusing on the future. Learn from the present and never let it happen again.

2. Steal A Page Out Of Snapchat’s Playbook

Advertising, at least in the foreseeable future, will always be the simplest way to subsidize content online for consumers. If there’s any debate about that, ask the brilliant minds working at Facebook, Twitter, and even Snapchat about their monetization strategies for the future. They’re all advertising driven. Advertising online isn’t going away. It’s getting contextualized.

So, what should we be stealing from Snapchat? Advertisements must be in-context. Ads should always be baked into user experiences, and ads should never-ever stand in stark contrast to a user’s expectation.

Hire smart developers. Build custom ad templates for your publications that fit into your experience. Create something new. Create something custom. Create something readers will want to engage with.

The next time a brand pitches you an advertising campaign, think about Snapchat’s Taco Bell campaign and its performance.

3. While You’re Playing The Thief, Steal A Play From The New York Times Too.

Take the reader-first approach. At The New York Times, 90 percent of digital earnings comes from just 12 percent of readers. The New York Times is now in the business of building experiences for their primary customer: readers. While their subscription model isn’t going to work for everyone, the general ethos applies to every publisher, large or small. Let your customers direct your design decisions, not advertisers (unless they have great ideas). Figure out what your readers want first, then determine how to incorporate advertising strategies into those features in a nonconfrontational way. Your readers won’t mind, and once advertisers realize just how engaged your customers are, they’ll embrace the opportunity to reach them.

4. Actually, Just Steal The Podcaster Ethos Too.

Podcasts are an interesting case study. Listeners are loyal, and they continuously sit through sponsorship advertisements episode after episode. There’s a reason it happens, though: podcast creators are very involved in the advertising process, and they handpick sponsors that will appeal to their audiences. Advertisements are shared in context, they provide utility, and they meet the audience’s expectations.

Media companies should be embracing the podcast ethos, which is very similar to both the Snapchat and New York Times ethos. Relevancy and context are the biggest drivers of consumer satisfaction when it comes to advertising. Neither of those things is delivered through automated auction systems.

Providing an optimized experience to content consumers can only be done in one way: selling directly to advertisers. Algorithms and bots will always underperform direct sales. It may change someday, but today it’s the case 100 times out of 100. Publishers, we should be embedding ourselves between consumer and advertiser, not trying to remove ourselves from the process.

Be the filter your audience needs.

Joshua Schnell
Joshua is the Content Marketing Manager at BuySellAds. He’s also the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Macgasm, a blog focused on all things Apple Inc.