Rock around the block

There’s a war going on in the web browser. On one side, users and geeks deeply frustrated with the ever-more intrusive (to both privacy and screen experience) advertising that pollutes web browsing. On the other? Publishers, corporations, the advertising industry and the biggest tech companies in the world.

Sounds pretty one-sided, right? Well, it is. And the users are winning.

Adblock Plus is the most popular way to filter commercial messages – from banner ads and pop-ups to interstitials and autoplay videos – when you browse the web. With 198 million active users (mostly tech-savvy web super-users who are among the most interesting to advertisers) it’s already blitzing a sizeable chunk of online ad revenues – as much as $41bn next year, by some estimates.

Apple’s latest operating system, iOS9, includes ad-blocking functionality. Already Adblock and scrappy start-ups like Crystal have shown not only a commercial free future for iPhone and iPad users – but that going ad free means vastly faster page load times and much lower data usage.

We can expect those massed ranks on the other side of the battle to roll out some pretty big artillery to get around what could become a norm for browsing on the move. (And, of course, increasingly few people browse only on the desktop.)

Three things immediately spring to mind in light of this development.

First, people don’t like ads much. Making them more intrusive, far from boosting their effectiveness, simply turns people off even more. Most brands have actually known this for a while, which is why content marketing is a thing in the first place. Ad-blocking hitting the big time just makes it more obvious – and the easier it gets to block, the more people will do it.

Second, publishers are in trouble. In a very interesting piece on this phenomenon, Casey Johnson points out that big media’s twin revenue streams of subs and ads are both now broken – and both have been declining for years. Here’s the thing: they know that too. Which is why we’ve seen the emergence of a rash of content marketing, native advertising and sponsored editorial units at most of the majors.

Third, the content platforms are going to do very well. Johnston makes the point that many publishers will effectively become content providers for the likes of Facebook and Google. They already know everything about you – and it’s much harder to block their ads.

What does this mean for brands?

Invest in content. But, critically, they need to get more and more confident about commissioning material that’s genuinely useful or entertaining to readers. Professionally crafted words and pictures that don’t have a “gotcha” sales message, or are bowdlerised corporate-speak, are the key to avoiding a deeper level of reader switch-off.

What does it mean for content creators? More work. For every campaign that gets switched off because marketing people are waking up to the fact that digital ads are either not viewed by humans or filtered by adblockers, there needs to be something else – ways to project corporate image and create conversations a different way.

And for readers? This one’s easy. Jump on the ad-blocking bandwagon. But here’s the thing. Switch it off on sites you know, love and trust or stump up for a subscription.

However much we can help shape the content marketing industry to be creative, un-salesy and positive, we all need independent voices online. That means we have to pay for it somehow.

Taking back the web from the Mad Men is a noble fight. But it’ll be a phyrric victory if, in winning the battle over online ads, we allow Facebook to win the war for eyeballs.

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