Ad blocking: overhyped or advertising industry hell?

With increasing numbers of consumers buying ad-blocking software to ‘improve the user experience’ how should online travel players respond?

Ad blocking today, says the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), is just plain wrong and ‘a potentially existential threat’ to the advertising industry. For online travel businesses like pan-European travel metasearch Gopili this will be one of the biggest challenges facing them in 2017. Says UK Country Manager Rodolphe Morfoise-Gauthier: “Ad blocking usage is growing rapidly and it’s possible that in the coming years half of all users will be using them.”

In March this year, the IAB reported that 22% of UK adults were using ad block technologies, a rise from 18% reported in October 2015. In the US that number is even higher with e-Marketer reporting that in 2016, 32% of people used ad-blocking technology.

The practice poses some real challenges for correctly attributing where a user has come from. Morfoise-Gauthier explains: “For acquisition campaigns, you need to track results using reliable attribution methods. This used to be possible by placing a cookie on their desktop, but cookies aren’t that reliable anymore.”

But it’s not just ad blockers that are posing a problem for online travel brands. Private browsing also blocks cookies making it difficult to understand user behaviour and intent, as is a growing tendency towards cross-device usage. The problem for Morfoise-Gauthier then is this: how do you do marketing campaigns and attribute the right value to each acquisition channel if the ability to track isn’t reliable?

To understand the scale of the problem Gopili recently tested two different tracking tools - one being Google Analytics, the other, a third party tracker. “Between them there was a 40% difference in terms of clicks – it was huge,” says Morfoise-Gauthier, who argues that, “the main problem is that there are no real solutions - yet.”

Those tools that are available do one thing, such as address cross-device tracking, but not another. So what is Gopili doing to address the problem? While right now there are no easy solutions Morfoise-Gauthier has these tips:

  • Be aware that there is hidden value for your acquisition campaigns. It is tricky trying to understand the exact revenue generated by each acquisition campaign because of cross device use, ad blockers and so on that prevent you tracking accurately across each specific acquisition channel. So it’s important to be aware that some of the revenue generated might not have been recorded when reporting results.

  • Switch to a cost-per-click model. Because tracking the acquisition trail is difficult today, a CPC approach makes more sense.

  • Test independent tracking tools

  • Develop (this is a mid-term strategy) ID reconciliation tools that will enable cross-device tracking, for example

Identifying the root cause

Broadly speaking there are two main camps on either side of the ad-blocking debate. There are those companies selling ad-blocking software to end-users who are fed up with having their browsing experience interrupted by unwanted advertisements.

In the other camp, are those organisations which are, in principle, opposed to any form of ad-blocking. Their argument: that without online advertising there can be no free web, and instead advertisers should be looking improve the ad experience. As IAB puts it: ‘Advertising pays for the ability for nearly anyone around the world to type in any URL and have content of unimaginable variety appear on a screen…Advertising also subsidises the cost of apps, which can take hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, but are often free or low-priced.’

Interestingly, in September a major developer of ad-blocker software, Eyeo GmbHthe German open source developerof Adblock Plus, launched its so-called ‘Acceptable Ads Programme (AAP),’ which effectively allows brands to buy the right to place inoffensive ads in front of customers that actually want ads blocked. Also in September, however, trade associations, publishers, advertisers and agencies [those against ad blocking] including the likes of Google, Facebook, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, the World Federation of Advertisers, Group M and the IAB banded together to form the Coalition for Better Ads.

So it seems in both camps, there is a growing recognition that a ‘free web’ cannot exist without online advertisements. And the solution then, surprise, surprise, is to improve the online ad experience by putting the user experience first. After all, according to an IAB survey, 89% of respondents that installed ad-blocking technology did so to improve the experience.

This is a battle still to be won but the lines are being drawn. In November, CNet, the online leader in tech product reviews, reported that Darin Fisher, vice president of Chrome engineering, said that Google is focused on helping publishers and advertisers create ads that supplement – rather than detract from – the browsing experience.

Not surprising really considering that Alphabet, Google’s parent company generated $19.8 billion in advertising revenue in the third quarter of 2016. From a broader economic perspective, IAB point out that advertising represents $350 billion of US gross national product, and consumers depend on it to help make $9 trillion of annual spending decisions.

What is clear is that ignoring the rising discontent about how ads are presented and abusing the consumer’s good will is something that advertisers today do at their peril. As Jason Kint, CEO at Digital Content Next, a coalition member, aptly puts it: “No industry has ever survived by ignoring consumer needs,” he says.

Top tips from IAB include:

  1. Don’t be intrusive. Video may be touted as the marketers be-all and end-all but what users hate most are video ads that play automatically, as well as those that takeover a screen, flash or blink. In other words, advertisements that in any way, shape or form disrupt the web experience are an absolute no-no.

  2. Don’t pre-load ads. Prioritising advertisements over a person’s desire to get to great content is not a good idea! In other words, content should always come before advertisement; and ads should only load as they are about to be viewed by the user.

  3. Don’t gather data for the sake of it. The rapid race for data is slowing the web down and firms should limit calls for data and become more adept at using less of it. IAB recommends a consensus-based standard-setting process or agreed best practices. Calls for data shouldn’t slow down the user experience.

  4. Don’t deliver advertising that doesn’t meet standards of user engagement. All forms of traditional media have always had advertising acceptability departments and the digital world should be no exception.

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