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The Cold War: Audiences Versus Advertisers

Tom Sullivan

February 28, 2017
Tom Sullivan

I grew up during the Cold War and was both fearful of and fascinated with the geopolitical tensions between the USSR and the United States.  As a third grader, my classmates and I knew we had to duck under our desks in the event of an attack.  By sixth grade, video images of nuclear explosions were mesmerizing.  However, these haunting images also invaded my dreams. So, I sought to understand this world order by studying history, politics, war and peace.  In eighth grade, I became a mini-expert on the United Nations. By college, I won an academic honor at a National Model UN competition for brokering a peace deal. I like peace.

Somehow, I spent the last 34 years in the advertising wars.  In the early days, the wars were between brands competing for consumer mind share and preference, mostly through the best broadcast and print advertising.  For consumers, these were friendly times.  You could consume as much media as you wanted and essentially regulate how much commercial messaging you received.

Today, however, the ad wars are between the publishers/advertisers and the consumers they are trying to influence.  How crazy is that?  Since consumers are running their personal and work lives on every device, the stream of commercial messages they are bombarded with is incessant.  Incoming ad missiles!  You know the gig: you want to research a topic online and you have to endure flash ads, pop up ads, page-crawlers, video pre-roll, etc. This is not a happy audience experience.  Is this the context that advertisers want their brands to be presented in?

Advertisers are struggling now more than ever to advertise online without entirely disrupting the consumer or losing them amid the crowded, noisy digital space. But because this space has offered so many ways to reach the consumer, this unwelcome experience has become almost unavoidable. In reaction to this environment, consumers’ adoption of ad blocking software has skyrocketed. According the PageFair’s 2017 AdBlock Report, ad-block usage grew 30 percent globally in 2016 and now covers 615 million devices.

Publishers are fighting back in creative ways.  Forbes installed software to prevent users with ad-blocking software from accessing Forbes content. However, Forbes has also tried ways to keep those audiences engaged by allowing them to access their content if they sign-in via Facebook. This tactic provides Forbes with valuable email and profile data about these users.

While the ad-block wars escalate, we forget that most content is brought to us because advertising has paid for the costs needed to create and distribute that content. But if ad-blocking continues to grow, many publishers will see their oxygen cut off. That means less free, high-quality content.  If this battle goes on, no one will win.

Here are a few solutions that may pave the way to peace between advertisers, publishers and consumers:

  • Transparency: Data and cost should be made more easily available to advertisers so they can make informed decisions about the platforms they are utilizing. The goal is to deliver consumers commercial content that they are interested in that will provide them some sort of value, rather than just adding to the meaningless noise. More transparency of cost will help advertisers to better understand ROI. And it will reduce the waste and inefficiency which creates clutter in the first place.
  • Big Data: Technology and data are enabling intelligent marketing and smarter targeting. The commercial players need to invest more in intelligent targeting to reduce unwanted ads.   How about a future where ads and sponsored content are mostly valued by the audience?  This will increase the value of both the content and the digital real estate.
  • Aesthetics: When it comes to design and communication, less is more.  Eliminating some of the clutter will also increase the value of the content and the real estate. The advertiser will be able to increase conversions and commercial transactions.

To create a more than peaceful coexistence among publishers/advertisers and consumers, industry professionals must seek out innovative solutions that will generate a more welcoming digital advertising environment. Doing so will end the current ad-blocking wars.