Climate change has made it clear to all but a few hardcore deniers that there are limits to what the Earth can endure. Centuries of wasting limited resources, polluting the environment and decades of ignoring mounting warning signs have led the human race to the point where it has to focus on long-term sustainability or eventually face a hostile future. The same is true of any ecosystem in which a delicate balance is required for all participants to thrive. After only a few decades, the Internet is already facing a similarly dire threat.
Rising adblocking levels
Obsessed with clicks and impressions, the digital advertising industry has come to rely on methods that are inherently destructive to the ecosystem of the Internet. PageFair’s latest data clearly shows that, while offensive and interruptive advertising formats such as interstitials and video pre-roll are effective in provoking a response, they are also causing an increasing number of people to turn to adblocking. Publishers are in turn finding it hard to survive, especially the “canary in the coal mine” sites that cater to the young, tech-savvy users that currently make up the bulk of adblockers.
Interruptive ad formats cheapen publisher brands and, If the advertising is particularly frustrating, traffic levels will drop as audience retention rates suffer. Ultimately, prompted by some egregiously offensive claim on their attention, visitors may come across the no-going-back stage of discovering adblocking. At that point, depending on what form of adblocking is being used, both publisher and advertiser have effectively permanently lost a customer.
Advertisers are shortsightedly burning through the content producers that are their channel to consumers, ignoring the fact that adblocking levels are rising and threaten to drown the entire industry. As adblocking spreads and publishers disappear, audiences will become increasingly difficult to reach, leaving advertisers with ever-smaller islands of consumers. Just as we need to consider planetary resources as limited and value them over the long term, marketers need to take a long-term view of both publishers and consumers, weighing their lifetime value rather than seeking to maximize results that may not even translate into real gain for the brands being advertised.
LEAN but still below the belt
The advertising industry is finally waking up to the realization that the system is dangerously out of balance. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) recently confessed that advertisers as a group “messed up”. The IAB’s new L.E.A.N. (Light, Encrypted, Ad Choice Supported, Non Invasive Ads) program is designed to try and bring advertisers back in line. It remains to be seen whether enough advertisers will follow the IAB’s lead and exactly how the L.E.A.N. program will be propagated, but it is even being welcomed by some of those currently trying to curb the tracking excesses of advertisers. We are, however, skeptical that it represents enough of a change in how digital advertisers today view their role on the Internet. The industry seems determined to keep acquiring data on advertising goals and conversions and it is difficult to see how this will work alongside a leaner advertising experience, stripped of tracking and script bloat.
Above the line (ATL), below the line (BTL)… are advertising techniques, or different strategies companies use to sell their products… In a nutshell, while ATL communications use media that are broadcast and published to mass audiences, BTL communication use media that are more niche focused. While both ATL and BTL communications can be used to either build brand awareness or drive sales through specific offers (promotions), it is BTL interaction that gives the marketer the ability to tailor their messaging in a more personal manner to the audience. ATL promotions are also difficult to measure well, while BTL promotions are highly measurable, giving marketers valuable insights into their return on investment. These insights can then be used to inform the next BTL communication to the audience and tailor the messaging based on the feedback received. Wikipedia
Digital advertising’s problematic focus on purely transactional advertising means that online increasingly means below the line. The race to the bottom epitomized by the worst ad formats is almost inevitable when brands and their marketers feel compelled to abandon approaches that are not highly targeted or likely to immediately result in clearly measurable results. Mass-media campaigns may not give the same feedback thrill as poring over data in Google Analytics, but the history of successful ads and those strong brands that have stood the test of time shows that they can be incredibly and lastingly effective.
Below the line advertising has its place in the marketer’s toolbox, but it is necessarily all about quick results and making a direct, measurable transaction with a customer. Above the line advertising is inherently aimed at long-term brand growth and exists as part of a strategy that looks to the future, valuing sustainable, incremental increases in brand awareness and sales, traits which appear more suited to dealing with the crisis currently facing digital advertising. Rather than trying to provide guidelines that still encourages short-term below the line attitudes, it seems to us that advertisers – and the IAB – need to think about how to redress the imbalance and start bringing online advertising back above the line.
Look to the past
Thinking about the way advertising worked before the Internet might help us all find a way out of this trap. It is important to remember that advertising thrived as a creative art before the Internet turned it into a numbers game:
The internet represents just 20 years of our four millennia of written thought but, because in that time it has snowballed so much information, its advent is often synonymous, in knowledge circles, with the beginning of time. This has created a generation gap in our collective epistemology so that there is strong reluctance, in the minds of those entering the industry now, to acknowledge that anything of importance took place before the 90s. And there is an entire pin board of limo billionaires on the West Coast to encourage them. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, if they bother to learn his name at all, is to them the humble architect who paved the way for the entrepreneurial genius of the frat boys. Giles Hedger
In How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp prizes the “mental availability” of a brand over precisely targeting and engaging existing customers. Making sure that a brand pops into the head of a consumer about to make a purchasing decision may be of far more value in terms of sales than trying to build a complex relationship with customers. The Ad Contrarian has also warned against relying on targeting and building a relationship with customers versus seeking to grow:
Advertising vehicles that allow you to “engage” and have “conversations” with your brand’s heavy users by promising precision targeting provide very limited opportunity to grow your business. In fact, they often distract you from your proper objective – attracting new customers. Bob Hoffman
Valuing the ecosystem: introducing the Channel Erosion Score
Rather than focusing on the horrifically small returns represented by clicks or impressions, marketers might see better results – again in the long term – by instead thinking more about how a particular website fits into the brand message they want to convey.
PageFair is well aware of the environment of distrust between advertisers and websites that has partly led to the current system of heavily-tracked metrics and so we know that this might sound impossibly idealistic (although the rate at which the current system is gamed seems to make it clear that it isn’t exactly preventing fraud).
In terms of data that might be useful in reversing the corrosive adblocking trend, advertisers might benefit from shifting their focus from the customer to the digital channels they use to reach consumers. Retention, time on site and adblocking growth are some very basic stats that can be provided by a publisher to demonstrate the value of their audience. Advertisers could then in turn track quarter-on-quarter movements in these numbers to provide a channel erosion score and assess the current value of different publishing channels. The numbers will show that any short-term flurries of clicks produced by interruptive advertising formats will eventually lead to a degradation of the publisher and a commensurate increase in adblocking and/or lower audience retention rates.
This is just one technical suggestion as to how digital advertising can recover from the threat currently facing it. We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below or on twitter.
On the same note, while it is essential that marketers consider the lifetime value of a customer, they need not keep tabs on individuals in order to gauge this value. Digital advertising claims to offer long-term relationships with customers because it provides such a complete picture of each customer. This seems creepily similar to how some stalkers imagine that accumulating information gives them an intimate connection to the object of their fascination. Stepping back a little and giving everyone room to breathe could actually be more effective for advertisers – and a lot less disturbing to Internet users.
A sensible balance between above and below the line approaches to advertising might not only stem the flow of consumers disappearing into the rising sea of adblocking. It might also be the best way for brands and companies to make sure that they can grow sustainably rather than face a grim world where transactions really are all there is and brands no longer have any value.
Exclusively focussing on a below the line approach to advertising has trapped us in a destructive cycle. We need a sustainable mix that looks more like how advertising looks off-line. Digital advertisers need to act now to rebalance below the line activity with more above the line advertising that does not depend on tracking and interruption. Just as the planet is telling us that we cannot continue to burn through our resources and pollute the environment, adblocking is a clear signal that digital advertisers need to change their attitudes before the entire ecosystem of the ad-funded Internet collapses.