Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you are expending one of the world’s most precious commodities: your attention. You’ve probably noticed a full-scale war out there among various parties competing for it.
As with all wars, there are few big winners in this one. People who sell advertising, including publishers, are finding it ever harder to make money, because they have so many more competitors now. People who buy advertising, the brands, find themselves falling victim to increasingly audacious fraud, in a media landscape that's so fragmented it’s barely possible to reach a mass audience any more.
The biggest losers of all are we, the audience, the owners of the precious eyeballs. We rarely find respite from the onslaught of constant messaging today: everywhere we turn, from our phones to our built urban environment, is plastered either physically or digitally with increasingly-intrusive advertising. And when we want to focus our attention on something, we find doing so more difficult than ever, thanks to the constant stream of distractions aimed at us across all media.
One set of winners are the arms merchants—the ad tech entrepreneurs who are forcing both brands and publishers to adopt ever larger and flashier and more technologically sophisticated messages, lest they get left behind in the global battle for consumers’ attention. But the collateral damage caused by this arms race is huge, especially when it comes to the most contested new theatre, which is mobile. Ad tech is killing the experience being sold by the phone companies—and now, finally, the backlash has arrived, with the new iPhone operating system.
It took me less than a minute, after upgrading my iPhone to iOS 9, to download an ad blocker and install it. It didn’t work as well as I had hoped, truth be told: it turns out that I consume a vast amount of content in apps outside of Safari, and the ad blocker only seems to work effectively in Safari. But at least I felt that I was doing something, fighting back on a digital terrain which is being degraded on many different fronts by a set of revenue-focused product managers who simply do not care about my experience.
There’s some evil factory out there churning out ever more dastardly ad units. The pop-ups are long gone, now, replaced by virtual pop-ups, or “modals,” which are very hard to get rid of and often require you to watch video before you can read the text you want to read. At USA Today, there’s a modal that actually shows you a story you don’t want to read. You must manage to click away from it before being allowed to read the story you were trying to navigate to in the first place. On many sites, ads have now become “sticky”: even when you scroll down, they just sit there at the top of the page, never going away, taking up precious screen real estate and generally making you want to punch somebody.
The beleaguered consumer has only one way to fight back, and that's through ad blockers. The younger and more tech-savvy you are, the more likely it is that you’ve installed an ad blocker in your browser—and now there’s a very good chance that you’ve installed one on your phone as well. Consumers don’t install these things because they think publishers have no right to make money from advertising, and they don’t generally install these things out of some deep-seated anti-advertising ideology. Instead, they install these things just because ad blockers vastly improve the experience of reading and surfing. Pageload times go up, distractions disappear, and the signal-to-noise ratio of the internet immediately skyrockets. What’s not to love?
Ad blockers are not a mortal threat to digital media. Ad revenue will always end up flowing to where the attention is, and since our attention is directed mainly at our phones these days, that’s where marketers are going to spend their billions. But the message being sent by the popularity of ad blockers is crystal clear: you can go too far. Installing ad blockers isn’t easy, and most consumers won’t bother—until they get very annoyed. Once they reach that point, they’ll just block everything.
So, publishers and ad-tech entrepreneurs: enough with the arms race. Stop trying to sell ever more bothersome and intrusive advertisements in a desperate attempt to raise ad rates a tiny amount. It’s a tactic that is manifestly self-defeating, and will only result in Google and Facebook winning everything.
Instead, go back to first principles, and ask yourself how to best communicate your message to human beings. Is it by being annoying? Or is it by respecting your audience and showing them things they like and want to see? Ad blockers, if we’re lucky, will put an end to the unedifying ad tech arms race. Let’s hope that from here on out, the best creative, rather than the worst technology, will win.