Mel Exon is managing director, BBH London, and co-founder of BBH Labs.@melex
Mobile web pages that load faster, less-cluttered screens and reduced bandwidth costs? It’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t accept what’s on offer from an ad-blocker. Which is why more than 200m users have downloaded one for desktop (source: Reuters, PageFair and Adobe) and, when Apple started allowing ad-blocking extensions for Safari in iOS 9, such apps shot to the top of the App Store charts.
Before we take our mobile marketing dollars elsewhere, let’s consider the issues surrounding this.
- iPhones and iPads may be outsold by Android devices, but recent PageFair data suggests they represent 52% of the mobile browsing market and 14% of total web browsing.
- A quick flick through this column over the past couple of years reveals shortfalls in the quality of mobile advertising as a consistent theme: our industry has been too slow to catch up with the shift to mobile and too quick to accept compromised, intrusive ad formats that suit anyone but the user.
However, I don’t think ad-blockers are the answer. First, content is like lunch: famously, never free to consume. Ad-blockers such as Purify and Crystal threaten the ecosystem between publisher, user and advertiser. Most publishers depend on advertising. If content isn’t paid for by advertisers, they stand to lose an estimated £14bn this year, or be forced to adopt a subscription model (in other words, the user pays), or the quality of the content drops through the floor. In all cases, the user loses.
The issue is less about the future of advertising and more about the future of the mobile web: we should proceed with caution
Second, the issue is less about the future of advertising and more about the future of the mobile web: we should proceed with caution.
Apple’s motives aren’t limited to protecting user experience and privacy, it is "giving away other people’s business models to support its own", as analyst Benedict Evans puts it.
Its model isn’t ad-based (Apple’s ad network runs in apps only and won’t be affected by the Safari extensions), whereas Google’s revenue is about 90% ad-based. Most significantly, this move also pushes publishers to develop native mobile apps to monetise their content. In one fell swoop, the future of content looks to be dominated by walled gardens of content accessible only for a price, and likely provided by the limited number of big players.
Even the developer behind the number-one ad-blocker app in the App Store, Peace, pulled it within days, explaining that such a unilateral application "just doesn’t feel right… if we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required".
So, what can a marketer do about this?
1 Lighten the payload. Advertisers should ask mobile networks and ad-tech companies how they are improving data collection and fixing the ‘cruft’ (poorly designed software) that slows load-times and increases traffic charges. Ad-blocking company Shine has called for ‘zero-rate’ ads, where users don’t pay for the ad data. Fostering greater trust is essential. Practise radical transparency.
2 Insist on putting user experience first. At one end, that might mean less-intrusive, simpler, contextually relevant offers and information (better digital display), and at the other, high-quality fare that people seek out and use (branded content). Either way, the answer is: make the work better.
3 Develop a better value exchange. Develop better social advertising that users are incentivised to share, and feel comfortable doing so; and smarter partnerships with relevant publishers, not blanket media buys that hammer reach over relevance.
Ultimately, I imagine a content environment where the user still wins – just not, perhaps, quite as Apple imagined it.