Most of us have implicitly understood data tracking as part of the Faustian bargain we have made with the internet: we get to consume all of this amazing free content, and in return we have to endure adverts and privacy violations. Ad-blockers represent a technology that challenges this status quo, allowing users to enjoy a different kind of internet experience - without excessive ads or data tracking. Essentially, ad blockers show people what a cookie-free internet could look like.
Advertisers have been looking the other way and ignoring the growing “threat” of ad blockers for a while. However, ad blockers are more popular than ever before: according to eMarketer, an estimated 27% of internet users in 2021 have an ad blocker enabled on at least one device.
Not only do users of ad-blockers show us what the future of the internet might look like, they are also hastening the arrival of that future. Quartz reports that “Thanks to Firefox, Safari, and ad blockers, roughly 40% of US web traffic now comes from users who block third-party cookies”. The popularity of this technology means that the cookie-less future is already upon us, to the great dismay of many brands and advertisers.
Ad blockers are popular because they lead to faster load times on webpages, improve battery life, and help protect the user’s privacy. Because of these advantages, ad blocking is a growing phenomenon. Estimates vary, but research suggests that more than 200 million people worldwide now use some sort of ad blocking software. The proliferation of this software has meant massive losses for advertisers: DCN reported that those losses amounted to somewhere between $16 billion to $78 billion in 2020.
However, rather than simply bemoaning the threat that this software poses to their bottom line, advertisers should see ad blockers as the canaries in the digital coldmine. The growing use of ad blockers represents consumer frustration with online advertising methods, which are becoming increasingly intrusive. Consumers download this software to show that they won’t stand for this kind of advertising any more: they have had enough of both the ads, and the tracking that enables them. According to Hootsuite, over 30% of the people who downloaded ad-blockers cited the intrusion of ads and privacy concerns as their primary reasons for doing so.
Until recently, advertisers have pretty much ignored consumers' complaints about intrusive ads. They’ve also turned a blind eye to the inaccuracies and fraud that come with a reliance on cookies. Instead, they have leaned into the strategy of cookie-based targeting, largely writing off the users who have installed ad blockers and instead focusing on making sure they have as much data as possible on the users who don’t use this software.
Publishers, however, have not ignored the message that lies behind the increased popularity of ad blockers. In paying for ad blocking technology, consumers are essentially saying that rather than accept ads in return for a “free” browsing experience, they would rather pay for an internet that does not include ads or tracking. Publishers have responded by offering consumers more and more paid subscription options, allowing publishers to become less reliant on advertisers for their revenue stream. Major publishers offer their own subscription packages with content that is only accessible behind a paywall (think of The New York Times, Washington Post etc) whereas smaller creators can offer subscription models on platforms such as Patreon and Substack.
Advertisers have to accept that ad blockers are a growing problem, and not one that is likely to disappear anytime soon. In addition, the increase in restrictions surrounding cookies, and the blocking of third-party cookies from all major web browsers mean that advertisers will have to radically rethink their methods for online marketing.
If traditional forms of programmatic advertising are no longer working, advertisers will be forced to look elsewhere for ways to reach consumers. Advertising has always been about figuring out what people want and providing that to them. Advertisers will have to keep doing that, but their methods will have to change. They'll have to find new ways of reaching and engaging their audience and making their advertising targeted and relevant without relying on cookies.
One approach is to embrace influencer marketing. This involves enlisting content creators, influencers and thought leaders to promote their brand. This kind of advertising doesn’t rely on identity tracking - instead you are targeting customers by identifying the kind of content that appeals to your core audience, and working with the creators responsible for producing that content.
Another approach is contextual advertising. This involves associating ads with content, so that ads are relevant to what the user is looking for. This approach also means that advertisers can target a certain audience: the kinds of people who are interested in content related to their product or industry are a self-selecting target audience.
Ads are still crucial for funding the free content that makes up the majority of the web. If consumers are finding them annoying enough to actively pay money not to see these ads, we need to rethink our relationship with free online content. Advertisers can lead this charge and work to fundamentally change the relationship between ads, content and consumers. If publishers have responded by fencing off their content, and making it accessible only to those that have the ability and means to pay, advertisers can take the opposite approach. Rather than being the “villains” of the internet, they can rebrand themselves as the “heroes” who democratize internet content by making it available to everyone.
In order to restructure the way that consumers view ads, brands would do well to partner directly with content creators. People who use ad blockers don’t think of themselves as blocking a source of revenue from the sites and creators they enjoy online. They haven’t fully thought through the relationship between advertisers and quality content. Advertisers therefore need to make that relationship explicit: everyone, regardless of their financial situation, can enjoy this great content without paying because it has been supported and subsidized by advertising.
If brands can position themselves as the supporters and defenders on an open, democratic internet, with integrated, relevant ads that consumers don’t mind watching, then ads will no longer be viewed as pesky annoyances that people pay to avoid.
Get in touch to discuss how to jumpstart your brand’s influencer marketing campaigns and find the right content to wean you off your reliance on cookies for good.