How marketers are responding to the rise of ad-blocking

Brands need to rethink their approach to online marketing—before blocking software becomes the norm

Shoppers try the new iPhone 6s

Shoppers try the new iPhone 6s. Apple’s latest operating system enabled ad-blocking technology on the platform for the first time. (Chesnot/Getty)

If advertising revenue is keeping the open Internet alive, ad-blocking software is wrapping its hands around its throat. Anti-marketing programs are a problem not only for publishers, who stand to lose revenue, but also for advertisers, who need to get their messages in front of consumers. The growing adoption of ad blockers is forcing companies to change how they market online.

The need to figure out a new approach is only getting more pressing, as ad-blocking software spreads from desktops to mobile devices. About 200 million people already use software to filter intrusive pop-ups. In September, Apple released iOS 9, touting the new mobile operating system’s ability to enable ad blockers. To fight the problem, the advertising industry is mostly focused on one concept: making ads better. It’s not exactly clear what that looks like in practice yet, but agencies agree that hyper-targeting, emotional branding and unobtrusive presentation are key to recapturing consumers’ attention before ad blocking becomes the norm.

The basics sound simple enough. “Respect the consumer. Don’t send endless ads down their throat,” says Ron Lund, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Advertisers. Online marketers haven’t been following those tenets so far. Pop-ups and pesky banner ads have dominated for the past 20 years, says Ted Boyd, CEO of One Advertising in Toronto. The short-sighted goal of getting as many ads in front of viewers as possible may have been to blame for the rise in ad blocking. “We in the digital marketing business have been devising increasingly complex methods of creating intrusive ads. They glisten, they jingle, they dazzle, they take a long time to load,” Boyd says. Tack on third-party tracking, and it’s little wonder ad blockers flourished.

But branding consultant Bruce Philp points to how Facebook is working with advertisers as a promising way out of the ad-blocking muck. He was in Cannes in June when the social media giant presented its digital marketing philosophy. Philp didn’t hear much talk of algorithms, clicks or eyeballs. Instead, Facebook representatives spoke about creating emotionally appealing video spots. “If Facebook is giving up on passive display, and they’ve got 1.2 billion users as a database to draw on,” Philp says, “there might be something to this.”

Take the #KissaLOT campaign, for instance. To promote Poland’s LOT Airlines over Christmas, Facebook used real-time flight-tracking data, Google Maps and its own ad-scheduling software so that when a LOT plane passed over a particular city, users in that location would see a sponsored post reminding them to share a kiss under the mistletoe. “If your brand is attached to an experience in which I learn something, or that entertains me or makes me laugh, then I’m going to tolerate the advertising message,” Philp says.

Ad blocking could push marketers to do a better job of targeting campaigns, too. In partnership with Lexus, Facebook mined its audience data so that it could show more than 1,000 variants of a 30-second car commercial tailored to a particular user’s specified interests. Music lovers, for example, might see a pair of high-end headphones in their particular video ad. Someone who covets handbags might get a version featuring a designer purse. The result? A reach of more than 11 million Facebook users and 10.8 million video views.

Working more closely with publishers on creative campaigns can also help bust through ad blocking. Marriott teamed up with Reddit, which attracts a marketing-wary crowd to begin with, to ask users to create a pitch about why the hotel chain should send its “teleporter” (an immersive booth equipped with an Oculus Rift headset) to their home city. The pitch could be anything from a song to a drawing to a video. The Reddit community voted on a winner, who received a free holiday prize. The campaign generated more than 230 million social media impressions and won Marriott a Webby advertising award earlier this year. For Boyd, it hit all the appropriate markers: It was a non-intrusive, contextually appropriate ad that also delivered value through social engagement.

The good news is that consumers are open to being won over, and not all of them are opposed to advertising. A recent poll for the ad-blocking app Crystal revealed 71% of its users support the idea of “whitelisting,” or pre-approving, acceptable ads, for example. That should provide some hope for concerned creative agencies—as long as they keep the user in mind. “User experience is where the conversation begins,” Boyd says. “I’m not convinced that if we had provided ads that were relevant, contextual and loaded quickly in the first place that this situation would exist at all.”