Have you seen that episode of Black Mirror where ads can sense when you're not actually watching them and harass you until you do? Even if you haven't seen the show, you can probably understand why the news about Twitch becoming the latest company to create ads that circumvent ad blockers might seem like the beginning of the end to some.
Of course, simply having an ad show up on your screen is a far cry from the cacophony that ensues in the aforementioned Black Mirror episode. Yet, it's difficult to understand exactly how companies and users benefit from this kind of advertising.
For example, how are brands going to benefit from serving ads to consumers who don't want them? Aren't platforms like Facebook and Twitch just irritating their own users in order to give their ad partners a larger (but less-interested) audience?
In a post this past May, one of Reddit's largest subs, r/Technology, asked for community feedback about banning all websites that require ad blockers to be disabled. The feedback was pretty one-sided:
"Do it please," wrote one Redditor. "I won't click on them anyway, but I would just as soon not have to see the link." The response got 2,486 upvotes.
"The best way to encourage responsible ad sourcing is to cut into the revenue from the standard model," wrote another. "I say ban away." Another 3,251 upvotes.
And those comments are in relation to websites that ask users to allow ads. Now websites and media platforms are doing away with the choice altogether and, instead, are creating ads that bypass ad blockers altogether. And, still, my question is: why?
Well, for some users, ads that circumvent ad blockers can be quite helpful. For example, higher-level users that are partnered with platforms like Twitch may rely on the site's ads to earn income.
"I see no problem with occasional ads on a site like Twitch, where all the content is available for free to begin with," Ellohime said over email. "I'm not sure if people realize that Twitch shares that ad revenue with content creators, like me. So you're not only supporting Twitch… you're supporting us [creators] too."
Ellohime uses an ad blocker himself, and he isn't opposed to his followers using them. The way he sees it, if people like what he's creating, they'll do what they can to support him: "I always have asked my community, 'Hey. If you're enjoying the content on the site and want to support it, whitelist the page. If not, more power to you.'"
The Landscape of Ad Blocker Circumvention Today
Earlier this year, Facebook created ads that would circumvent its users' ad blockers. According to recent earnings reports, the strategy was pretty successful. In Q3 of 2016, Facebook reported an 18 percent increase in desktop ad revenue, which Facebook CFO David Wehner directly attributes to the ad blocker workarounds.
In essence, Facebook just wants to keep ad revenue increasing, as would any other business. However, Wehner's attributing desktop revenue growth to only reduced ad blocking isn't wholly convincing, especially given Facebook's recent reporting errors concerning video ad metrics.
We should also remember that "correlation does not imply causation." That is to say that just because two variables appear to fluctuate together does not mean they have a cause-and-effect relationship.
Regardless, Twitch seems to have been intrigued by Facebook's example and has now announced its SureStream technology, intended to give Twitch more control over how their ads are delivered.
Twitch hopes to make ads less disruptive for its users by fixing too-loud volume settings, glitchy ad playback and faster removal of problematic ads. The ads will also be displayed regardless of ad blocker use.
Does Improving The Ads Make Them Less Intrusive?
Now, of course, websites like Facebook and Twitch want to make money from advertising in order to stay in businesses and keep their investors interested. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that.
However, forcing unwanted ads on your own users doesn't seem like an amazing business strategy. Then again, I don't work in advertising, so let's ask someone who does.
"People tend to install ad blockers when confronted by particularly invasive advertising, which often appears on the worst parts of the web," said Dr. Johnny Ryan of PageFair, a company that specializes in serving ads on "The Blocked Web" or the internet as it appears to those using ad blockers. "The often unintended consequence of users installing blockers on bad sites is premium publishers find their ads blocked too."
Ryan says that, through surveys, PageFair knows that "the great majority" of people who install ad blockers aren't opposed to seeing respectful ads on premium publishers' websites.
"[T]he publishers who we work with to show respectful ads on the blocked web experience no negative user feedback at all," he says. What's more, Ryan says ads served around ad blockers have similar clickthrough rates as those served to people without ad blockers.
"The marketer no longer needs to shout over all the other ads to be heard," he said." Simple, respectful ads on the blocked web work just as well as their more invasive counterparts on the regular web."
So, perhaps ad block users don't mind these ads because they're being created more thoughtfully than those that cause people to install ad blockers in the first place. If that's the case, the adoption of such ad technology doesn't seem so intrusive.
However, let's consider that, though well-meaning, the above reasoning supposes that people want to block the effects of ads, not the ads themselves. And since these tools are called ad blockers and not "effects of ads blockers," I'm guessing quite a few people using them mean to keep advertisements away, not just the poor UX caused by them.
Additionally, if brands find success with ad blocker circumvention, more brands are going to adopt this strategy. Eventually, we could see a "blocked web" that looks like our unblocked web now.
Is There A Better Way?
Chris Zook of digital marketing and SEO company WebpageFX believes there is.
In a recent post on the company's blog, Zook contends that ad blockers are not a problem for the digital advertising industry but, in fact, present a much-needed push for change.
"On the surface, ad blockers sound like marketing nightmares," Zook writes. "But at their core, they're industry challenges that give marketers the chance to innovate and adapt."
Zook cites entrepreneur and internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk in pointing out that advertising is one way to monetize your business, but it certainly isn't the only option.
"Online consumers are sick of identical ads that promise value propositions over and over again," Zook says. "Give them something they want and promote in a way that brings them to you instead of interrupting their experiences somewhere else."
One example that comes to my mind is American Eagle Outfitter's collaboration with College Humor to produce this amazingly entertaining April Fools' Day ad for a fake pair of jeans. I've not only watched this entire ad, but I also remember it. The same goes for numerous Dove campaigns, which have millions of views on YouTube.
This storytelling trend in online advertising and marketing isn't limited to comedic portrayals of brands or brands in specific industries, either. Many big name companies across a variety of industries have begun to develop their own full-fledged media studios in lieu of more traditional PR and ad departments. And the why behind that is pretty simple: it works. Again and again.
What we seem to be experiencing right now is a quiet, albeit hard-fought, revolution in online advertising. On one side: the advertisers who want to improve the ad experience and deliver an efficient message around ad blockers. On the other: the advertisers-turned-content-creators who want to not only make an ad, but to make something that people will love.
Both routes will be challenging in their own ways; it will be interesting to see how online communities respond to advances in each.