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Charlotte Mcmurray
Charlotte Mcmurray 1 April 2016

The Ad-Blocking Debate: Opportunity Or Threat?

Disruptive technologies can be scary, particularly if they’re disrupting a long-term stable revenue stream for your brand, but they’re also a very good thing, if you’re not threatened and motivated by change.

Disruption caused by ad-blocking is a good thing, but only if we want it to be.

It’s happened. The Ad-Blocking Debate has reached the ears of Government.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale states that ad-blocking technologies are acting as a “modern-day protection racket”, to the point where government intervention is required to stave off a threat that he likened to illegal file sharing.

This conveniently gave him an opportunity to drop in a reference to “the latest Muse album” to show how down-with-the-kids he is. I bet all those “millennials” will agree with him now.

He also used the opportunity to completely miss the point about ad-blocking, and file sharing, and whatever other change to the status quo will frighten big business tomorrow.

He’s a Conservative, so that shouldn’t be a surprise.

However, as modern digital types we have a duty to do better than that. Here are our musings on the big bad world of ad-blocking, and what you, as a marketer (and consumer!) should view it as. You may disagree (and if so, tweet us to discuss!), but either way – a change is in the wind whether business likes it or not.

Digital disruption Makes Things Better

Okay. So here’s the thing: Ad-blocking is a disruptive technology.

Disruptive technologies can be scary, particularly if they’re disrupting a long-term stable revenue stream for your brand, but they’re also a very good thing, if you’re not threatened and motivated by change.

Disruptive technologies force change in the status-quo by providing consumers a feature that they want, but have previously not been able to access. That’s a very good thing.  Free market capitalism depends on this kind of innovation.

At its most powerful, it can put existing business models at risk, because what’s on offer is so much better than what’s come before. This unfortunately causes the people whose cosy income is at risk to view them as a threat, and to react as if they’re a bad thing.

But, here’s the other thing: Disruptive technologies would not survive if they didn’t fulfill a need.

They also wouldn’t cause anywhere near as much trouble if the industry they were disrupting had just listened to their customers in the first place.

File Sharing Made the Music Industry Better

Illegal file sharing was a disruptive technology born out of consumers’ desire to access a wider selection of music, faster and more conveniently, at a price that more fairly reflected the massively reduced distribution costs afforded by digital technology.

They didn’t want to use music the way the industry wanted them to. They didn’t want to pay the way the industry demanded they do. File sharing gave them an alternative in a situation over which they had no control.

Did illegal file sharing require the music industry to reassess their business model and update it to fit with modern customer requirements?

Yes. It sparked a shift in the music industry’s offering that’s currently worth $6.9 billion per year, of which $1.57 billion is generated by subscription streaming services.

Did Woolworths go out of business? Also yes, but I think most music fans were more than happy to trade Saturday mornings spent trawling through dusty overpriced CD singles for the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of Spotify. They had every right to make that decision, so they did.

Free market capitalism, remember?

Illegal file sharing made the music industry better. Yes, it cost them some money along the way, but if they’d anticipated their users’ needs faster, they wouldn’t have been the ones to take the hit.

Uber is Making Taxis Better

Uber is a disruptive technology born out of consumers’ desire to get a taxi quickly and conveniently. It’s sparking a shift in the public transport industry that’s vastly improving overall user experience.

They didn’t want to stand in the cold waiting for a taxi that a dismissive telephone operator insisted was “just around the corner mate”.

They didn’t want to walk miles to a cash point, or spend hours queuing at a taxi rank.

Uber gives customers an alternative, and they have every right to use Uber instead of a black cab if it fits their needs better. In fact, the economy depends on them choosing the solution that best fits their needs. Free market capitalism.

Will the taxi industry have to step up their game? Yes. Will some of them be unable to keep up and go out of business? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Highly unlikely.

Some taxi companies are already starting to introduce apps and card payments (well overdue, but they deserve a pat on the back anyway, I suppose). They’ll do okay.

The ones who suffer will be the ones who refuse to listen to their customers.

Ad Blocking technologies (could) make Advertising and Publishing better.

Ad blocking is a disruptive technology born out of consumers’ frustration with being shouted at, interrupted and disrespected by advertisers everywhere they go.

It offers them a chance go about their digital lives without constant nagging demands on their time, attention and data plans from brands who have nothing valuable to offer them in return.

Customers are not explicitly being asked to accept ads in return for content – ads are being presented to them alongside content, and they are not given an alternative option.

Ad-blocking is giving consumers power in a situation where they have no control.

Will the spread of ad-blocking hurt publishers and advertisers? Potentially, yes.

But only if they continue to ignore their customers’ needs and preferences.

For advertisers and publishers alike, ad-blocking is an opportunity to do better by your customers, and interact with them as equals, rather than shoving a logo in their face when they’re busy perusing “The ten best times a dog and a baby chick made friends OMG NUMBER 7 MADE ME [random emoji] YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!”

Would that content exist if not for advertising? Probably not – it’s click bait that’s only created because of the capacity to float banner ads on top of it. If both of those things disappeared, is that really, truly a bad thing? Consumers don’t seem to think so.

Ad-blocking provides our industry with an opportunity to find an alternative. To trial new monetisation mechanisms, innovate and find new solutions that work better for everybody.

Will they work?

That’s for customers to decide. We don’t get a say. Not brands, not advertisers, not publishers, not the government. Free market capitalism at work.

It’s about survival

The brands who survive and thrive on disruption are those who understand that disruption is born out of need, and that where there’s need there’s opportunity.

Big business naturally fears disruption. But if you’re anything less than an established giant at the pinnacle of your success, disruption is an opportunity, not a threat.

We can solve this, just like Spotify solved illegal downloading and taxi companies are presenting viable alternatives to Uber (the app without the surge pricing is an extremely attractive option, if only they’d realise!).

If we’re honest, we know that our current advertising model is not in customers’ best interests.

Ad-blocking is telling us that we need to get moving with an alternative – and quickly.

Customers expect more from us as marketers. We need to start with that understanding, and rebuild our approach from the ground up.

Discover more about our thoughts regarding Return on Attention. Your customers will thank you for it!

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