Are Ad Blockers Killing Paid Content Promotion?

by Katie Joll

There’s no question that content marketing can provide an effective boost to the visibility of your business, but creating that content is not where the story ends.

Content promotion is a critical piece of the exercise – without putting effort into promoting your content, how will people find it? Effective content promotion often involves a mix of free and paid forms of advertising. The rub here is that in recent years, there has been increasing resistance to paid advertising, with web and mobile users deploying techniques such as ad blocking software to try to avoid those ads.

The impact of ad blocking software is forcing a change in how marketers and content publishers look at advertising and revenue. Perhaps one of the starker examples is those publishers who have relied on advertising on their sites in order to generate revenue.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study suggests that “ad blocking produces a vicious, negative feedback cycle where less revenue for publishers results in lower quality content, which means even fewer readers and still less revenue.”

As a business that uses content marketing to generate visibility and relies on some paid promotion of that content, how does ad blocking affect you? What can be done to ensure you still have an effective content promotion strategy?

Get our quick guide to native advertising here

What is ad blocking?

First of all, it’s important to distinguish that ad blockers are a form of control that the consumer can take over the content which appears to them. Ad blockers are applications used either via plugins or browser extensions which either alter or completely remove advertising content from a web page. They can also block cookies, trackers and third-party scripts.

Web users will often turn to third-party applications like Adblock Plus to block ads from view. This app doesn’t automatically block everything, but allows some ads to show if they meet “acceptable criteria.” Users can opt to disable the feature and browse ad-free, however.

Unsurprisingly, research has shown that consumers choose to use ad blockers because they are fed up with their online experience being disrupted. This is with a particular view to some of the more obnoxious offenders, such as pop-ups, mobile ads which take over the entire screen and video ads (especially those auto-playing ones which won’t shut off!).

Truthfully, advertisers only have themselves to blame for this reaction. While the digital landscape provides us with many tools and opportunities to be relevant and useful, advertising often seems to remain stuck in the days of pushing out information to as many people as possible, regardless of the experience it creates.

The tactics used often seem to be less about the audience and more about the metrics for the advertiser, leading to some frustrating and disruptive experiences. Who enjoys those multi-page slideshows which seem to jam in as many ads as possible? No thanks – but a marketer somewhere is using this tactic to artificially inflate page views.

Internet users are choosing to take back control, something which, as Kirk Cheyfitz infers, the internet itself has got them attuned to:

“The Internet has thoroughly revolutionized the media business. Now it’s doing the same to everything else, giving people more control over their cars, homes, offices, refrigerators, thermostats, and so on. Such control is the addictive gift the Internet gives.”

Google and Apple getting onboard

Big players such as Google and Apple have seen the writing on the wall as far as the trend for ad blocking is concerned. Perhaps having a response to those third-party ad blocking applications has a lot to do with it. Google, along with Facebook and some other big players have joined together in the Coalition for Better Ads, a body which seeks to improve the consumer experience of online advertising.

One of the ideas behind this initiative is to set global standards for what “better ads” actually look like. Google’s Chrome browser won’t block everything, but it will block ads which don’t meet their criteria. (Somewhat cynically, many see this initiative as a “cartel” which is banding together in their own interests to get rid of some of the spammier ad delivery networks).

Apple has also come to the party, with latest versions of Safari having ad blockers built into them. “Reader mode” will allow users to read content stripped of ads, while they are also preventing automatic playing of audio or video without user permission. A couple of years ago, marketers saw mobile as the last “safe space” for advertising free of blockers, but these changes mean that is no longer the case.

The impact of ad blocking on marketers

So, how can you as a marketer of content expect to be impacted by ad blockers? Here are a few effects you may notice:

  • Tracking pixels may be prevented from “following users around the web.” Retargeting can be a valuable strategy, but ad blockers prevent this.
  • Facebook ads not getting the traction you’d like. There is a continuous battle between Facebook (which tries to block ad blockers) and the third-party ad-blocking apps. For example, Adblock Plus is always coming up with new workarounds to block Facebook ads. (Side note here: a user needs to be fairly dedicated to ad blocking on Facebook in order to avoid your ads. Unless they use the Microsoft Edge browser, there is quite a process to get through!).
  • You may have your banner ads, PPC ads and YouTube ads blocked.

Despite these potential impacts, you should also be aware that there are ways around them. To have a chance at getting around built-in ad blocking, such as ones used by Google Chrome, you need to ensure that your advertising meets their standards. For third-party apps, many allow whitelisting of sites which meet their “acceptable” criteria. (Some payment may be involved – Adblock Plus requires certain larger advertisers to pay up for whitelisting).

It’s also worth noting that most users of ad blockers aren’t actually militantly against advertising as a rule. Studies from HubSpot and from Adblock Plus showed that the majority of people are open to ads, as long as they are useful. 75% of Adblock Plus users said they accept that some advertising supports websites.

Content promotion strategies in the ad blocking age

It’s understandable that people are sick of disruptive advertising techniques, so perhaps a mantra to carry forward with all of your content promotion is “don’t be annoying.” You almost certainly won’t be whitelisted with ad blockers if you are.

Besides being mindful of ad blockers, this is a good policy to keep overall. Advertisers don’t do their reputations any favors when they persist with disruptive tactics. In fact, many consumers have expressed that they’d be fine with ads, as long as they were unobtrusive.

What should marketers consider? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Consider your target audience first. As HubSpot states, “consumer behavior should dictate strategy.” Does your audience use ad blockers? Those with less tech-savvy audiences may not, whereas those with savvy audiences (including a large cohort of millennials), may need to consider how they will reach their audience outside of ads.Understand what creates value for your audience – the entire premise of content marketing is based on delivering something that is relevant and valuable. Thinking about it this way, content may be your best strategy for promotion – at least it is still there while paid ads get blocked, giving you the opportunity of organic traffic.

    This extract from the book Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves, by tech journalist and NYU professor of journalism, Adam Penenberg puts it nicely:

    “Don’t rely on lazy ad banners and inane TV spots. Add value to my life. Tell me something I should know or would enjoy hearing about. In exchange I’ll grant you my interest – until you get boring or ask me for money like a subway panhandler. If you publish an article that is like real journalism, warts and all, that reveals something intriguing about the world, I might even buy your thingamajig.”

  2. Use native advertising channels. As Content Marketing Institute puts it: “Content promoted through this technique is positioned as useful, relevant information, which makes it less subject to ad blockers and “banner blindness” and more likely to be trusted.” Some sponsored posts may end up blocked, but as mentioned earlier, this tends to take some effort on the behalf of the consumer so may be less likely.The caveat here is that the native advertising must deliver that value as described in our first point. An article for Ad Age points out that: “Most native advertising today is thinly veiled advertorial, or worse, advertising dressed up like content.” Your audience will see this from a mile away – think value, value, value.
  3. Have a solid unpaid strategy. Getting back to that point made right at the beginning, you can’t expect that an audience will simply show up for content if you create it – there have to be efforts made to promote it. Here at Audience Ops, ours includes things like scheduling posts to social media channels, building an email list and staying in contact with them, and publishing to unowned channels with large audiences, such as Medium.
  4. Consider “pay to play.” Most ad blockers do have a means of getting your company whitelisted, although you may need to come up with the cash to do it. We’d suggest monitoring your paid advertising results for a while first and determining whether you might be significantly impacted by ad blockers. If so, assess whether “pay to play” might be worth it for you.
How does native advertising work? Get our quick guide here

Final thoughts

Are ad blockers killing paid content promotion? Well, the answer seems to be “yes and no.” While the use of ad blockers has increased, this doesn’t automatically mean a death knell to content promotion that is useful and relevant.

Know your audience and let consumer behavior be a guide for your promotional strategies. At the same time, have a reliable system for an unpaid promotional strategy. By all accounts, this makes content an even more important element in your marketing kit.

Let’s leave the last word with Kirk Cheyfitz for Content Marketing Institute:

“This is content marketing’s epic moment: Will the content folks be the ones to summon the needed courage and develop the strategic know-how to take over the selling tasks formerly performed by advertising? Only content marketing has a proven approach to transform ads and all commercial messages into something valued by real people, something that will attract attention instead of generating revulsion, something that will actually work for real brands across digital platforms.”