As marketers approached 2016, it became clear that the industry-wide struggle with ad blocking was all-too real and that looking for a solution would need to take top priority.
One of the most popular ad blockers, AdBlock Plus, had its U.S. user base reach more than 13 million last fall. PageFair and Adobe predict ad blocking software will cost the ad industry more than $41 billion in 2016. Both the Interactive Advertising Bureau and World Federation of Advertisers have even recommended that the digital advertising community should focus on user experience over trying to grab the most revenue possible in order to combat ad-blocking organically.
Steve Patrizi, vp of marketing and revenue at Imgur, told Marketing Dive focusing on the user experience, however, isn't the best way to approach the issue and that "we're using the wrong language."
"We shouldn’t be talking about 'user experience,' because it’s far too easy to give ourselves a passing grade where ‘we didn’t annoy the user’ is considered acceptable. We should set a much higher bar for ourselves and focus on delivering user value," Patrizi said.
Patrizi added that Imgur has taken the "user value" philosophy to heart, even prompting a change in the way it works with advertising partners.
Social photo-sharing app Imgur, which has been likened to a "Pinterest for men," has over 150 million monthly active users, who are mostly millennial males. The platform provides an attractive bet for marketers looking to target that specific demographic, and Imgur knows it – which is why it helps pair advertisers with in-house creatives to ensure the messaging will resonate with Imgur's audience. This tactic helps keep users coming back while it helps minimize reason for using ad blockers on the app.
"We start every single brand engagement by asking ‘How can we deliver value to the user, while still accomplishing what the advertiser wants to achieve?’ As a result we’re seeing users literally asking for more advertising," he said.
Measuring impact and delivering value
Actually measuring the value someone receives from an ad has been an industry-wide issue.
Patrizi explained that ad and marketing campaigns are often measured by impressions delivered, clicks generated – possibly by clickbait headlines and unintentional actions – and even trophies awarded by other members of the advertising industry.
"Rarely do we see any metric that tells us a user received value from the ad execution," he said.
Ad-blocking is a "very clear signal" that people don’t find intrusive, invasive and annoying online advertising tactics valuable, Patrizi said, pointing out, "It's hard to imagine that the savvier and smarter advertisers will ignore that signal for much longer."
The solution, according to Patrizi, is to ask, "Am I delivering value to the user, and if not, what needs to change to make sure I do?" Patrizi told Marketing Dive the app recently had to ask itself these questions and went through "this exact process" with a campaign for eBay.
"EBay wanted to build stronger relationships with a hard-to-reach audience of young, tech-savvy males," he explained. "We went through an extensive exercise of exploring how we could deliver value to users and meet eBay’s objectives. We collaborated with them and their agency, Deep Focus, to develop a series of informational, educational, humorous and heartwarming posts that won them accolades and adoration from the people they were trying to connect with."
It might be a challenge to explore what your audience really finds valuable, and to then strike a balance between delivering a message and providing user value, at the same time, but it's an task to take on.
Meeting the millennial challenge
Marketers have enough trouble solving the millennial demographic without the added issue of ad-blocking, but in reality marketers and publishers have frustrated users to the point of installing ad blockers. Imgur's strategy, Patrizi points out, is to get in front of what he describes as "cloaked users" and build meaningful connections by delivering valuable content.
Part of this approach is what he likened to a localization strategy for entering a new marketplace.
"In many ways, the Internet is comprised of many different ‘countries’ of millennials, and each country should be approached with a similar localization strategy, which starts with really understanding the culture norms of that country," he said.
Patrizi provided an example of this strategy in action at Imgur, describing a campaign they helped shape for Old Spice.
"We worked very closely with Old Spice and their agency, Wieden & Kennedy, to ‘localize’ their marketing for the Imgur community, a process that involved bringing in ‘translators’ from our Content Partnership team who helped make Old Spice’s marketing super relevant and valuable for Imgurians," he explained. For the campaign, Old Spice used GIFs (silent-loop video clips) to "salute" fans and challenge them to a "GIF off," which was met with enthusiasm.
"As a result, Imgurians are literally begging Old Spice to continue running their ad campaign," he said. "Yes, millennials begging for more advertising."
Solving the ad-blocking issue
Despite some brands' success, and the inventive ways some platforms are applying to tackle ad blocking, the problem is still growing and the fix isn’t going to be easy.
Patrizi believes at the core of the problem is traditional ad campaigns that don’t offer value for the target audience – something that will require a complete change in mentality from marketers and the ad industry as a whole. However, he warns that the longer it takes for marketers to change their orientation, the more ground they will lose to faster competitors.
But directly fighting ad blocking software is a risky gamble.
"You won’t win through an arms-race of technological one-upmanship. Don’t focus on trying to disable ad blocking, because you’re only be doing more to irritate a user who is already irritated enough to use ad blocking. Instead, focus on earning their attention back. Deliver value, not annoyance," he said.