How digital advertisers can navigate ad-blocking and privacy tools

Elliot Mark, Ecommerce Platforms senior copywriter
By Elliot Mark, Ecommerce Platforms senior copywriter | 11 March 2021

In the early days of the internet, websites were rife with flashy banner ads, and there was relatively little that users could do about it. When speeds reached the point of being able to support video ads and more sophisticated animations, things became even trickier. The scales were tipped in favor of the advertisers — but then things began to change.

Spotting golden opportunities to make money and curry favor, developers began to come up with systems for defying the seemingly-endless proliferation of ads. It took some time for people to learn about these systems and get comfortable using them, but it happened, and they now stand on the verge of being truly mainstream.

The question for digital advertisers, then, is how they can do their jobs effectively when so many people are skirting ads and finding ways to prevent their personal data from being used for processes such as retargeting (aiming ads at people with existing brand exposure). Will they be driven into obsolescence, or will they adapt to survive?

It’s the latter that’s far more likely, of course. Digital marketers are nothing if not adaptable, and they’ll always find ways to keep going. In this post, we’re going to look at how they can effectively navigate the challenges of the ad-blocking age. Let’s get started.

Prioritise social media where ad-blocking is harder
There are two good reasons to put most of your effort towards advertising through social media. The first is that it allows exceptional targeting, leading to ROI that outperforms most other forms of digital advertising (particularly using the hyper-customisable Facebook Ads platform, complete with analytics perfect for AI-enhanced optimisation). The second is that it’s harder to block ads on social media platforms.

Desktop users will often refrain from using ad-blockers on social media sites because they tend to overreach and block content they actually want to see. Mobile users who can use browser extensions to block ads will generally prefer dedicated social media apps that can outright disallow ad-blocking. And in either case, social media sites have the formula just right, knowing how many ads they can show without pushing people away.

Concentrate on tracking through sign-up services
Relying too heavily on data collected without people knowing has become a serious concern in the wake of the implementation of GDPR in 2018. Not only are there potential legal repercussions to harvesting data in the background, but it’s also increasingly difficult to know how accurate that data is (making it far less valuable).

Consider the rising prevalence of proxy servers and virtual private servers (VPNs). The adoption rate for general use has been somewhat slow for various reasons — uncertainty about why they should be used, concerns about paying for them, fears that they may make things worse, etc. — but attitudes continue to change.

Somewhat ironically, VPNs are advertised far and wide. Data leaks over the years (along with the determination to watch foreign streaming services) have convinced people that they’re worth using. And anyone who can’t afford to pay can use a free VPN.

In light of this, it no longer makes sense to be passive and sneaky about data collection. The best approach is to be straightforward and collect data through sign-up services, whether they’re email newsletters or loyalty schemes. It’ll be harder to get data, of course, but the level of quality will be much higher (a VPN won’t matter if someone is logged in using their account details) and the risk will be much lower.

Use targeted ads that are actually worth watching
The problem with so many ads these days is that they offer nothing interesting. They’re nakedly self-serving promotional efforts, eager for clicks and nothing more, so it should come as no surprise when people seek to block them. And the less money marketers make from their ads, the more they opt for quantity over quality, leading to sites that are riddled with hideous banners.

This is obviously a negative cycle. Weak ads reduce ROI by pushing people away, and the result is an increase in ad creation to compensate, with a further reduction in quality being an inevitable consequence that prompts a further cycle. The only way to break it is through the steady use of good ads, slowly convincing people that they don’t need to block them.

That means no more obnoxious auto-playing noises, eyesore colour schemes, or pop-ups that force people to close them. The issue with this tactic, of course, is that it only works if everyone improves their ads — and that’s very unlikely to happen. Even so, it’s a good habit to get into. It’s never a good idea to associate your brand with time-wasting ads.

You should also consider the possibility of arranging in-content placements: in other words, having your ads play during content so they can’t neatly be blocked. They can be skipped, either manually or using extensions through which people flag them up, but that takes effort that many people aren’t willing to put in — and where regular digital ads tend to feel identikit, choosing a trusted YouTube creator can lead to people actually paying attention to your ads.

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