By Robb Snell, Director of Product, Guvera

Ad blocking has been an industry issue since the dawn of digital advertising. Recently it gained a lot of attention when Apple released new features on its iOS9 operating system that support sophisticated content filters, which can be used to develop an ad blocker for the default Safari browser and its in-app equivalent.

But regardless of Apple’s efforts, there will always be ways to safeguard against ad blockers and likewise there will always be ways to circumvent safeguards. The only thing we can be sure of is this is a war of attrition that’s tedious for all parties and regressive for the industry.

With debate raging about the long-term sustainability of digital media publishers, it seems logical to go to the root of the problem: Why are people so desperate to block ads?

In Australia from February 2016 to April 2016, the display benchmarks for all ad formats in all placements had a CTR of 0.03%; that’s three clicks for every 10,000 ad impressions.

This statistic is a coarse-grained representation of ad performance across the publisher landscape but as an industry average it says a lot about the digital media experience.

For every publisher that achieves a very reachable engagement rate of 0.3% there are nine publishers achieving close to zero engagement for the same amount of inventory. The type of media drawing a near zero engagement rate can only be described as destructive for user experience and it flags a lack of respect for digital audiences.

Part of the problem may be a general misguided perception that viewers just keep coming back for more. Viewers are coming back for content, but with tools like ad blocking, they’re finding other ways of improving their experience.

There are four reasons why viewers are so keen to find other ways to improve their experience.

Ads are often ugly, really ugly.

For those who remember the days when web developers first discovered the scrolling ‘marquee’ or incessant ‘blink’ tags, surfing the pre-Google web felt like something out of ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

While content has come a long way, the vast majority of ad products are still firmly rooted in 1996 with pixelated blinking, flashing, shouting creative and full-screen takeovers or strategic placements that rejig the entire page.

One solution to the proliferation of ugly has been the swing towards native advertising formats. Native ads have no set layout, meaning the publisher is responsible for the format and they can ensure the ads fit seamlessly into their product just like any other element.

Native ads have improved engagement rates across the board, though looking good is only part of the problem and native ad implementations often continue to suffer from poor execution, sneaky tactics or unimaginative strategy.

Ads don’t add value to the viewer.

The biggest word in any engagement-centric discipline is ‘relevance’. With so many competing media sources the importance of ad relevance is more extreme today than ever before and it falls into two categories: relevance to the individual viewer and contextual relevance to the rest of the publisher’s content.

The most effective type of data for targeting is always “first-party data”, data that a viewer will provide to a publisher or network to improve their experience. The murky world of “third-party data”, data pulled together from unrelated sources to embellish a viewer profile, has sent multiple waves of privacy concerns through the online community over recent years. Despite those concerns, there are many data management platforms (DMPs) available that integrate with third-party data providers and advertising platforms to make the audience segmentation process simpler.

The fundamental rule is if the publisher doesn’t have sufficient knowledge about their viewers to ensure ads are well targeted, they need to partner with a network to provide the extra layer of insight.

Ensuring advertising is contextually relevant to the rest of the content on a publisher’s site is another area frequently overlooked. Content marketing strategies have helped bridge the gap between publisher content and brand messaging, and they’ve yielded higher engagement rates purely because the message is more compelling. For most brands and publishers, determining the engagement rate remains the biggest problem. Whereas many platforms can easily host content, it requires a specialist feature set to isolate key milestones, guide viewers through a conversion funnel and deliver meaningful results off the back of a content marketing strategy.

Ads hound you.

One of the primary problems facing online advertisers is that traditional advertising is geared towards a one-hit victory and one view is rarely enough to get the job done. It’s generally accepted that multiple views are required to increase brand awareness and, if possible, multiple engagements are required to draw prospects through a conversion funnel.

The problem is compounded when an advertiser’s presence is often spread thinly across the digital landscape with the exception of their own website. Given most brand websites aren’t sticky destinations viewers return to regularly, advertisers need to find ways of luring back viewers who have already shown an interest.

The advertising industry’s solution for this is called ‘retargeting’, which allows brands to put a digital marker on viewers who have been to their site. While retargeting sounds like a major win for increasing ad relevance, it can also be an outrageously frustrating loss for user experience. More often than not retargeted ads only stay relevant for a fraction of the time they pursue you and when they’re on your trail it can feel like there’s nowhere to hide.

Ads displace the viewer.

Click fear is a term that describes the sense of dread and hesitation that comes just before a viewer takes the leap and actually engages with an ad. While it’s rarely that dramatic, click fear is real and even a moment’s hesitation is enough to dramatically reduce viewer engagement rates. There are a number of causes of click fear but the underlying issue is a general lack of trust.

Publishers are responsible for building trust for their audience and most of that comes from showing respect for their user experience. A good user experience comes down to the way ads behave once they’ve been clicked.

If a publisher were serious about user experience, building trust and driving engagement, they would find ways to bring the funnel to the viewer. If the publisher can guide the viewer through multiple touch-points with an advertiser without throwing them off the platform, the viewer stays in control of their journey and the publisher can guarantee a good experience.

Ultimately, the big winners in this space are publishers who take the time to know their audience and develop the right engagement tools for their advertisers to leverage. Innovative engagement tools delivering meaningful results for advertisers will continue to distinguish serious, premium publishers from the mass market and eventually viewers will get what they want one way or another.

The big losers will be publishers and ad networks who continue to rely on stock ad products and employ unsophisticated targeting features. Publishers who don’t take full responsibility for the experience of their audience will struggle to offer acceptable engagement rates and the value of their inventory will decline year on year. Likewise, ad networks persisting on a quantity-over-quality strategy for their inventory will see that while volumes grow, revenues will fall.

Ad blocking is a symptom only treatable by re-inventing the advertising industry in a way that puts the viewer back at the centre.

Publishers need to fulfill their obligations to their audience by providing viewers with a great experience spanning both content and ads. Advertisers need to recognise the digital audience is large but still finite. To ensure real results, advertisers should be creating experiences that attract viewers and support effortless engagement.

It’s clear that viewers have little appetite for a poor experience and if the viewers lose this battle then there will be no winners.