Do people actually care about ads, privacy or control?
Adam Freeman, founder of Mutual Media, is the man behind AdPlus, a project to banish bad ads from the web by allowing consumers to control what they see. So what better person to provide a fresh perspective on the state of online advertising, privacy and consumer engagement...
There is an interesting debate going on between the advertising industry and those that look into it from the outside about what's best for the consumer. The subject of this debate is who controls the digital screen; the user, the content provider, the technology enabler or the regulator?
And the reason for the debate? Data. Or, rather, who has the right to know what, and what can they do with the information is at the heart of the issue. I am afraid (though not sorry) to say the technology enablers and their brilliant work have made everyone else take notice.
Each party is approaching the topic from their own perspective and I would argue that all are failing to listen to each other or to the consumer:
The regulator thinks they know best and need to protect weak citizens from aggressive market forces via one size fits all initiatives like the cookies directive and the upcoming data protection legislation.
It is hard to see that these initiatives are really helping to inform or protect citizens; more likely they will just confuse people and depress market innovation. I love my Volvo XC90 but feel depressed when I see what happens when I visit their website to find my local dealer.
The advertising industry hopes they can 'trade' their way out of trouble. Cross industry initiatives like 'AdChoices' are designed to reassure the other interested parties that the market can be trusted.
Voices within the advertising community like to remind everybody that people like 'good' advertising, so please let them do what they do best and everything will be OK.
Creativity is being replaced by direct response messaging and users are starting to block ads, let alone just ignore them."
The unavoidable context here though is that the industry players have market positions based on scale and creative control and so are naturally protective of what they do and how they do it. Unfortunately the consumer is a 'passive' target audience, waiting to be interrupted or entertained in this world.
The technology sector has undoubtedly changed the way advertising is created, bought and sold between the various elements of the media industry ecosystem. The rise of real-time audience on demand planning/buying and single media owner cross platform audience delivery is light-years away from the old days of the paper booking form I used when I started at the Guardian in 1992.
However, this disruption has not broken the rules of the trade, rather it has reinforced them - the bigger the buy or sell the better the value created for the advertiser and the buyer. It has not really produced the long tail opportunities seen in other markets such as search marketing and classifieds.
In fact one could argue that the display market is still ripe for 'disruption' especially if you subscribe to a very well argued definition by Andy Rachleff on TechCrunch recently:
"Business models, not products, are disruptive. People sometimes say a technology is disruptive. It's more appropriate to call the business model disruptive. In order for a company to disrupt, the revenue and cost structure of the incumbents that the company faces must keep them from responding."
Content owners are now under even more competitive pressure to provide something exclusive, compelling and relevant enough to keep users on their pages so that they can show them ads or encourage them to buy something. However, the majority of content owners are output driven and focused on their content (the exclusive and compelling parts) and not on their users (the relevancy bit). Their business strategy needs to be designed around loyalty, but what they originate everyday treats all users the same.
There is enough insight now to suggest that consumers understand the trade-offs between free content and ads."
This leads to tensions in their business models and a short term rush to over-commercialise what users they have today by blasting them with ads. If you look at the top-line market stats it appears that the average UK user sees over 2,000 online display ads a month - no wonder performance metrics are falling, creativity is being replaced by direct response messaging and users are starting to block ads, let alone just ignoring them.
So what about the users? Do they care about any of this? Well it depends who you talk to. As recently discussed by Colin Strong at GfK in these pages, users are starting to install ad blockers and it is clear that all ads on all platforms can be blocked if consumers want them to be.
The browser providers are interesting here, insofar as they have not actively tried to encourage all ad blocking like they did with pop-up blockers. Google never would but Mozilla or versions of Mozilla might just, and how much would you bet on Apple only allowing approved ads on Safari at some point in the future.
The advertising industry generally thinks people don't care about ads unless they are funny, clever or very relevant. There is enough consumer insight now from lots of sources - GfK, IAB, Value Click and our own YouGov study here at Mutual Media to suggest that consumers understand the trade-offs between free content and ads. The difference is they want to see more relevant ads than they do today and the tools to do this are hidden from them. Here's where I think the business model can be challenged and that could lead to real disruption finally.
The truth is going to be somewhere is the middle of all of these vested interests and my plea is that we all start working more collaboratively to give the consumer more of what they want. There is so much to play for here;