The Bright Future of an Ad-Blocked World

This summer I read Isaac Asimov's awesome sci-fi novel The End of Eternity. I thought a story about time travel would be a pleasant escape from the present-day world of media and marketing I work in every day. Ha!


Cooper, coming from an era in which advertisement was not as wildly proliferative as it was in the later Centuries of Primitive times, found all this difficult to appreciate. He said, "Isn't it rather disgusting the way these people blow their own horn? Who would be fool enough to believe a person's boastings about his own products? Would he admit defects? Is he likely to stop at any exaggeration?" …. Advertisement! A device for forcing the unwilling into line. Did it matter to a ground-vehicle manufacturer whether a given individual felt an original or spontaneous desire for his product? If the prospect (that was the word) could be artificially persuaded or cajoled into feeling that desire and acting upon it, would that not be just as well?" — Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity (1955)

Amazing how Asimov's 60-year-old ideas about advertising are so in sync with our contemporary moment and the outrage so many of us feel toward online ads. (Imagine if Asimov had lived to see the rise of the pop-up!) Even more amazing: The notion of a world free from all of that artificial persuasion and cajoling isn't science fiction. It's about to happen.

The Change Has Come — Ad Blocking Isn't a Software Feature, It's a Cultural Movement

I believe strongly in the acceleration of history, that the only constant we can expect is ever-quickening change, and I believe we're witnessing a great quickening in the evolution of the media industry. Consider just the past several weeks: Facebook's roll out of Instant Articles; Google's plans for Accelerated Mobile Pages; the launch of Apple News; and, most importantly, Apple's enabling of ad blockers. It feels like that moment at the top of the first peak on a roller coaster, when you hang suspended, knowing you're about to plummet and there's no going back ... and it's awesome!

Lots of smart and thoughtful people have weighed in already on the inevitable rise of ad blocking and hosted content on social platforms, the ethics of opting out of a supposedly implicit contract (bad advertising in exchange for free content), and how this will bring about the slow death of the free web. However you might feel about ad blockers, I'm pretty sure there's consensus on one point: We hate online ads.

Ads annoy and interrupt us. They track us, follow us around, and report back on our behavior. And they slow down page loads, making us wait … and wait … and wait for what we want. Can you blame people for wanting to block them?

The problem is that online advertising, as we know it, has broken the fundamental relationship that connects publishers, brands, and the people they're both trying to reach. But the solution isn't ad blocking or abandoning the open web altogether. We need to recognize this critical moment as an opportunity to rethink the way publishers, brands, and people connect with one another online.

Cross-Platform Social Properties

For the past decade — as founding CTO of The Huffington Post, and now as founder and CEO of RebelMouse — I've tried to help publishers and brands understand how the social web can enable more genuine connection with the people they're trying to reach. At RebelMouse, we've been lucky to work with a wide array of publishers and brands, including some of the most forward leaning and eager for these changes. We also work with some who are struggling with the changes, realizing that perhaps they've spent the last 15 years learning skills that now dead-end at an ad block.

The inevitability that Facebook and other social platforms will host their content has only deepened their fear and panic. I've talked with many who can accept that there's a short-term gain for publishers to hand over their article pages, but that ultimately it's long-term suicide. But I believe that resisting and failing to adapt to this new era of distributed content is suicidal.

In this new world, publishers and brands can't be mere destinations or unwelcome interruptions. They need to acclimate to the media ecosystem they now share with their readers and consumers, who live their lives in the feed, expect great content to find them, and demand to have a voice in the conversation. They have to become cross-platform social properties that understand distributed content and provide homes for subcultures and communities of interest to take root and thrive.

For publishers, it means understanding that static websites and legacy platforms are tying them down and holding them back. You can publish the greatest content ever imagined, but unless you are social at your core, publishing to all channels and devices, distributing your content far and wide, and engaging people in an ongoing conversation, your online presence is little more than a front door waiting to be knocked.

It's also a chance for publishers to break free — finally! — of the banners and pop-ups and auto-playing videos and all the fraudulent traffic they bring. We've already seen what a viable post-display-ad web can look like thanks to properties like BuzzFeed (whose founders are RebelMouse investors and advisors) and others that are all in on native advertising. No, not all native ads are immune to ad blocking, but the format has proven to be genuinely engaging — and we're only beginning to see how good it can be.

Brand Publishing at Scale

For their part, brands and marketers need to follow publishers' lead and start acting like new media companies. That means becoming publishers — or working with publishers — to create content with an authentic voice that enables them to be at home in the feed. By focusing more on creating and publishing their own content, brands can connect directly with consumers and turn them into a loyal community.

A lot of brands are understandably hesitant to become publishers. It's not easy! I've talked to several who are traumatized by their disastrous — and expensive — experiences with microsites. Some have decided to pass on the idea of creating social properties altogether, opting instead to live only in the feed. But as much as distributed content needs to flow out and find its audience, it also needs to flow in and bring the audience back to something they can hold onto, a place where community can live.

Of course, marketers can't expect to wake up one day, decide they're going to become publishers, and proceed to kill it out of the gate. Red Bull Media House has been around for nearly 10 years and has some 850 full-time employees. That's not scalable across industries. Red Bull is the outlier, not the standard.

But that's changing, and that's why we're working with clever and awesome content creators, with chops honed at media companies and creative agencies, and providing a platform to make it scalable. And whether you're Red Bull or Kleenex or whoever, every brand can find a way to connect emotionally with people by telling them stories they love and want to share.

Turning Connection into Conversion

Brands can then go further and turn that connection into conversion. CMOs already understand the importance of data and creating systems that optimize around key metrics. Once they catch up with new and emerging media companies in the content game, brands need to make sure that the key metric of conversion to purchase is part of every piece of content they publish, tracking across every device and channel it reaches.

Here's an example: If an airline is starting to get good at publishing, they will have to start learning concretely how each post they create is working. This means using new media data to understand social discovery before and after they hit publish. But it also means tracking conversion so that the content creators can learn from each post, every day.

So, let's say the airline's content team produces an article in listicle format: "13 Cats Who Can't Control Their Excitement One Second Longer." The article might do a million page views, but it probably didn't sell them a single extra ticket or mileage program. Then, they try an article like "13 Dogs Who Are SO excited to Travel with You," and maybe it gets them only 250,000 page views … but converts to 1,000 new tickets sold and 5,000 new mileage programs. By adding this conversion data into every article they produce they'll be able to experiment with new media in a way they can truly learn from, and that can truly drive their business to grow quickly.

This is the great opportunity to come for brands and publishers in the world. They should lift up their hands and scream as they take this first plunge. And as they lean into the curves and corkscrews ahead, they should think of that line from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "Here we are now. Entertain us!"

The audience that's waiting for you in the feed means it earnestly. Here they are now. Don't artificially persuade and cajole them. Entertain them. Let's join the future Asimov imagined for us and make advertising a thing of the past.

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