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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Unbridled Tracking and Ad Blocking: Connect the Dots

March 2, 2015 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN@jason_kint

Last week, I had the pleasure of kicking off the Op/Ed event with a talk called “The Profitable Publisher: Unification & Survival.” As part of my presentation, I shared a couple of charts that caused a bit of a stir among the audience of media execs charged with leading their organizations digital media ad sales businesses. The fact that these particular slides triggered such a reaction struck me as particularly timely because later that day the White House released its proposal for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which would require companies to clearly communicate their data practices to consumers and give them more control over what information is collected and how it is used.

The first of these two charts is a Ghostery map illustrating all of the third party connections and cookies that are set with a click on the St. Louis Post Dispatch site. Each of these connection points is a call to another 3rd party server.

As you can see in the labels, some of these are for operations of the site (e.g. analytics or serving of a display ad). But you can also see that there are over 100+ additional connections.  Not a pretty picture. The issue of the disturbing number of intermediaries tracking consumer behavior has been well documented and, unfortunately, ignored by most.

This problem is only getting worse and the consumer tools that counter it are getting less effective and more and more damaging to those who respect the consumer’s right to understand when and why their activities are being tracked. Transparency and providing the consumer with adequate control over their online privacy are vital—not harmful—to businesses that are built on a solid foundation of trust. However, the fact that there are so many (potentially) bad actors out there, and so much tracking going on for unclear and potentially unwelcome reasons leads me to my second chart: a look at worldwide AdBlocker adoption. worldwide ad blocker adoption (source: @adobe / @Pagefair report).

See the hockey stick curve? That is the result of consumers who want to avoid seeing any ads at all.  It isn’t shocking that there are those who cite the reason “I hate advertising.” But another documented reason is “I want to protect my privacy.” And let’s face it: A lack of trust in online advertising behavior reinforces either perspective.

It is not new to hear that some consumers want to enjoy ad-free content experiences. Some demonstrate that by paying for content without ads. But the use of ad blocking tools creates a slew of issues for content creators that rely on advertising to fund content creation. It also doesn’t effectively address consumers’ underlying concerns.

The Ad Blocking companies (AdBlock Plus being the leader) have what looks to be a pretty subjective criteria for which ads it deems “acceptable” and which are “obtrusive.” But even if working with their criteria would get a certain percentage of ads viewed, that is not a viable solution. The reality is that when one blocking solution is neutralized, another will crop up. Addressing individual blockers is not the answer.

We need to address the root cause of the problem. Online advertising is trusted less than any other form of advertising. When we see examples like the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s approach to online advertising, we shouldn’t be wondering why consumers are flocking to ad blockers in droves. (Why wouldn’t they?) We should be doing what it takes to repair consumer trust in the digital ecosystem.

Connect the dots.

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