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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Moving past the ad blocking arms race and back to the consumer

February 9, 2016 | By Phil Barrett, Senior Vice President—Purch

Ad blocking has forced the publishing industry to rethink its reliance on advertising, and several digital publishers have incorporated ecommerce and affiliate links as a way to diversify their revenue streams. Now, those same ecommerce links, previously considered immune to ad blockers, are the “latest unlikely casualty of ad blocking,” according to a recent article from Digiday.

While Purch’s ecommerce or facilitated ecommerce links haven’t been tangibly impacted, ad blocking – and this particular type – is forcing all publishers to rethink monetization strategy and user experience.

The Digiday article quotes Sean Blanchfield, CEO of PageFair, a startup that sells anti-ad blocking tech to publishers as stating, “There are no privacy or usability implications to e-commerce attribution; it is a simple practice that helps websites get paid for honest recommendations of products….it causes unnecessary financial damage to thousands of independent websites.

There is a valid point here. The impetus behind ad blocking was to prevent disruption and irrelevant noise on a page so the user could focus on the content. Yet, unlike most ads, ecommerce links are often directly correlated to the content provided on the page – and in the best cases enhance the user’s experience. Ad blockers have gone too far with targeting these ecommerce links, but this doesn’t mean digital publishers should panic. It means they should pivot – diversifying even further and providing additional value to users.

Increase loyalty by improving the user experience
Publishers should concentrate on building the lifetime value of a user (the total future potential) by exploring other ways to provide a better experience to keep them coming back. Creating valuable and relevant services, tools and content that serves the overall relationship is what will ultimately sustain the industry. Publishers who take a longer view by focusing on increasing the number of loyal users instead of increasing the number of page views and maximizing the yield of every interaction will not only end up winning against ad blockers; they will end up winning over users.

Some publishers are doing this in the most simplistic way – creating a highly-engaged and loyal audience by providing real value through highly specialized content. Focusing less on scale and more on quality can engage users for the long-term, while staying true to the sentiment behind “content is king.”

Another way to increase the lifetime value of a user is to design a loyalty program that recognizes and rewards the most engaged, frequent and long-term users, who often drive a large percentage of overall revenue. Some of the more experimental publishers may even offer an ad-free or ad-reduced experience to their most loyal users – or as an incentive to share their email address. This could persuade users to turn off ad blockers, especially as they become increasingly non-discriminative in discerning what’s true content and what’s not.

Engineer an ecosystem of services to regain control of audience interactions
With ad blockers ultimately dictating how a user experiences a publisher’s site, we’re likely to see the industry test new ways to regain control of how their audiences are interacting with content. Publishers specializing in travel have also excelled at this. TripAdvisor, Kayak and Bookings.com offer reviews and advice to aid their users during the research phase and when the consumer is ready, they can book everything they need, all within the confines of a single site and in a way that is untouchable to ad blockers. This model is not only diverse, but also encourages loyalty by providing a truly “sticky” service to users.

Not all of this has to be built organically. Resourceful publishers will also look for complimentary technologies or services and integrate those with their sites – or their mobile apps. Mobile apps are also a great way to re-claim control over the user experience and how ecommerce links and ads are integrated. The best part? Ad blocking apps that block ads within mobile apps have been rejected by app stores which means publishers are likely to retain control of their mobile experiences for the foreseeable future.

The future of digital publishing
Our peer group – the digital influencers coming up today – are likely to redefine the industry, and probably won’t even see ourselves as just “publishers” in the years to come as focus shifts to revenue augmentation through services and alternate models.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that 2016 will be an arms race between ad blockers and blockers of ad blockers. There will be no clear winner with one clear loser: the user. Users lose as ad blockers continue to take away the very control that attracted them to their tools in the first place. The important thing is to keep our focus on the customer relationship and move toward a future where a better user experience trumps short-term monetary gains.


Phil Barrett is a Digital Marketing and eCommerce Executive with experience managing cross-channel programs where he has helped companies and brands use technology and new media to drive measurable results across the marketing mix. He currently serves as Senior Vice President & GM at Purch, where he leads the Marketing & Shopper Services teams.

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