The day after tomorrow: when adblockers stop all martech platforms

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Not everything that is important in marketing can be quantified or automated. Soon, we’re going to have to remember that fact.

But first, let me take you back to a little theory. There have always been two main categories of advertising: brand and direct response. Brand advertising aims to build long-term brands by communicating desired, subconscious messages to mass audiences over time. Direct response tries to get immediate, trackable responses from a specific group of people or set of contacts.

Brand advertising is most of what you see on TV, print, and radio. Direct response includes sales catalogues, junk mail, email and PPC. Brand advertising can be beautiful and magical. Direct response is often tacky and annoying. Brand advertising cannot be tracked. Direct response can be tracked. There are pros and cons to each.

Some 20 years after the birth of the modern web, many digital marketers are now ignorant of the benefits of brand advertising because they have become addicted to direct response campaigns and metrics and therefore think only in those terms. Why build brands when you can use such tactics, see immediate results, and tweak them as necessary?

The selling point of digital ads has always been that they are directly trackable and use precision targeting. But remember: the assumption that reaching 'perfect' individuals returns a better ROI than targeting a broad demographic group has never been proven.

But Machine Zone co-founder and CEO Gabe Leydon reinforced the idea of trackability and personalisation last year when he told a Recode event that all untrackable marketing will disappear:

“Once people have insight into how they’re spending their money, brand marketing will completely disappear… marketing will become a justified business. You will have to justify what you’re doing.”

But Leydon seemed to be unaware that both direct response advertising on the Internet and martech in general have one fatal flaw: people do not want to be tracked online.

Ad and script blocking

The web existed for two decades without people wanting to know how to block online advertising. So, why is it happening now?

Linux Journal editor Doc Searls found the answer. He used Google Trends data in late 2015 to show in the Harvard Business Review that the rise of adblocking has specifically correlated with the appearance of retargeted advertising:

Retargeting was the straw the broke the web's back. People hate it.

Retargeting in online direct response campaigns has turned the marketing industry into drug addicts on the path to suicide. We like the constant highs of the purchases and conversions, but all of those hits are eventually going to kill us once consumers have had enough and block ads altogether.

I work in marketing, and I think retargeting is creepy. It’s one of the reasons that I have four advertising and script blockers as well as a VPN when I browse the web. I do not want people like me collecting my personal information.

As Faris Yakob has noted, online direct response marketing is only one small step removed from the dystopian reality that we saw in the 2002 film Minority Report:

Before the ongoing brand safety crisis in display advertising erupted, I wrote in a prior column for The Drum that adtech might be doomed and martech will survive. But in the near future, martech will face its own set of problems.

The most popular martech platforms such as Google Analytics, Hubspot and Marketo use Javascript code that customers place on their websites. Here’s the issue: adblockers not only block a lot of advertisements from loading but also prevent those scripts from running.

Think about the implications: anyone who uses an adblocker will stop both ad networks and martech platforms.

An analysis by Jason Packer, the principal consultant at Quantable, found this in a December 2015 report that was updated in June 2016:

Packer estimates that more than 100 million people are using at least one blocker that either blocks Google Analytics by default or can be easily and quickly configured to do so.

But that is only the beginning. I took a quick tour of some of the largest news and marketing software websites and captured everything that was blocked by Ghostery in screenshots. Here’s what I found:

For those who cannot read the image and for my own point of emphasis, I will list all of those companies whose adtech or martech were blocked in that small survey sample.

BlueKai. Brightcove. ChartBeat. Crazy Egg. Disqus. DoubleClick. Dstillery. eXelate. Facebook. Gaug.es. Google+. Google AdWords. Google Analytics. Google Dynamic Retargeting. Google Tag Manager. Hubspot. Intercom. Moat. LiveRamp. Lotame. Marketo. New Relic. Omniture (Adobe Analytics). Optimizely. Outbrain. Perfect Audience. Quantcast. ScoreCard Research Beacon. SimpleReach. Spot.IM. Tinypass. Twitter. Visual Website Optimizer.

Gone. All of them. All it took was a quick download and a couple of clicks. And that was only one adblocking platform out of the many that are available. The obvious question: how can our data be even close to accurate when everything is being blocked? If I worked for any of these companies, I would worry.

I also went online without my blockers to see the modern internet user experience, and I felt that I had entered the ninth circle of hell with Judas Iscariot, Steve Bannon and the guy who invented Hammer pants. I’m never going back. How many others are doing the same?

The more that marketing tracks people, the more that it will annoy people. Imagine how you would feel if the exact same piece of junk mail appeared in your mailboxes at home and work every single day. Now, still think retargeting is a good idea?

Searls put it this way on Medium:

“...annoying people personally with calls to action, especially when only a tiny percentage will actually respond, creates no brand value and has other negative externalities, such as associating the brand with annoyance.”

Some 80% of people who know about adblockers use them. Two-thirds of millennials have installed adblockers. The more that adblocking takes off, the more that both online advertising and martech platforms will be rendered useless. The day after tomorrow will indeed be a disaster – but this time, it will destroy marketing analytics and online direct response campaigns rather than the global climate.

I do not know why traditional media companies and marketing associations do not band together and deploy a massive communications strategy to educate the public about online adblocking. After such a continuous campaign, the results might lead a modern Don McLean to write a song in the future about the day that martech died.

See one of my favourite Marketoonist cartoons:

The only way for data-driven direct response marketing to exist online is for marketers to have access to consumer information in the first place. Four pieces of recent martech news will make the lives of people who use and sell martech just a little more difficult:

  • Google Chrome has a 59% market share, and the search engine may install an adblocking tool in the web browser.
  • Princeton and Stanford University have developed a reported “adblocking superweapon” that looks beyond scripts.
  • Incapsula’s latest annual bot traffic report now states that 52% of internet traffic last year was bots, which themselves impede our ability to get accurate data.
  • In May 2018, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation will go into effect and require that all companies with EU customers obtain permission to target users with ads and allow people to view and edit the collected data.

Where do we go from here?

Whether or not martech will disappear, marketers need to understand three things.

First, that reasonable 'waste' is not a problem. Online advertising was also supposed to solve this alleged issue through increasingly good targeting – in other words, through better direct response marketing. 'Waste' is the idea that any ad spend that reaches people who do not immediately buy is wasted money. But that’s a fallacy.

If an ad campaign reaches relevant people who may buy in the future, then that spend is not wasted. As a paper in the Journal of Advertising Research by Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier stated, that money is an investment in long-term brand building that results in future purchases later.

Second, that clicks are not the only results that matter. Sara Fischer observed in Axios that we might be at “the end of the click era”:

“according to industry experts, the click referral is becoming an idea of the past, soon to be replaced by content exposure…

"Clicks look like a high-performing tactic, but a lot of work is done to get you to type something into a search bar to begin with," AdRoll president Adam Berke tells Axios. Marketers are starting to attribute marketing success towards content exposure that drives you to click something, instead of the click itself.”

Of course, clicks are important in digital marketing. But, in the end, building brands over the long term first through consistent reach and repetition is what makes people more likely to click whenever they do see direct-response campaigns later.

Brand advertising and direct-response marketing need to work together. It’s time to fix the promotion mix by having both data analysts and brand creatives work together so that both of their expertises will contribute to campaigns. Maybe we will see more marketing job advertisements with the requirement of 'creative' again instead of only 'analytical'.

After all, if adtech and martech are blocked in the future, then activities such as brand advertising and public relations will still remain as some of the only drivers of online results – even if their results are not directly trackable. As I often write, people tolerate offline brand advertising but hate online direct response campaigns.

Third, that brand advertising can be very effective – even for digital companies.

As Wistia co-founder and chief executive Chris Savage has written:

“Word of mouth had always been a major driver of our growth. One look at our passionate, growing Slack community and it’s clear that the connections we’ve formed with people are fueled more by 'art' than 'science'.

"We’d done it right. The billboards had worked. But we’d measured them like they were science, and we’d convinced ourselves they hadn’t...

"Using data to scale your marketing is critical. But when we all have access to the same types of data, it won’t be the data that differentiates us  – it’ll be the art.”

Digital-only campaigns that focus on the quixotic goal of 'engagement' are destined to fail. Traditional advertising will always be a part of strategic marketing campaigns because it cannot be blocked.

As Zillow Group co-founder and executive chairman Rich Baron has noted, the marketing industry today needs the geeky grandsons – and granddaughters – of Don Draper. Those who can integrate mass market branding and and targeted direct response campaigns. After all, John Hegarty once correctly wrote that data analysts cannot make magic – that goal is still the job of creatives.

Being data-informed in marketing can be useful. But being data-driven in marketing is a mistake when the data is wrong, impossible to get, or does not present the whole picture. What made someone click to a website? Soon, we’ll be increasingly unable to know by tracking people with online direct response campaigns because of attitudes like that of Arizona State University media professor Dan Gillmor:

Are you ready for the day after tomorrow?

The Promotion Fix is a new, exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, director of marketing and communications for AI-powered log analysis software platform Logz.io and a global marketing speaker on integrated traditional and digital marketing. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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