From begging to berating, The Drum reviews the pop-up approaches of publishers looking to convince readers to switch off their ad blockers.
You hated those ads – the sidebars, the banners, the pop-ups – but they just kept coming and coming. Then one fateful day, a man in an old trench coat, obscured by shadow and mystery, appeared from a dark alley to offer you a solution – the ad blocker. ’It’ll solve all your worries, kiddo.’
And it did, for a while at least – news sites were stripped back to being minimalist information vendors, purged of pesky sidebars. Valhalla!
After a time, pop-ups ads started to appear on select sites. These urged you to stop blocking ads, paradoxically using an ad against readers looking to dodge them – itself highly indicative of the attitude that has found publishers in such a sticky situation.
In 2015, use of ad blockers rose globally by 90 per cent on mobile. Furthermore, a quarter of UK internet users will have one by the end of the year – it shows no sign of ceasing. It’s a stark reality that raises an imminent concern for the ad-funded media whose revenue pool is evaporating before their eyes.
Some publishers released a wall of anti-ad block pop-ups across their content at the start of 2016. These messages employ a range of psychological and suggestive prompts to inform readers of their freeloading ways and perhaps establish an alternative revenue stream. They differ wildly, hinting that there’s no established approach.
The one thing they do have in common is that they are heavily grounded in behavioural science research, as Julia Stainforth, a choice architect at Ogilvy Change, informs The Drum.
“Ad block messages have clearly demonstrated the significance of very small changes in wording, imagery, framing and layout to influence behaviour,“ she says. “It is now widely accepted that awareness is merely a step in behaviour change and that other factors – social norm, ability to affect change – are equally important factors to address, and may dramatically increase the likelihood of behaviour change.“
Stainforth argues that simple instruction about how to turn off an ad blocker is “no doubt more successful than a simple rational appeal”, but concedes that unique approaches should be tailored to specific readerships to yield the best results.
Chris Arning, founder of semiotics specialist agency Creative Semiotics, has analysed and categorised anti-ad block pop-ups. He found that those issued by Bild and the Washington Post appear as straightforward warnings, positioning the reader as a miscreant and blocking as wrongdoing.
The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, City AM (in a brief trial at the end of 2015) and Forbes, meanwhile, employed a polite notification function.
National Geographic injected humour into its discourse, with some admonishment of the user, while on the other hand, Time, Wired and Channel 4 paint advertising as a necessary evil in an almost apologetic tone.
Finally, the Guardian and GQ announced alternative funding methods, which Arning calls “a positive reframing of the ad blocker issue“.
Across the board the language used is factual and issued as a notification, but fails to engage with readers on any meaningful level, Arning says. Meanwhile, use of the colour red in some “highlighted a sense of crisis, reproach and a subtle admonishment“.
Arning blames poor knowledge of behavioural science for the lack of imagination in anti-ad block ads, saying they could be more persuasive by utilising social norms. For example, a publisher could share the ratio of people who chose to remove ad blockers to those who didn’t, or provide the percentage drop in a journalist’s salary that comes as a result of ad blocking, thus humanising and contextualising the debate.
A rethink on the aesthetic, tone and message of the warnings is also needed, and it wouldn’t hurt if there were a cross-publisher consensus on this either.
Alex Van Gestel, chief executive of Verbalisation, a strategic agency that works closely with a host of publishers, argues that “recognition of the worth of the content“ is a must to get audiences to “pay with money via a subscription, or with their eyeballs, in terms of giving their time to an ad“.
Last year, Apple and Samsung integrated ad blocking in their web browsers and, in the UK, mobile network Three provided similar obstructions, so publishers will have to “create a model in an increasingly mobile world where people understand the value of product“, according to Van Gestel.
First of all, to stop the seemingly inevitable conversion of more readers to the church of ad blocking, publishers must understand them. “It’s where the persuasion industry really gets it right. By understanding the psychology of an audience, intertwined with the content they are consuming at a particular moment, some ads can be a compliment rather than an irritation,“ he says.
“How many people on the street actually know that it’s not the sale price of the newspaper that’s raising the cash, but the advertising revenue?“ he asks. “There’s a big industry education piece that needs to be done.“
There’s also some psychological judo involved, he argues, as audiences must want to see the ads: “For too long the persuasion industry has been about push messaging and we’re at a point now where that is breaking. We’re into the new era of pull marketing.“
Van Gestel points to a marketing masterclass from Nike. Tying in with Euro 2016, ’The Switch’, a six-minute video featuring Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo switching bodies with a young fan, ’pulled’ in 38m views in a week. To an ad.
How can this help publishers? Good branded content has a place – there’s a hunger for it if the right brand is speaking to the right audience, with the right content, on the right publication, at the right time, on... there are a lot of variables. Publishers are still working out the kinks.
A solution will appear, equilibrium will ensue, and long-term journalism will be funded – somehow. But until that day, remember, every time you visit thedrum.com using an ad blocker, you are taking food from the table of my 17 very hungry children. I’d like to see someone put that on a pop-up.
This article was first published in The Drum's 29 June issue.