Do People Really Not Want Ads Or Just Not Ads That Suck?

It’s hard to not feel like Chicken Little is running around squawking about ad blockers and the end of online advertising as we know it lately. If you’re keeping up with your industry reading or even just your Twitter feed, you’ve no doubt seen countless tweets, posts and articles about the rise of ad blockers and how they just might finally be the death knell of the online advertising industry, blah, blah, blah.

Let’s take a deep breath and dig into this a bit more thoughtfully…

Ad Blockers Are On The Rise

This is a fact. It is something that we, as people who make our livings helping client to advertise in the online space, must not ignore. Depending on the source you choose, the stats about adoption rates and installs of ad blocking software are anywhere from alarming to downright depressing. But, there is also little we can do to stem this trend. And let’s remember – taking steps to avoid advertising is not exactly a new behavior. What is one of my favorite things about watching TV on my DVR? I can zip right on through those pesky commercials. If I want to take it a step further and avoid commercials all together when watching things, I can go the streaming route. I have successfully avoided advertising! Ad blocking software is just the latest tool for people to be able to do what they have always wanted to do – avoid ads they find intrusive, annoying or creepy.

Digital Advertising Is A Bit Stagnant

I know, we as search marketers get all excited when there is some new feature we can start using for our clients to enhance their online ads, but for the general population, not much has really changed when it comes to online ads. They are largely just results at the top of the search pages or banners on other sites that we have learned to tune out. The “next gen” of ads has brought us what? Instant popover windows asking us to view an ad, video or sign up for an email or they are tiny stalkers following us to places we’d rather not see them – or have them see us. Yes, you can create video ads, but not every client has the budget to realistically do that, much less do it well. And honestly, do people like video ads any better than static ones? I know I count down those seconds until I can skip an ad on YouTube and I’m in the business.

The Problem With Most Ads Right Now

The biggest problem withs ads right now is that they are, generally, too generic. The old model of serving up ads to try to satisfy vague queries entered by inexperience web searchers feels so outdated. People know how to use the web now (mostly and certainly the coveted millennial generation does). Their expectations for the kinds of results they see, both organic and paid, has evolved faster than our practices as to what we are serving them. The term “banner blindness” was coined in 1998. Yes, 1998. And we are still talking about it today like it is only kind of happening. That is amazing.

It seems like instead of finding ways to better connect with potential customers, we are just upping the volume at which we shout in their general direction. People don’t see banners any more? Well then, we will make them move more or put them in the middle of content too. Or maybe we will put them into a page that overlays what they actually want to see and force them to look at it for at least 7 seconds. Or if they don’t do what we want them to after visiting our super duper amazing site we will follow them on every site they visit and even show up in the sidebar of their email program.

When you think about it like a non-marketer, it’s pretty insane what we are doing right now.

Why Isn’t It Done Better?

Part of the issue lies in ad serving technology. It is not really all that well set up to serve highly personalized ads or content to individuals. It’s funny, people complain endlessly about the poor quality of ads on the web and they say what they want is a more timely and more personalized advertising or brand interaction. And yet, they go nuts when a company or advertising platform wants to collect any data on them to actually allow advertisers to deliver said timely and highly personalized advertising. I don’t think they realize that they can’t really have one without the other.

The Paradox

Let’s take millennials as an example. I know, I hate lumping an entire generation into one homogeneous set, but they are a coveted one, so let’s go with it here. Allegedly, millennials are willing to give up some data/information/privacy if what they will get in return from brands is worth it to them. Or are they?

In a 2013 study conducted by IDG Research Services, their responses were as follows to the question:

“How do you feel about companies collecting/analyzing personal data for the purpose of delivering targeted advertising or information?” 

  • 67% agreed with this statement:  “it’s ok with me as long as I get relevant ads, offers or information”
  • 65% agreed with this statement: “it’s ok with me as long as I save money”
  • 62% agreed with this statement “data targeting is inevitable, regardless if I like it or not”
  • 64% agreed with this statement “companies having access to my personal data or web behavior makes me uneasy”

See the AdWeek story on this study here.

Interesting stuff, right? How about this though – millennials represent the largest block of people downloading and using ad blocker software in 2015. The figures vary, but the numbers are high. This piece on E-Consultancy lists the current adoption of ad blockers by millennials at a whopping 63%. Yikes.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I think this is a really, really interesting question. As a search marketer, I want to see the technology continue to improve so that I can help my clients serve better, more personalized and more timely advertising to potential customers. As a potential customer for businesses who advertise online, I also want better ads served to me, but I don’t want that to happen because they know everything I’m doing everywhere on the web. I kind of want it both ways too. But, I accept that if I want to keep my privacy at a level I’m more comfortable with, that will mean ads that are more generically aimed at me. I can live with that.

So-called native advertising may increase its share of space. Opt-in advertising may experience an explosion in growth. Or big advertisers might just bargain their way into not having their ads blocked by ad blockers. A client of mine refers to the internet as the “wild west” and I think that analogy holds true even as some parts have become quite established, other parts are in constant and sometimes seismic flux.

I’d love to know what you think about what all this means and where you think online advertising is headed. As always, feel free to sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter (@NeptuneMoon)!


  1. To me it is all about relevance. I don’t think most users have a problem with search ads because they are relevant to helping the users complete their current task. The issue is how to get hyper targeted ads, which could potentially provide value to the users, while maintaining privacy. As you said, you can’t have personalized experiences if you aren’t allowed to collect enough data to know who you are personalizing for.

  2. IMHO advertisers have gotten a bye which has allowed them to get a bit sloppy and lazy. It’s why ad blindness started and ties back to the article you shared on twitter today that IAB is rethinking ad standards. Too many companies are trying to make up revenue through ad serving and it hinders the users experience. Additionally, it’s hard to pull together 75 unique audiences and develop unique messages for each audience. It’s easier to create 3-4 creatives and rotate them across the board. It also makes the case for extra resources more difficult if you’re hitting metrics with the generic messaging.
    Where we’re headed and search is included in this scenario is going back to focusing on user experience and intent. Developing creatives and messaging customized to the consumer based on their actions and behaviors with the data that’s available via analytics and existing advertising campaigns. We can start down the path of customization even with the data that’s available through the various channels today and it will only improve with time. The first step is spending time developing the audiences and personas I’m excited that Google moved forward with custom lists due to the implications for customized search and GDN campaigns. Marketers are going to have to pay attention to the audiences and additional behaviors/signals to create campaigns that stand-out and make the consumer want to engage. 🙂
    I’m excited to move forward and start down the path of creating better user experiences and just hope that other advertisers will start the hard work now to join in.

    • Neptune Moon says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Christi!

      I am also very interested to see how this all evolves and shakes out. I’m hoping for some cool stuff that takes into account both the advertisers’ needs and what is actually good and useful for their target audiences! Time will tell…

Speak Your Mind