Op-Ed: How Ad Blocking Remains a Menace for Marketers

opinionThe following is a guest contributed post from Rob Hammond, Senior Director of Mobile Engagement at Syniverse.

History is filled with idioms to describe being stuck between two immovable objects and having limited options. A modern-day illustration for marketers and ad blocking is being stuck between the hammer and the anvil. The way that marketers respond will have important consequences for their campaigns this year and positioning in the future.

Looking at the sides for and against ad blocking, on one side, Internet and media companies argue for freedom of speech and point out that consumers require unfettered access to information (aka net neutrality). On the other side, we have network operators that promote consumer control and choice.

This debate reached fever pitch recently when Apple announced it would allow ad-blocking apps in the app store with the release of iOS 9. The payoff for some users is significant, and the New York Times published results from an in-house test that showed a dramatic difference in load times, data consumption, and battery life through the use of ad-blocking software. At the extreme, with ad blocking turned on, page size and load times were reduced by almost 80 percent, and battery life was improved by 21 percent, as you can see in the full results from the New York Times article below.


Beyond the performance benefits, there are many cost and intangible benefits as well. Consumers save money by using less data, network operators reduce congestion for all data traffic, and user experiences aren’t broken by ads that interrupt intentions by taking over pages or being so pervasive that they damage the customer experience.

While Apple has gotten the headlines, mobile operators have been making major announcements about ad blocking, too. Digicel, a Caribbean operator with 13.6 million subscribers, announced that it would turn on network-based ad blocking by default. Additionally, Business Insider reported that the operator O2 was “actively testing technology that can block mobile ads at the network level,” and that the operator EE “is conducting a strategic review on whether it should offer more controls over mobile advertising.” Network-based ad blocking changes the game in that it could apply to every user as opposed to just those that take the effort to download and configure an app.

Clearly, Internet companies, content providers, and network operators have a lot at stake, and some amount of ad blocking is here to stay. So what can we do? With ad blocking establishing a very real barrier to marketing message delivery, we must as marketers evolve from pushing generic messages that damage the customer experience to delivering rich, personal, cross-channel experiences that are based on context. What’s more, we have to leverage naturally occurring opportunities from transactions and service-and-support interactions to engage consumers.

Regarding context, last April I wrote an article on five types of context that I think offer useful guidance for marketers to better engage consumers. Briefly, these five types include physical context (a person’s location, and information such as how fast the person is traveling and where the person is within a building); temporal context (the collection of contextual elements that explain what a person is doing at any moment, such as standing in line or playing a game); personal context (the identification of someone by their preferences, which can either be provided by a consumer or inferred through interactions); psychological context (what a person aspires to be or do); and historical context (what a person has done).

My goal with the article was to challenge the pedestrian thinking about mobile marketing and initiate a dialogue about how context can deliver on the promise of mobile engagement. Mobile context is the fuel for marketers to create personalized experiences that delight customers by anticipating needs on the customer’s journey. Ad blocking is a consumer’s reaction to the “spike strips” that have broken the customer experience.

In addition to context-based marketing messages, transactional interactions and service-and-support interactions offer a compelling opportunity for engagement. Consumers are seeking transparency into business processes, and they will reward brands that anticipate their needs. These messages are consumers pulling information with contextual relevance, and they present a ready-made receptive audience for upselling and customer engagement. Implementing thoughtful marketing-led service-and-support interaction is hard. It requires internal coordination externally focused on the customer, which is in stark contrast to the pushy promotional screams from internally obsessed brands.

The results of the clash between unfettered access to information (net neutrality) and ad blocking will ripple through the marketplace for years to come. As this battle plays out, it will be increasingly critical for marketers to leverage context to deliver more personalized, cross-channel experiences to avoid being caught in the middle. At the same time, marketers must take advantage of user-initiated activities like transactions and service-and-support events, as ad blocking continues to become an ever-bigger barrier to marketing. Success in these areas will offer compelling new business opportunities for those marketers that can see the promise of this new future.