Choice is a powerful thing, and as technology advances we keep getting more of it. We’ve witnessed the move from a society where brands presumed their right to communicate with consumers, to one where consumers have the choice to filter through the noise. It took less than ten years from when the first mobile ad platform brought banner ads to mobile screens, to having 144 million people globally using software to block those ads. The choice to block ads online is a relatively new one — especially on mobile — but it comes with several implications for the relationship between consumers and brands, not least of them being a new set of standards for originality in advertising.

global ad blocking software users line graph


Understanding why ad blocking is here to stay has a lot to do with why we adopt new technology. Historically, critical mass occurs when about 15 percent of households or users adopt a new consumer medium or technology. Business opportunities arise from these new technologies: social media laid the ground for hundreds of businesses, and smartphones have opened up the universe of mobile apps, many of which are standalone companies. Similarly, the business of ad blocking has been catalyzed by smartphones and social media.

Much of the debate has centered around publishers’ livelihoods being threatened, and the ethics of blocking revenue-generating ads in favor of a “cleaner” web experience. But these arguments risk losing sight of the bigger picture, which is more than an ethical argument about funding free journalistic content. The bottom line is that people won’t stop blocking ads any time soon, launching us into a new phase in the history of how brands communicate with consumers. There’s two major pieces to this puzzle: the move to a mobile-first world, and the new standards for content that have come along with it.

Selectivity in the Smartphone Economy

Smartphones have brought with them a new expectation of privacy: as mobile is increasingly the first touchpoint for online behavior, Internet behavior has moved to a more private, handheld domain. Tracking codes and social media integrations allow brands to find their ways into mobile browsers, causing privacy concerns for consumers — and triggering the download of ad blockers.

Adults use Smartphone more than all other devicesAs exponentially more people use mobile as the first screen for online browsing, reading, payments, and purchase, they will come to expect new standards of quality from their mobile browsing experience: including the content they encounter. Recently released mobile news apps like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Twitter’s Project Lightning promise readers news curated using social algorithms, instantly promising a more personalized reading experience.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the world’s second largest smartphone manufacturer enabled ad blocking in its latest operating system update. Apple’s move to allow third-party ad blockers in Safari in iOS 9 opened the floodgates for an entire market of ad-blocking apps. Since mobile Safari makes up 52 percent of the mobile browsing market, and 14 percent of total web browsing, it’s no surprise that publishers were panicking.

Global Share of Mobile Ad Blocking by Browser

Standards 2.0

But what emerged from this were new transactional models: this time between ad-blocking apps and brands to determine which ads make the cut, and which ones don’t. Acceptable Ads is an initiative started by Eyeo, the company that makes AdBlockPlus, the world’s most popular ad blocking tool. Its manifesto, co-signed by several Internet companies including Reddit, boldly states that it isn’t anti-advertising; it just wants to reverse the “vicious cycle” of declining click-through rates and “obtrusive and annoying” online ads. By giving consumers the choice to “whitelist” the ads they want to see, they are seeking a compromise between brand and audience — one in which the scales might tip in favor of the consumer.

So why do we care? Companies have paid third parties for promotions for as long as we can remember. But now, there’s a new arbiter for quality here: the ad blocker. It isn’t enough for ads to go through the entire creative development process, they now have to pass a final screen after they’ve gone live: ads that, according to the Acceptable Ads standards, are “effective without shouting at us”.

This means brands will need to revisit the metrics they evaluate their advertising on. The short-term success of ad clicks will be replaced by more meaningful, longer-term metrics. As Martin Weigel, who spoke at our Transition conference earlier this year, put it, “Short-term data leads to short-term perspectives, short-term objectives and short-term strategies.” Data like click-throughs can be compiled in real time to assess brand reach, but research has shown that it’s long term campaigns that grow sales volume. As marketers reassess priorities, there are a few strategies that should be on their radar.

Content = Advertising for the Long Term

These changes are further driving the convergence between ads and content, something we have been seeing for a while. Native advertising is one of the byproducts of this convergence, offering publishers an alternative revenue stream to interruptive ads. We know that, contrary to popular belief, good advertising targets broader reach rather than frequency of exposure, so serving someone a banner ad for your product every time they log onto Facebook is probably less effective than targeting them with an informative or entertaining piece of content within their news feed. Publishers are making way for this new type of editorial, from digitally-forward Buzzfeed who refers to them as “brand publishers” on its site, to the New York Times’ T Brand Studio with its visual-heavy, long-form branded content.

native advertising will explode in 2015

Other publishers like The Washington Post are taking a proactive stance against ad blocking and redirecting readers with active ad blockers to their subscription page. This move underscores that advertisements are crucial to publishers’ revenue, but with a vast menu of news sources to choose from, readers may just be tempted to switch their loyalties to a publisher that supports ad blocking.

Whether these changes mean refocusing budgets towards more effective advertising, or re-evaluating the metrics on which they evaluate success, brands have to reconfigure their approach to ads. So instead of mourning the banner ad, marketers should celebrate the emergence of a new set of standards for higher quality creative.