2016 Year in Preview: Ad blocking will force the industry to put the user experience first

In this series, the 2016 Year in Preview, Digiday’s staff of reporters and editors is looking at the major trends of 2016.  Download this preview and nine others here.

If publishers weren’t thinking about the user before, they will in the coming year.

Spurred by Apple’s introduction of ad blocking to iOS in September, publishers and advertisers spent much of 2015 wavering between muted concern and outright panic over ad blocking’s potential effect on the future of the industry. Over 198 million people globally run ad blockers each month, according to anti-ad blocking firm PageFair, and Apple’s support risked increasing the magnitude of that existential threat even further.

But while the industry has obsessed over various wrinkles of ad blocking — how to fight the tech, whether ad blocking is unethical, etc — the ad blocking story’s actual importance became clear when it started forcing the hard questions about the role of the user experience in digital advertising, and whether the industry has completely forgotten about the people on the other side of the screen. In 2016, the discussion about ad blocking will expand beyond ad blocking to include user experience overall.

“Digital advertising has grown up a like a weed,” said Quartz publisher Jay Lauf. “We built all these sites and places for ads to live but rather than give real thought to the landscaping, we just let everything grow. Now, everyone is saying, ‘we’ve got kind of a mess here so we need to take a step back and clean things up.’”

Even the IAB conceded that the industry “messed up” by chasing automation and data collection at the expense the user experience. “Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty,” wrote IAB senior VP of technology and ad operations Scott Cunningham in October. At the same time the IAB introduced its “LEAN” program, a new set of creative standards meant to produce ads that are lighter, less resource intensive and, hopefully, less likely to encourage people to install ad blockers. This tack made sense to those who argued that the most effective way to fix ad blockers is to make better ads.

But while intrusive ads have borne the brunt of the industry’s blame for ad blocking’s rise, efforts to improve the user experience have gone beyond just ads. Vox Media, GQ and The Verge, for example, have taken deep looks at their sites, making small tweaks to various features that have had major effects on the sites overall. The result: page loading times for these sites have been cut by as much as 80 percent.

The problem is that spending the time and money to rebuild and optimize their sites is a frill that many publishers don’t feel they have. “For a lot of publishers, when  the next 90 days of the quarter are staring you in the face and you have to make numbers, it’s hard to take the long view,” said Washington Post chief revenue officer Jed Hartman. “It can be hard to find that balance.”

In other words, the realities of the business today mean that most publishers are more concerned with optimizing their ad yield than optimizing their site load times.

But the idea that publishers have to think about their bottom lines before their users is a false choice, said Lauf at Quartz. “You have to serve your real customer, your audience, first so you can have the foundation for a solid business. No one has the luxury anymore of ignoring the user experience.”

Few understand that dynamic better than the big tech companies, which have used the “spear of the consumer,” as Lauf put it, to battle each other as they pitch their new publisher initiatives this year. Facebook’s Instant Articles, for example, was premised on the idea that the sluggishness of publishers’ sites is driving users away. Likewise, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project was created to help publishers speed up their sites by trimming them of slow and unnecessary elements.

All of this should be a lesson to publishers. “The companies that are going to be successful down the line understand that content is a big differentiator but the entire experience is a part of that content as well,” said Digital Content Next CEO Jason Kint. “It’s all about the entire package of speed and performance and technology. The consumer doesn’t differentiate between publishers based on content alone.”

Did you enjoy this essay? There are nine more just like it as part of Digiday’s Year in Preview series. The full series is available for download in one PDF – sign up here to get a copy.