We must retain the quality of online experiences during this crisis

Short-term sales mustn't be prioritised at the expense of brand building and the quality of the online experience. It runs the risk that consumers will again turn to ad-blockers.

Bear with me for a minute as I take us back to the year 4BC (Before Coronavirus). Remember 2016? Feels like a bygone era, doesn’t it? The impending EU referendum dominated the headlines (who’d have thought we’d end up missing all the Brexit news?) and, in media circles, ad-blocking was the hot topic. Forecasters predicted a surge in rates and talk of an online "ad-pocalypse" swirled.

It was a wake-up call for digital advertisers and publishers, sparking a process of recalibration that brought the industry together to establish shared good practice standards, improve the online user experience, communicate the value exchange and set a precedent for how we jointly navigate emerging challenges. 

Positive online experience

Four years later and ad-blocking rates have stalled. Latest IAB UK data, released today, shows that 23.7% UK adults currently use an ad-blocker, a percentage that has remained stable since 2016. It’s testament to the fact that many digital advertisers are now adhering to cross-industry principles and ensuring that they create a positive ad experience for people online.

But now that progress could be under threat. Today we’re facing a bigger challenge than any of us saw coming, one that is playing out in all corners of our lives. Everything we thought we knew has been upended by the Covid-19 outbreak and uncertainty has infiltrated all aspects of the day to day. So, what does this unprecedented disruption mean for our industry?

It’s inevitable that bottom lines will be hit by the outbreak and ad budgets squeezed. While none of us know how long this disruption (and the after effects) will last, my guess is that short-term sales targets will become an even greater priority for some, at the expense of brand building and the quality of people’s online experience. If that happens, we run the risk of people turning back to ad-blockers.

Avoid the knee-jerk reaction

As we navigate this, potentially prolonged, period of change, my message to digital advertisers is simple: don’t be tempted to prioritise short-term targets and knee-jerk reactions over the people you want to reach. We’ve worked hard over the past few years to establish best practice via initiatives such as the Gold Standard. What’s more, it’s been working.

We know that users understand that their access to free online content is funded by ads and they appreciate that. It’s reflected in those flat ad-blocker usage numbers. But we can’t afford to be complacent on this issue, just as with other forms of blocking such as overzealous keyword blacklisting.

Which brings me to my final point. In our industry it is so easy to fall into a mindset of "us" and "them", "advertisers" and "consumers". We have a habit of distilling people down to users, then clicks and then numbers on a spreadsheet.

Human connection

But this crisis is bringing human connection to the fore and creating a togetherness that we can learn from. In short, we’re all just people and we really are all in this together. For all of us, staying connected and well informed has never been more important and advertising is crucial to maintaining the open web we’re all relying on, now more than ever.

So, as we’re being forcibly distanced from so much else and turning to digital channels to create a new sense of community, let’s keep putting people first and stop the blocking.

Jon Mew is the chief executive of IAB UK

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