How Marketers Can Avoid Getting Stuck in a ‘Badvertising’ Rut

Eschew zombie retargeting, embrace audience and context

Learn how the creator economy is transforming the marketing landscape, and how to cultivate partnerships to grow engaged communities at Social Media Week: The Creatorverse, May 16–18 in NY. Register now to secure your early bird pass.

Most of the digital ad industry's concern for more than a year has coalesced around two major obstacles: ad fraud and viewability. Advertisers are concerned whether ads they pay for are actually viewed by real people.

John Snyder Illustration: Alex Fine

But if like me, you are a real person, you're likely to get bothered by bad advertising, and that has real consequences for marketers. Indeed, all of the ruckus caused in the aftermath of Apple's recent iOS mobile software release has the industry alarmed about apocalyptic predictions emanating from many quarters. When you consider that ad blockers have been available on desktop for years and much of the adoption has been limited so far to a very specific millennial, tech-savvy, male audience, much of the concern is arguably overstated.

This is not to say that the ad blocking trend isn't a legitimate concern; certainly the latest report from Adobe/PageFair reveals U.S. ad blocking grew by 48 percent in the year ending June 2015. The fact that a growing number of American consumers find digital ads annoying quite frankly bothers me. Like all consumers the world over, I want advertising that tells me about new, cool stuff I'm interested in or ads that entertain me. Yet, all too often, we are not served relevant or useful ads.

While it's good that technical solutions and IAB-led advocacy have been bandied about to fight ad blocking, the industry also needs to focus considerable bandwidth to fixing the more fundamental issue—the prevalence of bad advertising.

I hope the industry, led by brand marketers, will wake up to the underlying issue behind ad blocker adoption. What does the rise of ad blockers say about consumer attitudes? There has been some misdirection in the media as it relates to ad blocking. It seems that many privacy advocates are conflating the rise of ad blockers with consumer privacy concerns around Web tracking. In fact, consumers are drawn to this software mostly because they are tired of crappy Internet advertising. With the proliferation and fragmentation of digital media channels over the past decade, consumers are growing weary of all the irrelevant white noise which the Internet emits every day. It's a fallacy that people don't like advertising; in fact, they welcome it if it's compelling and adds value to their lives.

Yet, there are still egregious examples of bad advertising—men receiving ads for female sanitary products or being served ads for golf products when they don't play golf. As we trumpet the dawn of data-driven, personal marketing, how is it that this level of poorly targeted, disruptive messaging is still occurring?

Much of the responsibility must be laid at the doorstep of the retargeting sector of the digital advertising ecosystem. Brands and their CMOs have been lured by the immediate gratification of the quick strike KPIs that retargeting campaigns deliver. But this technique results in consequences that are ultimately damaging to brands' relationships with consumers. The rise of ad blocking software adoption is a symptom of this consumer alienation.

What retargeting does is focus on tracking the user with little to no regard for contextual relevance, which is why privacy advocates are not fond of the practice. A careless retargeting effort can result in someone being served ads for the same product that she purchased yesterday. Not considering contextual signals and serving ads purely based on ID is misguided with very real consequences.

Until all brand marketers embrace in a sincere and meaningful way that consumers need to be engaged with and not exploited, they will continue to find ways to take back control through technology like ad blocking. Marketers' toplines will shrink and their hard-earned relationships with their customers will be endangered. Subscription models will increasingly come to the fore, which will not be the optimal business model for advertisers to reach their audiences.

Now is the time for marketers to pivot away from the addictive practice of retargeting and towards new methods that forge lasting consumer relationships. Content marketing and native advertising are promising techniques that strive for authentic consumer relevance.

For further inspiration, one need look no further than leading online TV streaming service Hulu, which presents the consumer choice in the ad experience by offering the choice between viewing one long ad or multiple ads broken up and the ability to choose one out of three ads to see. If other creative solutions of this kind were developed en masse, I predict that ad blocking software adoption would ultimately plateau and diminish.

Historically, advertising has been about context. Then in recent years, it became all about audience. If we can embrace the concept of audience in context, our industry will flourish.

There is a lucrative happy middle ground between the contextual buying of yesteryear—ESPN or Vogue—and the overzealous retargeting obsession of recent years.

Let's set up shop there.


Claim to fame John Snyder is co-founder and CEO of Grapeshot, which applies advanced keyword technology to the programmatic ad market.

Base New York

Twitter @JohnSnyder

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.