Lars Damgaard
strategic user experience designer
October 6th 2015

Ad blockers and the failed user experience of online advertising

In the first part of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s trilogy about the harsh lives of Icelandic fishermen around the turn of the twentieth century, the main character Bardur grabs a local Reykjavik newspaper.


Old image of a fishing village in Iceland. Photo: Wikipedia

After a while he mutters something like “Darn, nothing but ads” and decides to put the newspaper away.

Much like the fictional Icelandic fisherman Bardur, modern day internet users hate ads. They don’t put their content aside though, they install ad blockers that allow them to browse content without having ads occupying their screens and their bandwidth.

Ad blocking became even more available and perhaps even mainstream after the recent iOS 9 update a few weeks ago that included content blocking: the adjustment to the iOS that allows developers to create ad blockers on a larger scale. It has sparked an interesting debate about the ethics of ad blocking all together, even to the extent that a developer of the most popular ad blockers Peace, withdrew his app after two days from Apple’s app store because he felt bad about it.

This debate is both valid and relevant and I hope it will continue for a long time. However, as fair as it is to look at it from an ethical perspective, it also involves an important blind spot, which is that most current online advertising is in such a bad condition that users won’t accept it, probably as a protest against bad user experiences and privacy and tracking issues.

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Like most things in the world, this could be different. My guess is that advertising needs to re-invent itself on a large scale if it wants to play a serious role in the future of newsonomics. Let’s have a look at some possible solutions.

The quick fix: get rid of the worst banner formats

Many commercial news websites have horrendous amounts of banners in formats that are so obtrusive to user experience that I wonder how they were ever accepted in the first place. Simply raising the bar and getting rid of these would be a good place to start.

Ordered list of banner formats that should cease to exist from a user experience perspective:

I’m fully aware that those horrid banners generate a serious revenue, but at least two things make traditional banners a silly business model in the long run: more and more users have ad blockers, which means that fewer and fewer people will get to see the ads, which means decreased revenue anyway.

Furthermore, most publishers aim to sell digital subscriptions at the same time. Having the vast majority of the user’s screen covered with auto playing overlays and sticky banners is not very likely to increase a user’s incentive to pay for content. At the end of the day, publishers probably have to choose whether to create a valuable quality product that users are willing to pay for or to rely on old ideas about banner inventory or at least take advantage of that incentive and create a banner free experience for paying customers.

Design for a better advertising experience

A way for ads to co-exist with a paid content strategy could be to actually create better ads! What would that mean? To begin with, it could mean creating ads that simply look better, which means hiring better designers and better copy writers. If you ever held a copy of monocle magazine in your hand, you know how good advertising can look and how aligned with the publishing brand it can be.

In the realm of digital advertising, The Next Web took created an innovative step towards designing beautiful and less intrusive ads.

Furthermore, it might mean creating more relevant ads. Not necessarily in the form of personalised advertising in the same way that Facebook and Google do (though this is obviously also an option) to begin with, but simply by making sure that the stuff that gets advertised is highly relevant to the kind of people.

the next web canvas adScreenshot from The next web showing canvas ads. Photo from Thenextweb.com

Go native!

Last, but not least native advertising offers a solution that overcomes most of the challenges above: they have the potential to look good, they blend in naturally with the brand, they provide an interesting case for advertisers to actually tell their stories in ways that engage the end user.

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Finally, they don’t get blocked by ad blockers, because they render as normal content in the browser, though this could change any time soon.

wsj narcos cocainenomics
Screenshot from Cocainenomics – a native advertising for the Netflix series Narcos. Photo from WSJ.com

Journalists are notoriously critical about native advertising because it could undermine the credibility of the news organisation behind it. Of course this is a relevant perspective, but with a clear labelling such as “paid post” or “sponsored content” I feel pretty convinced that users can interpret and understand what’s going on. This study even indicates that native ads don’t affect user’s perception of credibility on a news site.

Thanks for reading and feel free to let me know what you think on twitter.

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