Ad Blockers: A Home Run (Or a Strike Out) For PR, Social and Content Marketing?

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You remember those predictions just two years ago heralding the Death of Public Relations? We’ll never forget the panic in the PR world as tens of thousands of journalists (aka our PR pitch targets) at newspapers, TV stations and magazines were laid off. The near-collapse of much of US journalism employment and the seeming vulnerability of PR coincided with America’s top marketers who - smitten with digital advertising - diverted billions of dollars from their traditional ad budgets into online.

It was a time when the very words “public relations” were scrubbed from the titles of corporate PR Directors. Even today, a Google search on the words “Death of Public Relations” generates 108,000,000 results - including giddy articles titled “The Many Deaths of Public Relations,” “The Death of PR Agencies,” and “Corporate PR Is Dead.” A former Edelman PR executive published a 300-page book. Its title: “Trust Me, PR Is Dead.”

But, as that great marketing communicator Bob Dylan sang, “things have changed.”

Consider three news items that suggest how marketers are spurning traditional paid advertising and instead, re-embracing the back-and-forth engagement of public relations and its cousin, content marketing. Play ball! 

Exhibit A: The Death Knell of “Advertising’?

PepsiCo beverage president Brad Jakeman (right) gave a blistering speech this month before the Association of
National Advertising in Orlando, suggesting that the advertising industry kill the very word ‘advertising.’

“Can we stop using the term advertising, which is based on this model of polluting (content),” railed Jakeman, who was contemptuous of the pre-roll advertising that precedes video content on YouTube and other sites:

“I hate it. What is even worse is that I know the people who are making it now that I’m going to hate it. Why do I know that? Because they tell me how long I am going to have to endure it – 20 seconds, 15 seconds. You only have to watch this crap for another 10 seconds and then you are going to get to the content that you really wanted to see. That is a model of polluting content that is not sustainable.”

Exhibit B: Epic Presidential Ad Spending Fails

This month, Bloomberg reported that the top Republican presidential candidate advertisers – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and John Kasich, whose combined advertising spend topped $18.5 million - had become the last successful, worst-polling candidates in the 2016 race. The Jeb Bush campaign, whose PAC ran more than 3,200 TV spots, received catastrophically bad ROI at the polls. Meanwhile leading GOP candidates Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and (until recently) Carly Fiorina, were running few if any TV ads and garnering huge poll numbers by focusing on social media and old-school PR. “We’re not going to be running ads, I can tell you that,” crowed Fiorina. Polling expert Ken Goldstein was quoted in AdAge slamming paid advertising a political liability: “Often you spend money when you are in trouble.”

What’s the alternative to ads for these Presidential hopefuls? AdAge said Bush campaign advisor Austin Barbour credited front-runner Trump’s success to his “knack for attracting free media coverage” - in other words, classic publicity and media relations. Trump confirmed his PR strategy with a statement in Iowa: “I’m getting so much publicity that I don’t have to advertise so far.” 

Exhibits C, D and E: Invasion of the Ad Blockers!

Enter online ad blocking software, a technology that Madison Avenue is viewing with the kind of horror that dentists express when forced to see the Nazi dental torture scene in the Dustin Hoffman film, “Marathon Man.” (Watch it, and you’ll never open your mouth in a dentist’s office again). Ad blocking software has now been made ubiquitous by Apple, which sells the apps on its AppStore and includes ad blocking extensions in its iOS9. Ad blockers like AdBlock Plus, 1Blocker, Purify and the free Refine make pop-ups, online banner ads and other display advertising, along with pre-roll advertising on YouTube, simply disappear.

To understand the seismic impact of consumers opting out of advertising online, we spoke to Kathleen Petersen (left), media director with the Minneapolis digital marketing agency Nina Hale, Inc. whose lively “Ad Blockers: An Uncertain Threat” blog post is a must-read.

First off, predicts Petersen, ad agencies, corporate marketers and media outlets will find ways to adapt, just as TV advertisers did when TiVo and DVRs threatened to turn millions of their precious, Nielsen-counted TV viewers into ad-skippers.

Petersen expects that marketers will now turn to content partners like BuzzFeed and native advertising companies such as TripleLift.com. Such partners can create sponsored, branded content for advertisers that’s built into an online magazine, blog or e-newsletter and treated by ad blockers as “real” editorial content, rather than as advertising.

In turn, publishers are exploring a variety of weapons against the scourge of ad blocking: for example, visit StarTribune.com with your ad blocker enabled and you’ll find yourself stopped cold by this stern message: “You’re Using an Ad Blocker: To continue reading, please disable ad blocker for our site.” Notes Petersen, “Look, the Star Tribune provides you with content online, and you’re asking to see that content both for free and without advertising. So the Star Tribune has no way to make money.

“Think of what you’re asking for,” Petersen writes in her post. “Quality content at no cost. The bills have to be paid somehow and if not by advertisers, by who? You? Don’t be upset when you’re asked to subscribe, or else all you can see is scrambled content.”

What This Means For Marketers:

Originally elated that US digital advertising spending was predicted to top $58.6 billion in 2015, ad agencies and their clients are now freaking out that consumers can block those ads and render some online buys nearly worthless. What’s a marketer to do? “To be honest, we’d never recommend that marketers only buy display or banner advertising - it’s important to have a well-rounded media strategy,” counsels Petersen. “Display ads continue to be great for awareness, regardless of consumers clicking banners to visit your website. We know through vast amounts of research that those who do click through are a less-desirable audience; less educated, lower income. Also, 8 percent of the total audience makes up 85 percent of banner ad clicks, so you’re generating traffic from the same small group of people.

Note: Depending upon the audience you’re targeting, ad blocking software may be more or less of a problem. But if you’re advertising to a tech-savvy, Millennial audience, ad blockers will be a big issue, Petersen predicts.

“So how exactly will advertising have to adapt to the threat of ad blockers?,” wrote Petersen in her post. “We will give stronger consideration to the areas unaffected by ad blockers. They don’t block search ads. They don’t block amplified social content. They don’t block influencer blog posts, or emails, or sponsored white papers. And they don’t block content.” 

Smart marketers recognize that ad blocker software is unable to stop advertiser’s messages expressed in:

  • LinkedIn Pulse placements,
  • Facebook’s Instant Articles, where the Washington Post and the New York Times publish articles in an environment where those hated ad blockers don’t work,
  • Brandpoint syndicated online columns,
  • Branded entertainment produced by RedBull,
  • PRWeb,
  • Snapchat’s absurdly-expensive $750,000/day evaporating ads, already embraced by McDonald’s and Macy’s, price be damned,
  • Earned PR placements and bylined article submissions,
  • Promoted tweets and,
  • Dozens of other ad blocker defeating marketing tools.

“To fill the awareness void from blocked display ads, marketers will have to develop smart, shareable content - optimized for search - that consumers want to find, even when they’re not yet ready to make a purchase,” says Petersen. “In other words, marketers will have to create a well-rounded media ecosystem for their brands.”

If this ad blocking situation sounds like a boon for public relations agencies like ours - which have devoted themselves to producing brand videos, e-books, infographics, white papers, influencer-generated blog posts, bylined commentaries and other content which sails right by ad blockers - yeah, it is.

After decades of PR being treated as a side dish by advertising agencies that considered paid media the main entree, PR firms are chortling as they claim social media and branded content as their domains. If consumers are less tolerant about being pounded by irrelevant, interruptive and poorly-targeted advertising, PR agencies are only too happy to deliver two-way conversations with consumers, helping clients engage with, rather than just sell to, customers. 

Here at Maccabee, we’re seeing clients pursuing alternatives to ads that can get their messages out, including paying bloggers for sponsored posts and investing in search-optimized content as eyeballs move from magazines, newspapers and TV to iPhones, Galaxys and iPads.

Clearly, paid advertising is not going away - eMarketer reports that in 2015, total worldwide ad spending will hit $569.6 billion - but the 5.7 percent worldwide rise in paid advertising this year is chiefly attributed to digital advertising, which is growing 300 percent faster than paid ads in general.

Even Super Bowl TV spots - and non-Super Bowl, NFL-inspired spots like Anna Kendricks’ hilarious Newcastle Brown Ale ad, which was publicized by Minneapolis-based PR agency Fast Horse - are now less about the ad itself and more about how the spot can serve as a $4.5 million platform around which advertisers build PR and social media campaigns. For more context, read “The Super Bowl-Sized Impact of Social Media on TV.”

(Source: YouTube)

Undeniably, the struggle is on - a symbiotic cage match between advertising and PR, both of whom desperately need each other. Without paid advertising to support publishers and broadcasters, PR professionals would have no media outlets to pitch stories to. Legendary advertising titan Sir Martin Sorrell recently dismissed the idea that PR agencies could replace ad agencies as lead creative firms for clients. Sorrell’s critique caused UK PR agency head Warren Johnson to slam back that “the most switched-on communications chiefs increasingly understand that PR agencies are far more likely to come up with the right answers, rather than the most convenient ones; that in a multi-platform world, it’s what you can influence, rather than what you make, that counts.” 

The good news: The same consumers who say they dislike paid advertising enough to install ad blocking software, seek out (via Google and other search engines) compelling, entertaining and relevant content that meets their needs. Whether you call that sought-after material branded journalism, sponsored content, earned media or just plain PR, it’s the type of story-telling that media relations pros have practiced for years.

The fact is: Most earned media and PR can’t be blocked the way display advertising can be. As Edelman PR’s chief content strategist, Steve Rubel, recently said: “We may look back on this time as the beginning of the great era of earned media.”

But not so fast: The reason that so much of the Web is overflowing with free content is because it’s ad-supported. If ad blockers disable online ads, they also strip away the economic vitality of media outlets - from Huffington Post to NewYorkTimes.com. Those media outlets will either close, seal themselves behind a rigid paywall, or demand non-advertising supported entry fees. This will reduce the number of content venues where PR agencies can insert their content. Adobe and Page Fair estimate that ad blocking software will hurt publishers to the tune of $22 billion in lost revenue in 2015 alone, with a staggering 198 million people globally using ad blocking software.

So, To Block or Not to Ad Block?

Well, if Huffington Post, USAToday.com and hundreds of other online sites go the way of such now defunct magazines as Life, Look, All You, Metropolitan Home, Newsweek, Gourmet and CosmoGirl – we chortling PR mavens will have shot bullets into our own collective feet. When it comes to fighting ad blocking, PR firms have common cause with publishers, marketers, and even advertising agencies. To quote the immortal Ben Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”


Image Sources: Maccabee PR

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Content Marketing, PR Perspectives, Publicity

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