Combating Ad Blocking – What we can learn from the Affiliate Channel

I’ve worked in the affiliate marketing industry for over 13 years and in that time I have had to endure a lot of comments about the affiliate industry emulating the “wild west” and being tarnished with a bad quality image. I have always felt these comments to be incorrect and unfair but what the affiliate industry has done very well is address these concerns and put in place practices to ensure transparency and quality that is self-regulated by stakeholders across the industry. The Digital Industry faces a huge threat from ad blocking and could take some useful lessons from what the affiliate channel has achieved.

I have followed with great interest the hot topic of ad blocking. Of particular amusement has been the anger directed from many corners of the digital advertising industry at the Ad Blocking companies themselves. Let’s take a step back for a minute, why have Ad Blockers been able to find a market of consumers (reported to be 18% of the UK online population) willing to use their tools? It is because some of the advertising within the digital industry is quite frankly terrible. It can be disruptive, bad quality and not relevant or targeted to the consumer. The cynic in me would say consumer experience is not always a priority of those controlling the ad spend.

The IAB has been somewhat pro-active in addressing the ad blocking debate and have produced a number of useful stats and materials, all of which can be found on their website. A few of the most noteworthy are from a consumer study carried out in October last year:

  • 25% of online adults have downloaded ad blocking software
  • 3/4 of those downloaders, so 18% of online adults, are currently using ad blockers. This is up from 15% in June 2015

Terrifying numbers, no wonder this has the digital industry spooked, that is a lot of cash being lost. But even more interesting are some of the reasons consumers gave for using ad blockers:

  • 52% use them to block all ads
  • Just 9% use them to protect against privacy, so stopping tracking software working
  • 1 in 2 would be less likely to block ads if they did not interfere with what they were doing

And this answer:

  • 61% of people would prefer to access content for free and have ads present than pay to access content

So it appears the frustration from consumers is with poor quality, badly executed, disruptive ads. So rather than attack the companies that are helping consumers rid their world of these frustrations perhaps we should be condemning those companies that are the cause of this irritation.

On the bright side

There are positive things happening, the IAB launched its L.E.A.N principals which is a step in the right direction and have been getting the industry talking reasonably sensibly about the problems we face. The industry needs to come together and self-regulate pointing a spotlight on those companies that do not adhere to these principals. After all, these are basic good marketing and advertising principals which should already be being observed. Once we find them we should all chase them down the street with pitch forks until they do it right or go out of business. Easy.

I jest a little, this is a huge industry with many different components and mostly there are good companies and people that understand the principals of honest and ethical marketing. But there are also a lot of bad eggs out there chasing money. As an industry we need to find and stop these companies executing bad practices. But after they have been getting away with it for years, it is not an easy task.

Following the affiliate’s lead

To find an industry that has executed this with reasonable success we need to look no further than the affiliate marketing channel. In the last 10 years we have worked hard as a group of individuals and companies to ensure quality, a fair playing field and ethical practices. With the help of the IAB, the Affiliate Marketing Council has put in place a number of best practice and self-regulatory principals that all stakeholders within the market adhere to (affiliate networks, agencies, advertisers and publishers). We are proud of these principals as an industry and we do not take lightly to those that break the rules as we know that can harm the reputation of all of us.  I suggest the digital industry needs to follow a similar path and clean up its act; otherwise the use of ad blockers will only increase.

Educating consumers about advertising and commercial relationships with publishing sites is clearly another avenue that needs to be explored. Most of the sites that consumers visit would not exist without advertising, but paywalls have been tried and failed numerous times by large and small publishers alike. 61% of consumers say they would rather have ads than pay for content so I don’t really ever see a world where paywalls will be successful, there will always be someone that gives it away for free.  So we have to tackle to fundamental issue first and foremost, which is ridding the industry of companies executing poor advertising.

Why would an affiliate be concerned?

You might wonder why as an affiliate marketer I’m so worried about this, and that would be a good question. Across the affilinet network just 2% of our orders come from banners, and 98% come from content.  What you now understand as “native advertising” has been the bedrock of affiliate marketing since its creation over 20 years ago.  However, as a channel we are being negatively affected by ad blocking for two main reasons:  Firstly, ad blockers offer the ability to opt out of all “tracking” meaning the tracking mechanism which we use to attribute sales and pay publishers is disabled. Without this the publisher and network do not get paid.  Secondly, many of our publishers in addition to creating great content and generating quality sales for our advertisers in this way also rely on the income of banner advertising and ad networks, without this in many cases the publishers simply will not survive.

Growing consumer awareness will result in increased use of ad blocking and is a danger to all of us in the digital industry. We need to come together, to self-regulate and chase those bad eggs out. Whilst without a doubt we have not eradicated bad practice in the affiliate industry we most certainly have improved immensely and are proud to be a transparent and ethical industry. We have shown that this can be achieved with time, resource and commitment from all Stakeholders. It’s time to focus on the root cause of the problem, and as a digital industry tackle this head on.

Helen Southgate

Helen Southgate

Helen Southgate joins affilinet from BSkyB, where she was responsible for the broadcaster’s online marketing planning and strategy. Southgate has eleven years experience in performance marketing and in 2011 was the IAB Affiliate Marketing Council Chair. Her primary focus is to grow business in the UK, but she will also work alongside other country managers to grow the network at a European level.
Helen Southgate

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