Jonathan Harman: why the only way to block the adblockers is to win consumers’ trust

Within days of the mid-September launch of Apple’s iOS 9, and its promise to open up its software to adblocking, a number of adblocking apps had risen to the upper reaches of the App Store charts.

Apple’s move is likely to give a further boost to a trend that is already accelerating. Just a few weeks earlier, Adobe and PageFair released a study showing how the use of adblockers has been rising by 40 per cent a year.

But the concept of adblocking itself is nothing new. TVRs have been around for more than a decade, as have spam filters to say nothing of the page turn, the remote control and the kettle that have been around for even longer. Add in the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) and its mail equivalent, MPS, and we can see that consumers are well used to adblocking tools of one kind or another.

In mail, we deal both with our own form of adblocking (MPS) and, of course, data. As the UK’s third largest media owner behind Google and ITV, we at Royal Mail take the issue seriously. It also matters to us because mail is part of an ever more complex and interdependent media ecosystem.

The key is understanding what drives adblocking. From where we sit, we can see two main forces.

One is the irritation factor. Too many ads – in formats that are too intrusive – ruin the user experience.

The second is concern about personal data. This is less about data security in our view, and more a concern how my personal data is to be used by an individual brand.

It’s possible that the issue is also compounded by the fact that some digital inventory can be bought inexpensively. If it’s cheap, perhaps advertisers worry less about its placement?

But they ought to. Because if they don’t, the channels just won’t be available at scale as blocking rates rise and addressable universes fall.

Tackling the problem

First, how do we solve the irritation factor? Part of the answer is through native ads that are less intrusive and more palatable to consumers. Less zealous recency and frequency rates for retargeted display might help here too.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the use of more timely, relevant and better sequenced communications through the channels that consumers prefer is a faster way to earn trust.

We need data to fix this for the consumer. But ongoing use of that data, let alone permission to continue communicating with the customer, can’t be taken for granted.

Permission building is a skill and perhaps it’s an under-rated one. Brands need to be clear with the customer about what those permissions mean, and then explicit about how they will handle their data and what they can expect as a result. Over time, I think we’ll see advertisers move the issue of data protection out of the small print to become part of the brand proposition. It’s a path to building an enduring relationship with that customer.

If you’re looking for an example of what good looks like, in my opinion the Guardian does this brilliantly by explaining why it needs reader data, and then by telling readers how its privacy policy works.

In June we published some research into customer attitudes to data usage and privacy.

We found that consumers have two significant concerns about providing their personal information to an organisation. They are worried the company might lose their information, and about how it intends to use it. Addressing this is fundamental to building – and maintaining – marketing permission.

And we’ve just published some more research which shows that consumers, above all, value mail items that are personally relevant. Mail that is useful and interesting – and which drives many commercially valuable actions – is often customer centric and shows the consumer that the advertiser understands what they are interested in. So they appreciate the benefits of data driven communications; they just don’t want the risk of having their data abused.

The debate about adblocking is generating a lot of concern about the death of the free internet. But if it is reframed as an issue of trust, then the way forward is easier to map.

unnamedJonathan Harman is managing director of Royal Mail MarketReach

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.