User Experience — The Fourth Horseman of the Adblockalypse

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth

In Greek Mythology the Minotaur was a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur lived within a complex Labyrinth, designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus.

The story goes that the Minotaur was offered human sacrifices every seventh or ninth year. The Greek hero Theseus intervened and volunteered to slay the monster. He promised his father, Aegeus, on his journey back home they would raise a white sail if he succeeded and black sails if he was killed.

Theseus did kill the Minotaur, but forgot to put up the white sails. When King Aegeus saw the black sails, presuming his son dead, he threw himself into the sea (Thenceforth, The Aegean Sea).

There are a lot of elements to this tale that reflect what has happened in the growth of adblocking. The following is our cast of characters…

  • Let’s call the Labyrinth a website, app or your digital platform.
  • Theseus is the user, who just wants to get through the Labyrinth by the path of least resistance, get what he needs and get out.
  • The Minotaur is the digital publisher. His half-bull, half-man appearance is the publisher grappling with being all things to all men. The publisher needs to make money from digital advertising (human). However, by serving digital advertising drives the user away (bull).
  • The reason I left in the tragic ending is that this is reflective of the current state of the digital publishing ecosystem. If the user succeeds in getting what they need on their own terms (with adblocking and avoiding advertising) it leads to ultimate tragedy as the publisher needs to fund content creation somehow. The tragedy also represents the tragedy of the commons notion we explored previously where the sins of one affect the many. One bad experience leading the user to install an adblocker affects all publishers, even if they have made strong efforts to improve user experience.

What is User Experience?

User experience is defined as “a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service”. According to the ISO definition, user experience includes all the users’ emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviors and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.

User experience in the case of ad blocking encapsulates every aspect of the Adblockalypse and the Four Horsemen we have outlined over the last four posts.

  • It encapsulates bad user experience when it comes to the platforms (site or app or Labyrinth’s) layout and performance.
  • It is bad user experience when it comes to the navigation around that property (site, app or platform).
  • It is bad user experience when it comes to the ads served to the user (relevant or not).
  • Finally, it is bad user experience when it comes the privacy issues around targeting, tracking and profiling.

Let’s now take a look at each of these elements in turn.

Layout and the Platformisation of the Web (and Apps)

(Pic — Wikipedia)

One of the huge challenges that publishers face is that the user experience is set by the big players. Facebook has 1.65B users (end Q1 2016) and those users are having their experience expectations set by Facebook. With their scale (of users) and simplicity (of buying advertising) they can afford to serve less ads per user, simply because there are so many users. They can also afford to invest hugely data, user experience, user interface, speed and infrastructure.

Contrast this to a indigenous website, which has fought hard to build a community, maybe using a WordPress site and very limited investment in infrastructure (if any). This type of publisher “eats what they kill” and can only invest in line with revenue growth.

Let’s just imagine I am a small publisher, but despite my size I still have to provide a high performance website and app (if I have one and I probably need one as they show more loyal, repeat visitors) because like it or not I am compared to the very biggest and best. The user does not care that I am a small fish, with small pockets because the user expectation bar is now set so high.

Apart from site performance I am also struggling from a commercial perspective as I lack the scale to be appealing to an agency, who seek scale and simplicity when buying. In addition, I have to sell ads at multiples of what it costs on Facebook and I am finding it harder and harder to survive.

Here is a common scenario for a small digital publisher. I charge €8CPM (Cost Per Mille/Thousand). So I need to serve 1,000 ads to earn a gross €8.

Amidst the Adblockalypse it has become harder to serve 1,000 ads. I have to serve less ads per page to improve my user experience and retain the audience who are not using ad blockers. Where I used to serve 2 or 4 ads per page in the past, now I have 1 or 2.

Some of the agencies who buy advertising from me now insist on paying for viewable impressions only.

Of my €8CPM, 15% goes to an agency and I am left with €6.80. I am represented by a sales house with a a 70/30 (sometimes even 60/40) split, so now I am down to €4.76. Then I may have to pay for ad-serving costs (i.e. a person to serve ads, if the sales house does not offer this). I may also have to pay for viewability analytics, which tell me which ads were (or were not) seen and weeds out non-human (bot) traffic. I need to do this as some agencies are now demanding this.

Let’s not forget the changes I have to make to my site to make my ads more viewable, that means further investment in my website and another unexpected invoice.

Then, I am finding I need to spend more on Facebook boosting to ensure my audience are aware of my content and I am not “out of sight, out of mind”.

Finally, let’s include a few industry events I have to attend every year and the coffees, lunches and meals I bought for my clients in order to maintain my business relationship.

Add all this up and it doesn’t leave very much return when I simply can’t offer the scale I so desperately need to survive.

…And so I am faced with a dilemma, do I keep going this way, seek new revenue streams, try my hand at content marketing and event management or do I give up the ghost and start publishing straight to Facebook and have a revenue share on ads sold by them?

I am also faced with a second huge problem I want to give my audience the best possible experience I can, I love doing this, it is why I started in the first place. However, I am running out of runway, the money is not coming in to provide me enough to reinvest back into my beloved product.

The Minotaur Dichotomy

(Pic — Flickr)

One of the most challenging aspects of being a digital publisher is the fact that we need to provide a great user experience while earning revenue through advertising. (Hence the notion of half man, half bull as represented by the Minotaur).

These goals are conflicting as we see more and more users choose ad blockers to make their user experience better and avoid ads.

The business model is a two sided one. The goal is to attract consumers with appealing content on one side, so that the property is appealing to advertisers on the second side. However, too much advertiser presence is a turn-off for consumers, especially when the advertiser presence includes: poor, intrusive creative (such as interstitials) and indeed too much advertising.

Unfortunately this breaks the “transaction” of free content in exchange for displaying ads.

What’s the Sound? Oh, it’s a Siren.

Let’s recall these beautiful creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck. They can represent temptation in this respect.

They tempt us to shipwreck (Adblockalypse), because we are tempted to make some website changes which benefit ad viewability over user experience. These include putting a large ad under the navigation of the website (interrupting the user experience) rather than leave that ad above the navigation (still not the mecca for the user, but at least less intrusive)

Tick-the-box Silo Marketing

Next week I will explore this topic that is prevalent in the eco-system where digital marketing is done in a silo. It is usually an afterthought and not integrated in the campaign. To that end, there is often very little thought and/or investment in digital creative.

This, in turn, leads to a poor advertising experience for the user. According to a recent Celtra and Digiday State of the Industry study, 330 media professionals, including advertisers and publishers were asked what role user experience played in the Adblockalypse.

51% of advertisers are improving the quality of their ad creative with 44% are also using data to better target their ads, to make them more relevant (the report highlights a lack of ad relevance as a detrimental contribution to poor user experience).

Let’s hope by combining better creative, informed by better data and targeting user advertising experience will improve and thus discourage ad blocker growth.

Privacy and Tracking FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

(p.209 Mary Meekers Internet Trends Report 2016)

Think back to the Pagefair Report we discussed here that identified ad blockers as popular in emerging countries partly because they help reduce load times and bandwidth use and thereby reduces data costs.

Now have a quick look at the chart above from Mary Meekers Internet Trends Report 2016.

Now think of any unnecessary tracking or code that you may have on your site that is slowing up precious site speed (user expectation is getting nearer to 2 seconds for load speed).

Now think of a common scenario that goes like this: a new great tracking/optimisation/analytics tool is on the market. There is a 30 day free trial. You are told all your competitors are using and tracking FOMO kicks in and you go for it. In addition, all you need to do is insert a couple of lines of code into the head section of the site and you are done.

You get the code inserted, barely use the product because you are time starved, never quite get around to removing the code and it slows down the site performance.

While trying to optimise your user experience and recruit and retain audience you inadvertently repel them by slowing down your site. This is common, so you are not alone. However, I would highly recommend an audit and a cull of what you don’t need.

The majority of publishers tend to be time poor and often suffer from working in the business and struggle to get time to work on the business.

A zoom out and a look at site optimisation is highly recommended. Treat your own site as if you are a user. Test speed using a plethora of free tools. Audit file sizes from ads to imagery.

Often the model for digital only players is to hire college graduates with little or no training and show them quickly the process of posting stories. Those same graduates don’t get any guidance on simple things like image file size optimisation (there are also free tools for this). Optimised images for example are more suitable for web, will improve site speed and will save you on disk storage.

Interestingly, as I write this Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post — which has invested hugely in their digital publishing infrastructure —is now offering a suite of digital publishing tools as licensed products. The suite is called Arc Publishing and one of the huge benefits of signing up are…performance, stability, speed and seo. This move is reminiscent of Bezos’ hugely profitable move to build his only web services for Amazon and then to turn this into the behemoth that is AWS (Amazon Web Services).


When it comes to the Adblockalypse one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to “control the controllables”. So all we can do is follow the guidelines and “clean up” our infrastructures. What we can do is aim for: better looking ads, less-but-more-targeted-ads, ads in context, faster sites, less cluttered sites, tracking only to achieve a user benefit such as ads in context, user sign in.

Trust, authenticity and quality content should always win. This means you are building a community rather than “visitors”, which suggests transience and no loyalty. The more loyal and subscribed audience you can build the better.

The huge challenge and the “uncontrollable” is the Adblockalypse. As we previously identified the adblocker is impartial to whether you have done all you can do to make your user experience great. In this respect you can respectfully tell the audience this.

Advertising revenue is what pays for the content and if the user blocks this advertising then we are on course for a tragedy, much like the tragedy of King Aegeus mentioned above.

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Next week, we will look at how to treat your marketing campaigns in a digital world.

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