The Solution to Ad Blocking Is to Double-Down on Earned Media

Ad Blocking May Usher in the Great Era of Earned Media

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The screams of concern are palpable. Publishers, ad-tech companies, media buyers and marketers spent the last 20 years building a robust digital advertising ecosystem. Now they may be witnessing big chunks of it potentially being dismantled as consumers who are fed up with slow loading, data-hungry web pages arm themselves with ad blockers.

Ad blockers have been around for many years. But they were never mainstream.

This all accelerated, however, with the recent release of Apple's iOS 9 and the launch of the AdBlock browser on Android earlier this year. Both created a new way for consumers to easily install the software on billions of mobile devices. The appeal for consumers: potentially huge savings on mobile data fees.

Mobile ad blockers are already proving to be a hit with the public. These tools block most display ads, search ads, video pre-rolls and even some in-feed sponsored content. However, they leave in-app social ads on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms largely intact.

The potential ramifications for publishers are significant. According to comScore, 62% of all U.S. time spent with media takes place on mobile devices. Ad blockers not only put a huge chunk of display advertising revenue at risk, but are a clear and present danger to the media's high hopes for sponsored content, which is now rendered all but invisible.

This shift will likely push more publishers into the arms of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. All three of these companies are partnering with the press to allow them to publish directly to their platforms and serve their ads natively as well.

Just last week, The Washington Post became the latest to embrace such a direct-to-platform model. It is now publishing all of its content into Facebook under the social network's new Instant Articles program.

It's not just publishers that are impacted by ad blocking. It's marketers, too. They may increasingly now have to pay a premium for the few digital advertising options that do remain viable. One of these may be the aforementioned in-app native ads that Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Flipboard and other platforms offer. All of these, at least today, are immune to ad blockers.

There remain a lot of unknowns and a lot of conjecture. What is known, however, is that in the months ahead we will surely see an escalating war as publishers, ad-tech companies and marketers make an effort to devise new ad formats and developers race to serve consumers who are hungry to block it all.

Worse, it comes as ad viewability and bot fraud remain key concerns.

Eventually, however, capitalism will prevail and the marketplace will sort itself out as new solutions are developed.

This is what happened ten years ago in TV when TiVo and DVRs encouraged widespread ad skipping. This arguably helped give rise to subscription services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime -- which ushered in binge-watching. And it also created a robust market for branded entertainment and product placement. Both of which are thriving today.

However, this can take years. And marketers don't have time to wait.

There is a fundamental short-term solution, however, that marketers will begin to favor. And it's possible this will become the long-term play in both business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing.

Specifically, the most viable solution is to double-down on earned media -- attention that is derived through the words and expressions of others, rather than that which is paid for.

In the great era of ad blocking, communications-centric programming will lead and surgical paid marketing buys will follow in lockstep to support it. Programs will have to earn attention if they are to break through. And the remaining options in digital paid media will be used primarily to amplify it.

The reason is simple: Earned media is the only format that is impervious to ad blocking.

That doesn't, however, mean it will be easier for marketers. In fact, the opposite is true. It's always harder to earn attention than it is to pay for it. But arguably, earned media is more credible as well.

What's worse, there's now a new layer of intermediary between those who create content and those who consume it -- and that's algorithms. This will mandate that marketers build earned programs that put content at the core that is both linear and logical and social by design and can make it onto the few apps that have a pole position on consumer's home screens.

To be sure, paid media is still relevant. Many influencer engagements are now paid. And precision native social buys that support earned and owned programming will be needed as well.

Still, in an age of ad blockers and technology-empowered consumers, earned media may be the surest way to break through, and it's an exciting time to be a communicator. We may look back on this time as the beginning of the great era of earned media.