The hard reality: Online advertising has irritated users with online ads for too long

The processing and selling of user data to brands and advertisers has been driving the digital economy for the last decade. In fact, it’s the reason why the big five tech titans of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook are now the most valuable publicly listed companies in the world.


Over time, as the selling of online ads has shifted from the conception of selling real estate (“I’m buying this ad placement at publisher X”) to something more like the buying of eyeballs (“I want a user that fits these attributes right after dinner” or even “I want customer X from my CRM right after dinner”), users’ data has rapidly become the most important web asset for countless participants in the online economy.


Data: the world’s new oil


Data, so the popular refrain goes, is the world’s new oil. And – to push the oil analogy a little further – it is the refinement process associated with the harvesting of online users’ personal information that extracts the real value from that vast swathe of raw user information generated daily.


To put the data economy into some kind of context, the World Economic Forum recently estimated that 463 exabytes of data will be created each day globally by the year 2025 (an almost unimaginable amount, bearing in mind that a single exabyte is one billion gigabytes).


What’s really interesting is over this same five-year span we will also see the data market for advertisers change drastically. The phasing out of cookie-based (and other) trackers will soon be complete, thanks to anti-tracking policies by Apple and Mozilla’s Firefox. Chrome will follow in their footsteps and, most importantly, the arrival of new data protection legislation such as GDPR and CCPA. 


So, what does this mean for how user data will be gathered in the future? Well, the truth is tracking can still be effective (and precise) without cookies. In fact, the market is exploding with vendors offering detailed user visibility that is based on other identifiers, most notably email addresses. These changes mean technology, advertising and content publishing industries now require a solution that not only reduces overreliance on third-party cookies and other personal identifiers, but also increases their respect towards users’ privacy. 


Almost-forced consent is NOT consent


I should probably take a step back here and reiterate that I am not calling for breaking the principle of monetizing online content. I don’t have a large enough vocabulary to emphasize the importance of freely available, ad-funded content on the web.


And while it is obvious marketers want to preserve their ability to target audiences based on clearly defined personal characteristics, what is perhaps less obvious (to many users and online privacy advocates, in particular) is that this approach serves the interests of the vast majority of online users too.


Simply put, a non-ads-funded web would be far too costly for most. Ads fund the content that most of us browse daily. 


However, in practice, ads were pushing at the barrier level of user annoyance for years until ad blocking came to the picture. More recently, data laws such as GDPR have forced businesses and advertisers to take user privacy seriously or risk the consequences: considerable knocks to their credibility and profitability.


Unfortunately, too many online stakeholders are guilty of claiming compliance with privacy legislation such as GDPR by offering users confusing choice screens in order to gain their almost-forced consent for tracking. We’ve seen recent evidence of this following the Privacy Collective’s lawsuit against Oracle and Salesforce as an example of the alleged disconnection between users’ consent and the parties that process the data in practice. In light of this, it begs the question, is this the sort of engagement that valued brands wish to have with their customers?


Rather than educating audiences about the online advertising-to-content value exchange and its importance for the continuation of a free web, a rethink is needed. By continuing to engage in these kinds of user-consent circumvention measures, users are inevitably still being delivered online ad experiences that irritate them.


Online tracking and targeting of users are the engines driving programmatic bidding. However, to actually offer users online experiences they want, it’s important to offer proper control over the browsing experience through more advanced privacy tools.


To build a “new deal” between audiences and the online economy, based on trust and respect, advertising should reflect the real choice of users. In fact, they should be empowered to claim control over the usage of their data online, while offering a new privacy-first model for data-driven advertisement.


The key to ensuring users are not irritated by ads is simple. The ad-tech ecosystem as a whole must provide users with the transparency and control the current ads infrastructure lacks. This way, advertisers can regain and retain users’ trust in the value exchange between content and its consumers. This will support a revitalization of an industry, which has long ignored the needs of the audience.

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