The power of users: AdTech and the GameStop affair

Earlier this year, a story of a video game retailer’s soaring stock price sparked the attention of the American financial markets. GameStop, which makes most of its money selling video games in stores across the US, saw its stock price rise as much as 1,700% in January. The rise in stock prices was backed by fans who wanted to ensure hedge funds would lose millions by attempting to short the stock. As small investors championed their purchases of the retailer’s stock in viral posts online, the stock rapidly rose in price, forcing the large investors to spend billions of dollars to cover their losses.

 

As this news made its way around the financial world, it also raised a few eyebrows for those working in the adtech community. Many drew parallels between the power, or lack of, that common people have in the financial markets and browsing experience. 

 

Similarities between the two

The GameStop saga started with one person who shared their vision with others until eventually, this idea reached a wider audience. Over a period of time, this vision turned into a movement, disrupting a powerful industry to the point where the biggest players called for new forms of regulation to prevent it ever happening again. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a David versus Goliath grudge match.

 

Those working in the adtech industry will remember that in 1996 PrivNet, a user-based organization, developed a plug-in for the Netscape browser, Fast Forward, that could block ads and cookies. Similar to WallStreetBets, who received major backlash from hedge funds and even politicians, PrivNet experienced huge criticism from advertisers and had their software discontinued, following the threat of a potential lawsuit – but as we know, this didn’t stop the ad-blocking movement. 

 

This is what we are currently seeing with GameStop. Although many major trading apps, like Robinhood, halted the purchase of GameStop shares which led to the value decreasing significantly, these restrictions were eventually lifted. Even after the initial period, the movement is still alive and strong, with GameStop stock price rising again and gathering momentum.

 

The importance of user-led movements

One thing the GameStop affair has done is outline the power of user-led movements. Ad blocking was essentially started by users, and it is maintained by an open-source list operated by independent users. Similarly, the GameStop movement was started by users through multiple social channels. The main channel, WallStreetBets, allowed users to contribute to the subreddit group to decide what stocks to target. Both are the products of users coming together to change an entire industry.

 

However, for ad blocking to get to where it is now, it has had to mature and go through perilous hurdles. What started off as a movement to block all forms of advertising has, over the course of many years, blossomed into a movement that now filters ads rather than block them all. After much research, the advertising community now understands that ad-filtering users are happy to receive ads as long as they are not intrusive and do not hinder their browsing experience. 


This means that publishers can offer their content for free, in exchange for their readership seeing ads. The only twist is that the value exchange between ad-filtering users and publishers gives the former only ads that meet their high standards.

 

As relevant as ad filtering still is, the dish du jour is undoubtedly privacy. Users have demanded it, and legislators as well as browser makers have responded… Let’s take third-party cookies, for example. Third-party cookies, the tool that underpins data-driven advertising, are already missing from several platforms and they will be completely ineffective in less than a year on Google Chrome. While third-party cookies may not be the only way to perform user tracking, these changes signal a wider trend. Crucially, this change was driven by the consumers’ desire to have more control over their personal data, showing that user-led movements can significantly influence even the biggest industry leaders.

 

With GameStop shares still fluctuating and with general trading at an all-time high, it is clear the GameStop saga will not be a one-off. The event has shown the power users have when they work together to take on the industry. If the advertising sector chooses not to ignore users’ collective voice, then I think we know how this techie fairy tale might go south. 


This is why it is important to listen to your audience and take on board their views for future integration and developments. Trying to drown one voice might seem fairly simple, as was with the case of PrivNet. But when a collective group of people come together to try and oppose a system that works against them, it certainly makes that movement much more difficult to silence.  

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