The Soda Academy
"Wherever inferior experiences and financial opportunity overlap, innovation and disruption can’t be far behind."
"We are still in the early stages of innovation, but headed resolutely toward disruption."

Christian Cantrell, Adobe

The Inevitable Disruption of Advertising

Experience Prototyping

Disruption requires two main ingredients. The first one is obviously innovation. That’s the sexy side of technology: the iPhone, the streaming music service, the nice clean Uber right around the corner ready to take you and your crew out for cocktails. But the second ingredient actually comes first, and though it is far less compelling, it’s every bit as necessary.

Before there can be truly disruptive innovation, you need a long dark period of stagnation: the frustrating and clunky proto-smartphone; the unwieldy, multi-gigabyte music collection requiring hours of curation and syncing; the reckless taxi that takes twenty minutes to hail, and then refuses to accept your credit card.

If there’s one technology I would compare to a miserable cab ride through a hot, loud, and congested city, it’s online advertising. When animations aren’t competing for your attention, pre-roll video ads are distracting you from your distractions. And, of course, the moment you finally settle into a captivating read, you usually find yourself assaulted by a full-screen, modal dialog begging you to subscribe so that you can subject yourself to all of these abuses on a regular basis.

Yet, like taxis, online advertising is a vital service. Without it, that content we’re trying so hard to get to, and then to focus on, wouldn’t be there in the first place. It’s a complex and vaguely Freudian relationship wherein the very thing we hate makes the things we love possible. Fortunately, wherever inferior experiences and financial opportunity overlap, innovation and disruption can’t be far behind.

If your own experiences aren’t enough to convince you that we are firmly entangled in a quagmire of online advertising gluttony, let’s take a quick look at how both individuals and industries are responding. According to a joint 2014 study by PageFair and Adobe, ad blocking grew by nearly 70% to about 144 million active users between 2013 and 2014. That places browser plugins like AdBlock and AdBlock Plus—once secrets of the technorati—firmly within mainstream territory. And with Apple’s iOS 9 now supporting “content” blocking (a euphuism for stripping ads from websites), ad blocking is rapidly being adopted in the one place the advertising industry was expecting the most significant growth: mobile. And finally, in a series of tests conducted in September of this year, The New York Times reported that “For a number of websites that contained mobile ads, web page data sizes decreased significantly and load times accelerated enormously with ad blockers turned on.”

Now that we’ve established both the stagnation of online advertising, and the pent-up demand for disruption, let’s take a look at some of the innovations that will hopefully lead to better experiences for readers, and therefore better returns for publishers and advertisers.

The most well-known is probably the new Apple News application that was introduced with iOS 9 (not coincidentally, along with content blocking). While Apple News is primarily about aggregating and curating nicely formatted articles from a wide variety of publishers, it’s also about a better advertising experience since all ads served by Apple’s iAds platform must comply with strict content guidelines. Likewise, over the summer, Facebook introduced their Instant Articles initiative which not only caches content locally for near-instantaneous viewing, but also imposes a set of guidelines on ads served by their own advertising network.

Then there are the more open (meaning less proprietary) approaches aimed at fixing advertising. Although it may seem like the AdBlock Plus (ABP) browser plugin is in the business of blocking ads, one might argue that it is, in fact, in the business of deciding which ads not to block.

By default, ABP allows ads through their filter that they consider “acceptable” which their manifesto defines as experiences that are neither disruptive nor annoying. In response to concerns over a single company having the power to decide which ads are acceptable and which get blocked, Eyeo, the company behind ABP, announced in September of this year that it will relinquish control of the Acceptable Ads Program to an independent review board. (Details forthcoming.)

And finally, there’s Google’s response. Like Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative, or AMP, is ostensibly about delivering and rendering mobile content many times faster than it is today. But it is also very much about establishing a standard where ads know their place and behave themselves, and readers therefore have less incentive to block them.

If we try to pinpoint where online advertising currently falls within the equation of stagnation + innovation = disruption, I’d say we are still in the early stages of innovation, but headed resolutely toward disruption. How this multibillion-dollar industry will ultimately be transformed, nobody yet knows. Nonetheless, I’m confident that it will be remade in a form that will strike a much more equitable balance across stakeholders. It’s inevitable that there will be a redistribution of winners and losers along the way, but as with most disruptive moments in tech history, I believe we will be left with an environment where both media creation and consumption will be able to flourish in ways that benefit everyone.

About the author:

Christian Cantrell is a Senior Experience Development Manager on Adobe’s XD team, and a science fiction author.