09/29/2015 10:43 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

User Revolt: Digital advertising in the ad-blocking era

By Jamie Scheu, VP, Director of Experience Design at Hill Holliday

The era of mainstream adblocking is upon us. How are you feeling about it?

Is it the popping of a publishing bubble? A Napster moment for the publishing industry? "Blood sport," or, as the head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau put it, "robbery, plain and simple"?

We think none of the above. In fact, this is actually a very good thing for advertisers and forces an industry shift that's been a long time coming: Digital advertising has to get better. We have no choice but to create things that people would choose to seek out, spend time with, and share.

This act of choosing is itself incredibly powerful.

In the 1970s, a team of researchers at UCLA led by Ellen Langer conducted a straightforward experiment. The format went like this:

Two groups of participants are entered into a simple lottery. You can imagine these two groups as drawing from a standard deck of 52 playing cards, with the winning card to be chosen at random. There's a $1 buy-in, so the pot is worth $52. The 26 people in Group A get to select their card for themselves, while the 26 people in Group B have to pick a card a random.

Later that day, the experimenter approaches everyone in both groups and offers to buy back their ticket, because "someone else wants to play". Keep in mind that the expected value of each card, in economic terms, is $1. But we humans are far from rational actors. So how much did people demand to be paid in order to give up their ticket?

Group B, holding random cards, demand an average $1.96 to give up their card - nearly double what it should be worth. Clearly this is the endowment effect at play, which says that we value things we already own more highly simply because we own them.

What about Group A? They were holding cards drawn from the same deck, paid the same $1 buy-in, and faced the same odds.

This group had to be paid an astonishing $8.67 to give up their card - 4.4 times the other group. In pure financial measures, the sole fact that they chose something significantly increased their value of that thing.

This effect applies to marketing messages as well, and even the illusion of choice has a powerful effect. In a study of our own on the power of choice, we divided participants into two groups. One group was shown simply shown a movie trailer. The other group was given a choice between two descriptions of movies -- both of which accurately described the same movie. Regardless of the choice made, this group was shown the same movie trailer as the first. And yet the second group, who felt they had chosen their message, scored significantly higher on key marketing metrics such as a favorability, likability, and even recall of key messages.

What does this mean, in practical terms?
  1. In order to reach consumers when a majority or plurality of them are using ad blockers, we must create things that are informative, entertaining, or useful enough that people will choose to seek them out and share.
  1. The bar is much higher for this content. In the contest for attention, it's our content versus the entire internet. Users are only ever one click away from sports and cat videos.
  1. When we succeed in capturing attention, our efforts will be rewarded. The effectiveness of each impression delivered on a choice basis is significantly higher than impressions delivered by display units or interruptive messages.
Many brands are way out in front of this. Red Bull continues to devote a large portion of its marketing to cranking out videos and experiences that awe and entertain. Lowe's creates an enormous amount of high quality how-to content for the DIY-inclined. Geico nabbed a Grand Prix at Cannes this year with a series of delightful pre-roll videos that people didn't want to skip, even when they were told to. And it's the same reason we built an app called Bounce for IdeaPaint, a collaboration brand that started analog and now has a digital product in its lineup.

The future is in breakthrough ideas that stand on their own among all the noise. They prove, rather than merely communicate, what brands stand for through the experiences they deliver.

In short: They're built for what people want, not just what brands want to say.

Jamie Scheu is VP, Director of Experience Design at Hill Holliday, one of the largest agencies in the U.S. He'll be joining Jen Reddy, VP Marketing at IdeaPaint and Chris Heine, Digital Editor at AdWeek for a panel discussion called "Follow the User (or Get Left Behind)" September 30th at noon at BB Kings, as part of Advertising Week NYC 2015.