09/29/2015 03:53 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

To Block or Not to Block: The Ad Is the Question

To block or not block (ads)? That's the question in the Digital Age. Any way you slice it, users have become accustomed to free content on the Internet. It's a plain fact that we all want - no, expect - everything digital to be free. However, the problem for most digital publishers is that content is far from free to produce and publish on the Internet. To offset these costs, publishers turned to ad revenue from their website traffic. But, then, their audience spoke with a resounding distaste for ads. In fact, the growing trend of ad blockers, estimated to cost publishers nearly $22 billion in 2015, illustrates why they now have to look elsewhere for a monetization model.

One such option is embeddable native forms of revenue. Digital Marketer offers a three-part series in which Molly Pittman helps bloggers and advertisers learn the ins and outs of native advertising. Pittman explains that traditional banners and social ads make a clear offer like "switch to our service, buy our product, and shop now." This type of ad just doesn't convert anymore.

What has generated an incredible response is the first native ads on the Internet displayed by Google and many others that have followed. Native advertising is already big business. In 2013, U.S advertisers spent $2.4 billion on native ads, but that doesn't stop those who try to explain native advertising in a manner that is appropriately geared to their own reality. No one tells it better than John Oliver.

The reason these native ads work is that Millennials are a different breed of consumer who will no longer be sold to. If they sense a sales pitch, they just keep scrolling right on past those particular marketing ploys. Instead, this demographic wants to be entertained. They also expect the news, music, movies and information on the Internet to be free. This is not your grandma's era where people used to pay for news and a map. Today's average consumer thinks they can have their cake for free, and eat it too.

With more Millennials than Baby Boomers and GenXers, publishers are now struggling to decide how to make all groups happy while continuing to use ads to get attention and still fund content production. While each group is distinct, they ALL want their content for free. As each group pushes and motivates the other to change, the need has grown to pivot and change in order to fulfill this demand for free information.

Enter Apester, a New York-based digital storytelling platform that drives increased engagement for publishers by integrating the voice of the reader seamlessly into their editorial coverage. This company's interactive content provides an immersive and engaging experience with a click-through rate of close to 20%. 

"We see ourselves as an engagement broker," says Moti Cohen, Founder and CEO of Apester. "We believe that brands can coexist alongside editorial content, but it's a hard mix. We are working directly with editorial teams to ensure the product is complementary to the article, not an ad unit, as well as directly with brands to ensure they convey their message as accurately as possible and promote content that isn't hidden by ad blockers."

However, native ads are not perfect. Cohen noted that, "The key to scale in this business is ease of use, and units that can travel, meaning one unit can be utilized for multiple publishers. By making the creation process significantly easier, our brands are able to now disseminate their messages through interactive content units, freeing up the article to be completely editorial. This allows us to deliver super high distribution scale quickly and a cost-effective proposition for both brands and host publishers."

On average, readers bounce off an article in less than 15 seconds. Even if they stay longer, no one can tell how much of the content was read and absorbed. However, Apester claims that their units allow for brands and publishers alike to only pay for real, human engagement, which delivers a more accountable approach to native advertising and content sponsorship. Moreover, Cohen believes that interactive and engaging content will serve to re-instate "letters to the editor" and "opinion pieces," content that is glaringly missing from online publications. He points out that often the comments on a piece are no less interesting and important than the piece itself.

This perspective has emerged due, in part, to the Millennials. They have something to say and are going to say it, as well influenced the fact that people now observe their own Internet searches. More people are not just reading the content, but they are also scrolling further down to see what others have said about the subject. This multi-generational group is just as interested in what others have to say as they are about the content piece itself. In our digital world, the user (reader, listener, and watcher) has a more active role in the content they consume.

With more than 300 million impressions a month and 450+ leading publishers using AOL, The Telegraph, The Next Web, and, native advertising is reshaping ads by providing a digital storytelling experience. At the same time, Google's concept for native ads, found a way to help advertisers, brands, and publishers all at the same time to be able to recoup costs and enhance their overall profitability. As a win-win, it seems like we don't need to be asking whether to block ads or not? Instead, we should be asking, what should our native advertising strategy look like?