On the march: Ad blocking tools continue their rise in popularity.

What Adblock PromisesI’ve blogged before about the rise of online ad blocking tools and their growing popularity with consumers.

One example:  AdTrap – a device that intercepts online ads before they reach any devices that access a person’s Internet connection.

AdTrap’s motto is simple and powerful:  “The Internet is yours again.”

In the months and years since I first blogged about it, ad blocking has only become more popular – so much so that it’s no longer just a mild irritant to advertisers and publishers, but rather a commercial threat that has a significant impact on publishers’ financial bottom lines.

It’s hardly surprising.  Most people want to run as far away from advertising as they can.  For years, we’ve taken trips to the kitchen or bathroom during TV commercial breaks.  We’ve TiVo’d ads out of existence.

And the participation levels in online ad blocking bear this out now as well.  According to data from PageFair, a company that measures publishers’ ad blocking rates and provides alternative non-intrusive advertising options, the number of ad blocker tool users reached nearly 145 million people in 2014.

That’s more than five times the 21 million users of ad blocker tools we had in 2010.

Growth continues apace:  Adblock Plus, which is the biggest of the ad blocking tools, reports more than 2.3 million downloads each week, on average.

Where are people blocking online ads?  In all sorts of areas.  But the most frequent incidence of ad blocking is on gaming sites, where blocking rates are in excess of 50%.

But blocking is happening on other online sites, too, including entertainment, fashion and lifestyle sites – albeit at about half the degree as on gaming sites.

[Tellingly, ad blocking is happening on technology sites, too, where about a quarter of the ads are being blocked.]

One of the more interesting nuggets of information reported by PageFair is the difference in ad blocking rates by country.  What we see is that Americans lag well-behind a number of other countries:

  • Argentina: ~34 of online ads are blocked
  • Poland: ~34% are blocked
  • Sweden: ~33%
  • Finland: ~32%
  • Germany: ~30%
  • United States: ~15%

Germany, in particular, has been the scene of several fervent legal skirmishes in recent years.  There, the publisher of the news magazine Die Zeit sued the parent company of AdBlock, claiming that the ad blocking tool is “illegal and anti-competitive.”  (The suit went nowhere, incidentally.)

Some observers speculate that the higher incidence of ad blocking in certain countries may be tied to those nations’ sociological profiles.  “I personally suspect that in some of these countries, citizens are more concerned about their personal privacy – perhaps for historical reasons,” Sean Blanchfield, PageFair’s CEO, has remarked.

One might wonder if, in the age of Edward Snowden and the Patriot Act (now superseded by new legislation ironically called the “USA Freedom Act”), Americans’ ad blocking practices might now be poised to align more closely with Europeans’.

I imagine we’ll know more about that degree of convergence within a year or two.

What people dislike most about B-to-B websites …

Too many business-to-business websites remain the “poor stepchildren” of the online world even after all these years.

btob websitesSo much attention is devoted to all the great ways retailers and other companies in consumer markets are delighting their customers online.

And it stands to reason:  Those sites are often intrinsically more interesting to focus on and talk about.

Plus, the companies that run those sites go the extra mile to attract and engage their viewers.  After all, consumers can easily click away to another online resource that offers a more compelling and satisfying experience.

Or, as veteran marketing specialist Denison ‘Denny’ Hatch likes to say, “You’re just one mouse-click away from oblivion.”

By comparison, buyers in the B-to-B sphere often have to slog through some pretty awful website navigation and content to find what they’re seeking.  But because their mission is bigger than merely viewing a website for the fun of it, they’ll put up with the substandard online experience anyway.

But this isn’t to say that people are particularly happy about it.

Through my company’s longstanding involvement with the B-to-B marketing world, I’ve encountered plenty of the “deficiencies” that keep business sites from connecting with their audiences in a more fulfilling way.

Sometimes the problems we see are unique to a particular site … but more often, it’s the “SOS” we see across many of them (if you’ll pardon the scatological acronym).

Broadly speaking, issues of website deficiency fall into five categories:

  • They run too slowly.
  • They look like something from the web world’s Neanderthal era.
  • They make it too difficult for people to locate what they’re seeking on the site.
  • Worse yet, they actually lack the information visitors need.
  • They look horrible when viewed on a mobile device — and navigation is no better.

Fortunately, each of these problems can be addressed – often without having to do a total teardown and rebuild.

But corporate inertia can (and often does) get in the way.

Sometimes big changes like Google’s recent “Mobilegeddon” mobile-friendly directives come along that nudge companies into action.  In times like that, it’s often when other needed adjustments and improvements get dealt with as well.

But then things can easily revert back to near-stasis mode until the next big external pressure point comes down the pike and stares people in the face.

Some of this pattern of behavior is a consequence of the commonly held (if erroneous) view that B-to-B websites aren’t ones that need continual attention and updating.

I’d love for more people to reject that notion — if for SEO relevance issues alone.  But after nearly three decades of working with B-to-B clients, I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that there’ll always be some of that dynamic at work.  It just comes with the territory.

Banking on Facebook: The social media giant makes its first moves into the credit-card payments business.

untitledRecently, I blogged about how Google’s efforts to expand its business activities beyond pay-per-click advertising — thereby diversifying its revenue stream — haven’t borne much fruit.

In 2011, ~96% of Google’s revenues came from PPC advertising.  In 2014, it’s ~97%.

But Google isn’t the only behemoth whose income is completely tied to advertising.  Over at Facebook, ~93% of the company’s more than ~12 billion in revenues come from advertising as well.

Compared to Google, Facebook is a relative newcomer to the advertising game.  But once it got in on the action, its growth was very robust.

In 2014 alone, Facebook’s advertising revenues were up 58% over the previous year.

But … there’s a bit of a problem.  In a world where advertising revenues are tied to “eyeballs,“ Facebook’s user growth isn’t on the right trajectory.  When the network has nearly 1.5 billion active users already, there’s not a lot of room for expansion.

This is reflected in Facebook’s Q4 year-over-year percentage growth stats as published by Mediassociates, a media planning and buying agency:

  • 2009: ~260% year-over-year growth
  • 2010: ~69% growth
  • 2011: ~39% growth
  • 2012: ~25% growth
  • 2013: ~16% growth
  • 2014: ~13% growth

One can easily imagine 2015’s growth figure dipping into the single digits, giving Facebook all the hallmarks of being a mature company in a maturing market.

But the always-enterprising folks at Facebook have had something up their sleeve which they’re rolling out to the market now:  getting into the multi-billion credit-card payments business.

Facebook send money appThey’re starting small:  introducing a “send-friends-money” functionality to Facebook’s Messenger app.  But this rather innocuous addition hardly does justice to Facebook’s end-game strategy.

When you think about it, Facebook’s aims make a lot of sense.  With nearly 1.5 billion active users around the world, Facebook’s accounts make PayPal’s ~162 million active accounts seem pretty paltry by comparison.

But revenue from PayPal’s transaction tolls isn’t chump change at all:  nearly $8 billion last year alone.

Without doubt, Facebook is also looking at the huge amount of business done by American Express and VISA; think of the billions of dollars those companies earn by charging merchants between 2% and 3.5% on the value of each credit-card transaction.

Facebook’s entry into the business can be facilitated neatly through its Messenger mobile app, making it just as easy (or easier) to pay for goods and services as with a credit card.

Considering that Facebook’s users with mobile phones are already spending time on the network an average of an hour per day, it’s pretty easy to see how people could make the transition from traditional credit and debit card payments to using their Facebook app for precisely the same purposes.

And Facebook could sweeten the pot by working with retailers and marketers to offer real cash loads that would likely juice participation even more – sort of a cash rebate in advance of the purchase rather than afterward.

So we shouldn’t think of Facebook’s new “send-friends-money” feature as a one-off function.

Instead, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  If I were a manager at VISA or AmEx, I’d be thinking long and hard about the real motivations – and real implications – of Facebook’s latest moves.

It’s Official: Cyber Monday 2014 was the Biggest e-Commerce Day in U.S. History

Cyber Monday ShoppingIn the days following Black Friday this year, we heard reports that consumer purchase volumes at stores were down more than 10% compared to 2013.

A number of explanations for the decline were given, among them the notion that Black Friday sales are less of a draw this year, since merchandise sales now begin before Thanksgiving and tend to run the entire month of December.

But some observers speculated as to whether soft Black Friday revenue figures presage an equally soft holiday shopping season overall.

Well … now that we have sales figures from Cyber Monday (the Monday following Black Friday weekend), I think it’s safe to say that any concerns about a tepid holiday buying season are unfounded.

Custora E-Commerce Pulse, a customer relationship management firm which tracked more than 100 million online shoppers and over $40 billion in e-commerce revenue over the full Thanksgiving Holiday weekend, has just reported that Cyber Monday e-commerce revenues were up over 15% compared with Cyber Monday 2013.

That makes Cyber Monday 2014 the single biggest day in U.S. online shopping ever in history.

Other days of the Thanksgiving weekend also showed robust gains in online shopping:  Black Friday online sales were up ~21% over 2013, and online shopping on Thanksgiving Day itself were up nearly 18% over Thanksgiving Day in 2013.

The strong growth was fueled by mobile shopping, e-mail marketing, plus online product searches on Google and other search engines.

In particular, mobile shopping accounted for ~22% of orders on Cyber Monday, significantly higher than the ~16% of orders recorded last year.

On Black Friday itself, mobile shopping accounted for around 30% of all orders — yet another dramatic increase over 2013 when mobile shopping account for just shy of 23% of orders.

This year’s Cyber Monday stats put the lie to the notion that e-mail marketing is losing its luster.  In fact, e-mail marketing drove nearly one in four online shopping orders, outstripping natural search (at ~19% of all orders) and paid search (~16% of orders).

Much ado about (practically) nothing: Social media and Cyber Monday.
Much ado about (practically) nothing: Social media and Cyber Monday.

And guess which channels weren’t a meaningful part of the holiday shopping experience this year?

If you guessed social media … you’re absolutely correct.

Taken together, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram accounted for only about 1.5% of online e-commerce orders on Cyber Monday.  (For the weekend as a whole, it was only slightly better at ~1.7%.)

This year’s statistics just add more confirmation of several truisms about online consumer marketing:

  • Targeted e-mail still works the best.
  • Online search is important.
  • Social media is like Lucy and the football.

Google Comes Clean on Ad Viewability (or Non-Viewability?)

clear view or no clear viewThere have been quite a few reports in recent times pointing to the lack of viewability of online display advertising, and I’ve blogged about this topic before.

And now, we have the $55-billion “advertising vacuum-cleaner company” Google itself admitting as much.

It comes in a study that Google has just released.  The report presents findings from its analysis of display ad programs using its “active view” technology (like DoubleClick) to determine which factors are affecting the viewability of ads.

The results aren’t pretty; more on that below.

But first … why is Google doing this?

I suspect it’s because more advertisers are now insisting on paying only for their ads that have been actually viewed, as compared to those simply served.

Now, to what Google is reporting.  It turns out that fewer than half of all ad impressions served on Google’s display platforms are ever seen, because they’re served outside of the viewer’s browser window.

That is correct:  A huge chunk of Google’s billions in ad revenues that it collects come from ads that no one ever saw.

What digital advertising platforms love to remind us is that their programs are superior to “bad old television and radio advertising” because of their sophisticated targeting capabilities and their superior measurement metrics.

That may be.  But how is it all that different for TV viewers to miss an ad because they took a kitchen or bathroom break, compared to people who never even had the opportunity to see an ad that was “served” in a dead zone?

The next question is, “What can advertisers do to help minimize the incidence of phantom online advertising?”

Helpfully, Google provides some clues in its report.  For instance, the highest viewability for ads is immediately above the “fold” – in other words, at the point where the viewer must begin to scroll down to see the rest of the page.

Surprisingly, viewability right above the fold is slightly higher than at the very top of the page.  But it’s massively less so just below that magic spot.  Google pressented five charts in its report to illustrate this drop-off phenomenon; the one reproduced below shows viewability of vertical position ads sized 728 x 90 pixels:

Average viewability by vertical position on online ads


Less surprising, perhaps, is the fact that vertical ads have higher viewability than horizontal or block ads, for the simple reason that they stay on the page longer:

Most viewable online display ad sizes


By publishing this data, Google purports to want to help their advertisers understand high- and low-value inventory better so they can target their campaigns more appropriately and effectively.

Google is also encouraging publishers to strive for delivering viewability rates in excess of 50% by offering ad inventory that will perform more effectively in its respective positions.

My only question is … why has it taken Google so long to set these standards and to publicize them in the first instance?

Sure, Google’s only the middleman between publishers and their viewers.  But it’s a pivotally important one.

America’s Smallest Businesses Get Hands-On with Digital Marketing

DIYAs more MarComm activities increasingly migrate to the web and to social media platforms, small businesses are increasingly taking a DIY approach in their marketing programs.

That’s the major takeaway from a survey of nearly 2,600 small business owners conducted by Insight By Design for Webs, a subsidiary of Vistaprint.

For purposes of the study, small businesses were defined as those having 10 or fewer employees.  The results of the field survey, which was conducted in the spring of 2014, were published in Vistaprint’s 2014 Digital Usage Study.

vistaprint-logoTwo-thirds of the small business respondents reported that they are actively using digital products to market their businesses.  Of those who have websites for their business, nearly 60% of them created their own websites using DIY tools.

An even larger proportion — 80% — act as their own webmasters.

Small businesses consider customer acquisition and generating new customer leads as the most important reasons for maintaining a web presence.

In the social media realm, Facebook is the most popular platform for promoting small businesses — so said nearly 90% of the survey respondents who are active in social media marketing.

Facebook is viewed as not only a vehicle for building brand awareness and acquiring new customers, but also for building a network of followers and engaging with them over time.

The survey’s respondents reported that all of the other major social platforms lag far behind Facebook in importance:

  • Facebook: ~88% consider it to be a highly important social media channel for their business
  • LinkedIn: ~39%
  • Twitter: ~31%
  • Google+: ~22%
  • Pinterest: ~20%
  • YouTube: ~17%

In line with its perceived importance as a marketing channel, about two-thirds of businesses that have Facebook business profiles are also engaged with paid advertising campaigns on the social platform — or are considering doing so.

No question, small businesses have concluded that social media marketing is the best way for them to create brand awareness and expand their reach in a very low-cost yet effective manner.  So don’t look for any slowdown in the adoption of social strategies going forward.

Many online banner ads are “invisible” — just like all the other kinds of advertising.

poor online display ad clickthrough ratesI’ve blogged before about the dismal performance of web banner ads, with their miniscule clickthrough rates resulting from “banner blindness.”

The situation has caused more than a few marketers to shy away from engaging in any sort of banner advertising online — and it’s not hard to understand why.

But as Ben Kunz, a vice president at media buying and planning agency Mediassociates likes to point out, other forms of display advertising have similar challenges.

The fact that omnibus marketing information resource eMarketer has predicted that digital ad spending will increase to ~$132 billion this year is proof that many advertisers continue to see the value in online display advertising.

So what is Kunz’s major argument? Simply this:  Digital ads have the same challenges that television, radio and print advertising have as well.  In Kunz’s view, there’s huge waste in advertising because of advertising’s very nature.

He is correct. The vast majority of ad impressions that are “served” are never really seen or heard — regardless of the ad medium.

Ad visibility online is an issue for sure. Proving the point, internet analytics company comScore evaluated some 290 billion ad impressions on thousands of web sites … and found that ~54% of them weren’t visible.

There was some differentiation the comScore detected between different types of sites. Ads served up on “Ppemium” web publisher sites performed better (only ~39% of theirs weren’t visible).

Ads that aren’t visible occur for a variety of reasons, one of which is fraud (fake web traffic). But more often, it’s because of slow load times on digital devices or because the ads fall outside a viewable browser window or further down that page, necessitating scrolling that many viewers simply don’t do.

The Swedish firm Sticky has investigated banner blindness from another angle — studying the eyeball movements of ~500 subjects. Its research found that of the digital ads that do appear within a viewable window, only ~51% of them are actually “seen” by the viewer.

Mashing it all up, it means that roughly three out of four online ads are “invisible” to viewers. It’s a lot of waste for sure.

But then … what’s the alternative? Do other advertising tactics and channels actually do better?

Nope. According to Kunz, at least three out of four newspaper ads aren’t seen, either.

Ben Kunz
Ben Kunz

Here’s how he arrives at that conclusion. The average U.S. newspaper has ~60 pages, with an average number of ads per page of around 20 (this includes large ads and smaller classifieds).  Around half of the pages are unopened when someone reads the paper, meaning that those ads are “unviewable.”  If half of the remaining ads are ignored as well, the viewability stats are effectively tied.

Kunz also contends that ~30% of radio advertising is “invisible,” citing an Arbitron study that quantified the extent to which listeners switch stations when advertising came on, then flip back later.

The findings were such that Arbitron started recommending that media planners change their measurement from 100 GRPs to 70 GRPs, reflecting the fact that ~30% of radio ads paid for never make it human ears.

TV advertising? It’s the same phenomenon.

Trips to the refrigerator or the bathroom abound during commercial breaks — not to mention channel flipping or TiVo-ing.  Kunz contends that such ad-dodging techniques reduce TV ad viewability by as much as 75%.

The bottom line on all of this: Waste in digital advertising is a significant issue … but it’s a similar issue with other ad vehicles as well.

Add to this the fact that digital advertising offers the best metrics (accountability for every click and conversion action), and it should come as little surprise that digital ad spending continues to grow (and why eMarketer expects it to reach about a quarter of all ad spending this year).

Does Kunz have a point about offline and online advertising sharing similar “blindness” characteristics? What are your thoughts?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.