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User Experience and the new 2017 IAB guidelines

Michael Allen Senior Technology Consultant

The pace of change we’ve witnessed in the world of emerging technology over the last decade is staggering. We are living in a world far removed from where we were ten years ago, when terms like “mobile” were used almost exclusively to describe smartphones and tablets. Today, this term has expanded so quickly to include all kinds of connected devices – on our wrists, in our cars, controlling our homes – that the term is now practically redundant.

This interconnectedness of all devices in our everyday lives is reshaping every aspect of our society, and the impact can be seen all around us every day.

As devices of all kinds continue to flourish, we as consumers have become increasingly less forgiving with traditional display advertising formats, and the methods by which they are being served. We can see the direct result of this frustration with the monumental rise of ad blocking technology. In the US alone, approximately 70 million Americans used ad blockers in 2016. This is up 34.4% compared to 2015, and is set to continue on its current trajectory.

And with good reason. Like many disrupters, ad blockers are here because the need arose. Consumers don’t go out of their way to install an ad blocker because they simply hate ads. No, they install an ad blocker because an ad has interrupted their user experience.

The thing about ad blockers though, is that the massive adoption rate and their effects can be measured. While certainly significant and damaging to a publisher’s bottom line, the reality is that ad blockers are a by-product of a much bigger fire. And that fire is what is not being measured – the massive bounce rate of users who couldn’t be bothered by installing an ad blocker when their experience is interrupted, and simply migrate on to another site. We as digital consumers are spoiled for choice, and will find alternative quality content in a blink of a google search button and never look back.

The rise of ad blockers and the untold toll of user bounce rate is the result of a self-inflicted wound, and a giant wake up call for the industry.

Consider this for a second. When we’re engaged on the internet, we are active. We are reading something, searching for something, buying something, posting something. Unlike passive media like television and radio, the intrusiveness on digital formats is far more serious than a 30 second commercial that we can use for a quick bathroom break. On the web, a video ad auto-playing or being blindsided by a pop-up ad in the middle of reading an article, is the equivalent of being interrupted mid-sentence in a conversation.

So how did we get to this point? While the responsibility ultimately sits with the publisher, have organisations like the IAB, the beacon of guidance for both publishers and advertisers alike, done enough to promote industry standards that govern good user experience?

Until very recently, no. But they are clearly looking to make amends as they prepare to roll out a new set of IAB Standard Banner and Ad Guidelines for 2017, making it clear that they are willing to promote a better online advertising experience by focusing equally on what marketers and publishers should not serve.

At the moment, the new IAB proposal is still in draft stage and undergoing review. But there are some key takeaways that reflect the realities of our new digital marketing world, which will undoubtedly change the status quo in the very near future.

Flexible Ad Formats to Replace Universal Ad Package (UAP)

One of the biggest perceived departure is the move away from the Universal Ad Package (UAP), towards flexible HTML5 based “responsive” ad formats.

This means new guidelines designed for banners which maintain a certain aspect ratio and adjust to screen size, and would no longer be governed by a fixed width and height. For example, 728×90 as a fixed size becomes a unit with an aspect ratio of 8:1, and 300×250 effectively becomes a 1:1 tile.

For advertisers, this will result in a more streamlined and cost effective way to approach design for campaigns, and is absolutely key for the success of multi-channel marketing and providing a unified message to the consumer.

The fall of Rising Stars

Once hyped and actively promoted by the IAB in 2011 as cutting edge HTML5 design, the new IAB portfolio lists Rising Star units as “in transition”, meaning they will be removed completely.

The reason for this U-turn is fairly obvious – they are simply intrusive. Rising Star units by design often expand and push down content when a user moves their mouse over the area, often by mistake, which immediately blocks the content being read.

Farewell Pop Ups

Another far more obvious change in the proposed guidelines, are the delisting of pop-up ads entirely. Considering that pop-ups are one of the top reasons why people install ad blockers in the first place, this is not surprising at all – in fact the only thing surprising about this, is how long it has taken the IAB to remove them from the guidelines in the first place.

The IAB does not stop there though. Other types of disruptive experiences which they finally state should not be used, includes any type of auto-expansion ads, auto play video, and forced countdowns that cannot be skipped. While most publishers already take the “Just Say No” approach to pop-ups, these other types are far too common on mainstream sites. Spend two minutes on any article on CNET or CNN, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Leading with LEAN

All of the new proposed guidelines comply with LEAN principles, a separate IAB initiative announced last October to make ads “light, encrypted and Ad Choices enabled”. These guidelines that govern LEAN has been greatly expanded in the new general ad requirements, with five pages in the proposal dedicated to everything from file weight, load performance, and a focus on making the ad experience faster and better.

In Conclusion

The rise of ad blockers and the untold toll of user bounce rate is the result of a self-inflicted wound, and a giant wake up call for the industry. While we hear buzzwords like “data first”, and “mobile first”, it has and always will be “user first”.

While long overdue, the new proposed IAB guidelines are a good starting point, designed to address an ethical advertising responsibility for the industry at large to put the end user at the forefront, and provide the best user experience possible. However, this is not enough. Digital marketing needs to evolve further, by providing more than a respectful approach to the consumer. Advertising needs to be more moment focused. Personalized. Fewer ads but better quality. And presented far more seamlessly than it currently is. In our increasingly connected world, this could well mean the difference between success and failure of the ad display industry as we know it today.

About The Author Michael Allen - Senior Technology Consultant

As Senior Technology Consultant Michael works directly with top tier online publishers and marketing clients, providing consulting strategies and technology solutions that enhance their business and deliver measurable results.

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