Display got you down? Outsmart AdBlock with good storytelling

5 min read

By now, most of us are nearly impervious to digital advertising. From dreadful display ads to paid search ads (which I, for one, click only out of spite), we’ve trained ourselves to ignore the mess of animation and color on our sidebars. But even when the ads are actually really good, there’s still a huge chunk of web users who will absolutely never even see them. 40 million, to be exact.

If you’re not familiar, AdBlock is a browser extension that basically prevents ads from showing up on your screen at all.


Blog post with ads


Could really be so much nicer…

Blog post with AdBlock

What’s that? An actual article, right where I expect to find one! Ads aren’t covering half of my screen’s real estate! It’s no wonder that AdBlock is the most downloaded extension for Google Chrome and Safari. It’s magic, and makes for a much more pleasant web experience.

(Sorry for blocking the ads on your site, Tom. I see the irony in this.)

But back to AdBlock.

It even blocks native advertising. See Buzzfeed:

BuzzFeed with ads


Sorry Ford and Jimmy Dean, I prefer my listicles from a real-life sassy 23-year-old.

BuzzFeed with AdBlock


And Facebook?

Facebook with ads


Look how clean that ad-free sidebar is! And now my events and trending articles actually follow me down the news feed, instead of renttherunway.com. (Did I ever tell you about that time I met Cornel West at the Baltimore airport? I digress.)

Facebook with AdBlock


Understandably, this has wreaked havoc on advertising campaigns. Although, probably more so for small publishers (like Tom up there) than for the kinds of advertisers that are shelling out mad cash for ad space on sites like Buzzfeed.

While Tom makes some valid points about this whole stealing thing, even as an advertiser (or maybe especially as an advertiser), I can’t help but be drawn to an ad-free Internet. And the fact of the matter is, advertisers are never going to be able to prevent people from blocking ads. They just have to get smarter and think outside the sidebar box.

Those 40 million people still see their fair share of ads online. But the ads aren’t obnoxious and they’re not served up to unwilling or uninterested audiences.

The brands that do a phenomenal job growing their audience and building loyalty online are doing it through storytelling and brand advocacy. Here’s what I mean:


With vloggers like Grace Helbig, and even HBO anchor John Oliver blowing up our extra-small screens every week, YouTube is occupying a bigger share of our attention all the time. Video is far and away the preferred vessel of content for millennials, and mobile video views have jumped 367% since 2013. And brands aren’t just following the trendsome are leading the pack in creating really great video content.  

Commercials from Always are frequently referenced on blogs I actually read and by people I actually like. Take a look at the trending videos on YouTube, and you see that another commercial from that same #LikeAGirl campaign has more views than the top five non-branded videos combined (as of this writing).

Did I watch all those leaderboard ads? Yep. Did I cry at some of them? You’ll never know.

Time (and every other publisher under the sun) wrote stories on this Under Armour ad featuring Misty Copeland. Why? Because it tells a beautiful story about a resilient, persistent athlete. She just so happens to be wearing Under Armour while inspiring underdogs the world over.

By creating beautiful, engaging, human stories, these brands don’t have to pay publishers to feature their adssites like Think With Google, Jezebel, Time and Well Done Marketing will do it for free.

Which brings me to my second point.

Brand Advocacy

Looks like those Always commercials really did the trick. Here I am writing about a campaign that’s over a year old, because it’s just that damn good.

The only reason I watched that Under Armour ad the first time around was because it was blowing up my news feed on Facebook. Everyone must be talking about this for a reason, right?

And don’t get me started on Coke. I don’t even drink soda. I think its over-consumption is responsible for all sorts of health problems from obesity and diabetes, to rotting teeth and stomachs-coated-in-plastic. However, I love the shit out of Coca-Cola as a brand. I’m happy to turn a blind eye to the health problems that come with a daily Big Gulp because of their oh-so-charming commercials.

It’s the incredible storytelling, the focus on humanity coming from these companies that makes not just their products but their brands a part of our everyday conversation. Something people are willing to share on social media alongside their family photos and political leanings.

We talk about storytelling pretty regularly over here at WDM, and it’s easy to see how some of my creative colleagues get excited about it. They’ve always been advocates for good stories and a compelling narrative. But there’s a trend happening here that data nerds and media junkies can’t ignore, either. It doesn’t do anyone any good to spend time and money on an ad that no one will see and even fewer people will click on. Instead, put your effort toward telling good stories that not only support your brand’s ethos, but move something in your audience as well. Then, once you’ve told them a story they’ll remember, you can think about serving up related ads that might actually mean something to them.