The internet was designed for everyone. High quality advertising helps keep it this way.

Steph Clarke

The IAB's Research Manager, Steph Clarke, writes on the back of the IAB's Fit for Purpose research. 

The fact that the world wide web (or as many of us would call it, the internet) itself is free for all to use is simply amazing. Tim Berners Lee created, in his own words, an “open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographical boundaries”. Sounds Idyllic, but the internet was deliberately designed to be for everyone. What we tend to forget is that advertising makes this possible by funding the content rather than charging people to use it.

Granted, the way we access the internet has gone through some substantial changes. The majority of time online is now spent on smartphones, and advertisers have had to get creative to make ads work on a small screen. Despite the changes in consumption habits and screen size, the all-inclusive, ad-funded model remains the same.  

And people get that; for the most part, they understand the value exchange being offered to them and accept it. IAB UK’s latest Fit for Purpose research, which highlights why platform-optimised ads are the best way to advertise on smartphones, revealed that an overwhelming majority of people (84%) would rather have free online content with ads, rather than pay to go ad-free. Not only do people accept it, but when done well, the ad experience is effective, encouraging users to act, so it’s a win-win situation. What’s more, 78% of people surveyed also said they were bothered when an ad wasn’t suitable for the device it was served on. What this means for our industry is that people notice – and care – and since they’re going to be delivered ads in exchange for free content, it makes sense to give them the best experience possible.  

Unfortunately, some of the time the ad experience is poor, and the ‘value’ exchange becomes the opposite of value for everyone -  annoyance for the user and negative feelings towards the advertiser and media owner. The Fit for Purpose research found that 37% blame the website/platform for a bad ad experience and 33% blame the brand, so it’s up to both sides to provide the optimum combination of a good ad and good delivery to make the value exchange worthwhile for the user and sustainable for digital advertising. 

So, what does a ‘poor’ ad experience look like? This doesn’t automatically mean a bad creative – it could be a brilliant 30-second creative designed for a prime TV spot that worked really well on that channel, or a beautiful landscape ad that works brilliantly on a horizontal desktop screen, but if it ends up on a smartphone screen and it’s not optimised it’s a) certainly not using the device to its full potential and b) likely going to annoy the user because it’s simply not right for the platform. 

The brands and platforms that value their audiences and provide the best experience possible through good, well-delivered ads not only exemplify the best of the internet as a media channel but they get the most out of it, too. When testing optimised and non-optimised assets, the Fit for Purpose study found a significant increase in key brand metrics including preference (+44%), brand consideration (+56%), likelihood to find out more (+50%), trust (+33%) and perception of premium (+21%) for the smartphone-optimised ads. However, those that aren’t considering the user experience – showing ads that are made for another platform with no attempts to optimise, quality check or deliver in a reasonable format – are taking advantage of the value exchange. And this is what needs to change in order to build (and contribute) toward a sustainable future. 

In the worst instances, the experience may make people question whether the free to access content is even worth it. Is a free Scrabble app worth it if there’s a thirty second unskippable ad between each go, that not only turns it into the longest-game ever, but also doesn’t mention the brand until the 29th second (at which point if the player is still ‘watching’ they’re most likely just staring at the ceiling trying to remember their tiles and getting reading for their next turn, so it’s a miss anyway)? That is certainly not how to successfully advertise on a smartphone from a brand or consumer perspective. 

It seems then that, broadly speaking, there are two types of advertisers – those who contribute positively and add value through optimisation in order to create a better user experience, and those who take advantage of the value exchange and ruin it for everyone in the digital advertising ecosystem. If you’re the latter, it’s time to start giving value back to the user to make the exchange worthwhile. Let’s make the free internet model work, as Berners-Lee intended. 


At the IAB it’s our mission to build a sustainable future for advertising, and one part of that is to provide a good user experience. The Gold Standard was created to drive up standards in the industry by committing signatories to, amongst other initiatives, adhere to the Coalition for Better Ads principles and the ‘Better Ads Standards’ ….click here to find out more.


Written by

Steph Clarke


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