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The ad blocking state of play

Written by Charlotte | 26-Nov-2015 16:51:01

As digital marketers you would be hard pressed to not come across an industry news bulletin, blog or tweet that mentions the subject of ad blocking. Numerous articles are being published on a daily basis about the ‘adblockalypse’ or ‘winning the ad blocking war’ and now even the
stars of South Park are talking about it.

So what is ad blocking and why all the industry attention?

An ad blocker is essentially a piece of software which can be downloaded by consumers in order to remove digital ads. Consumers choose them for a number of reasons but mostly because they feel that their online experience is interrupted by ads that blink, flash, potentially slow page load times or add to the cost of mobile data usage.

A YouGov study commissioned by the IAB UK found that “to block all ads” was the main reason for ad blocking;

Source: IAB UK Ad blocking software – consumer usage & attitudes, Oct 2015

Not all ads can be blocked however. Display ads such as banners, MPUs and skyscrapers across desktop and mobile browsers are currently the most affected digital advertising formats while most in-app and in-feed native ads tend not to be picked up by ad blockers but this may start to change.

In the same study, the IAB UK found that 18% of online adults were currently using online ad blockers, up from 15% in June 2015 and other sources suggest it could be as many as 198m users worldwide who use them.

Apple’s decision back in September to allow ad blocking apps into the Apple App Store and within the Safari browser has certainly fuelled this growth, with apps such as Crystal and Purify Blocker topping the charts the day the announcement was made. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily mean the highest number of units sold it does highlight how mainstream they have become. Since then however we have seen a decrease in the rate of adoption, with ad blocking apps falling out of the charts and some even shutting up shop. The developer of one of the first to market apps, Peace, has pulled the app because it “just doesn’t feel good” and that it didn’t protect those publishers and advertisers who were doing a good job and getting it right. We have even seen some apps change their business model introducing verification panels or accepting payments from advertisers to appear on a white list – the likes of Google and Microsoft are known to have partaken in this.

Although we may feel that adoption rates have slowed and that app vendors are starting to work with publishers and advertisers to strike a balance, the subject of ad blocking is here to stay and the threat it poses is one that can’t be ignored.

How are advertisers and publishers responding to the ad blocking threat?

Some publishers have already made a move to ban ad blocker users. City AM was the first UK newspaper to do so and are blurring out the text of stories for desktop users of Firefox browsers who are detected using ad blocking software. Readers encounter a message saying: “We are having trouble showing you adverts on this page, which may be a result of ad blocker software being installed on your device. As City AM relies on advertising to fund its journalism, please disable any adblockers from running on cityam.com to see the rest of this content.”

Photograph: City AM

For many, the fact that being exposed to advertising online allows them to enjoy content and services at little or no cost could be a revelation and the industry needs to work harder to educate users about this. Without advertising, digital content and services could disappear or consumers may have to pay for content that they currently receive for free.

The Guardian is another example of a publisher who is displaying a message to ad blockers informing them that ads fund their journalism. The Guardian are also optimising to viewability and continually developing their site to improve the experience for their readers and their advertisers. Improved user navigation, easier content discovery and just-in-time adverts have all been implemented to help achieve a more efficient, effective and impactful advertising solution. They are also looking into more customised ad experiences that “puts the user in control” according to the Guardian’s global revenue director Tim Gentry in a bid to combat ad blocking.

Publishers aren’t the only ones that stand to be impacted by the increase in popularity of ad blockers. A campaign that UNICEF Sweden recently ran tested running banner ads on the homepage of a Swedish newspaper that only appeared to ad blocker equipped visitors with the message “children’s rights should never be blocked” – a hint towards the frustration UNICEF has over ad blockers potentially weakening their online campaigning efforts. What is interesting is that this campaign saw a 300% uplift in click volumes with one in ten signing up on site – a much stronger performance than they see for an average banner campaign.

This is a great illustration of how ad blocker users may be willing to adjust their habits if they are given a strong enough incentive or impetus. This is what we like to call a value exchange and where the interests of the user are put first and is what the industry needs to pay attention to.

What steps are the industry taking to improve consumer experience?

Advertising is critical to the future of the internet and it would be a very different place without it. The industry needs to come together to respond to the serious threat that ad blocking presents. Central to this is being able to put reader interests first and deliver a quality experience. We are all aware that the number of ads on a page can have a direct impact on load speeds and that ads that flash, auto-play, consume the screen or aggressively re-target the user have a negative impact. Unfortunately these poor experiences have galvanized ad blocker usage and both publishers and advertisers now need to take greater control and responsibility.

Poor ad experiences are behind the uptake in ad blocking tools so advertisers and publishers need to come up with a fix

These are Google’s first public comments on the matter since Apple opened itself up to content blocking apps. Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s top ad executive, cited “pretty terrible user experience” i.e. ads that take over entire sites, for the rise in the trend.

As with the case of viewability, what makes an acceptable ad needs to be defined and widely accepted. This isn’t something that is going to happen overnight but we have already seen the likes of the IAB UK develop initiatives to help address this. In October 2015 they launched the
L.E.A.N. Ads program. L.E.A.N. stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive ads. These best practice principles will guide an additional set of standards that provide choice for marketers, content providers, and consumers, and are likely to shift the emphasis from ad inventory quantity to quality.

In 2016 it might be that we start to see a shift towards more native and content but as long as we are creating this value-exchange between advertising, editorial context and user experience and educating consumers about this then the threat of ad blockers may not be such an alarming one after all.