“The IAB Tech Lab is taking action to fight ad blocking” is not a statement bound to thrill most internet users. More than 69.8 million Americans will employ an ad blocker in 2016, a number expected to blossom to over 86 million in 2017. As more users resort to ad blocking, publishers are forced to take varied measures to circumvent them. Turns out, the cost of “free” online content is advertising. In light of this, is there a balanced solution? Can we reconcile user expectations with the needs of publications?
What started as a “procrastination project” by a Danish university student has become a way of life for more than 25% of all internet users: a simple browser extension that blocks the thousands of ads that interrupt our intended experience each day.
The thing is, the seemingly endless stream of free content we consume online is often expensive to create. As AdAge points out, “Online ads power the open internet and preserve the value exchange that lets consumers enjoy unlimited content for free by simply indulging a few seconds of advertising.” Without advertising, our public content would dry up. In order to survive, publishers are escaping ad blockers any way they can.
Many publishers are outwitting ad-blockers through sponsored content. Top Tier publications like the New York Times, The Atlantic and the Washington Post have embraced native content through “brand studios.” These hubs act as paid content arms independent of the editorial and news room. While this is arguably the most palatable path for consumers (these stories are often well thought out and engaging), they are upper-funnel by nature, and do not address the modern advertiser’s desire for precise targeting. Without the aid of programmatic technology, these collaborations are not enough to satisfy data driven brands.
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Ad-Reinsertion & The Ad Blocking "Arms Race"
More aggressive publishers have moved towards “ad-reinsertion”. This is when ad-blockers accept publisher money to whitelist a given site. In this case, audiences are force fed ads whether they like it or not. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has condemned ad-reinsertion as short-sighted and unethical: “Publishers that choose to pay ad blockers contribute to the “continued development of ad blocking software." Similarly, companies like Facebook have developed anti-ad-blocking tools that avert Adblock Plus (ABP) filters. ABP updates their filters to include Facebook ads and Facebook retaliates by updating their workarounds in a vicious cycle known as the “ad blocking arms race”.
Tough Love & A Little Education
Another publisher tactic has been described as “tough love”. IDG, who publishes CIO, Computerworld, Macworld and PCWorld was successful in convincing 38% of their visitors to whitelist their site by barring their content to anyone with active ad blockers. Their messaging explains, “Our editorial team creates hundreds of original high-quality articles each month. It costs a great deal of money to do that -- and the ads make it possible. Please help us continue to publish award-winning content. We’re in this together.”
Obviously, none of these models are ideal. But it is clear that some publishers are taking into account the main reason for ad blocking in the first place: interruption.
The Future of Ad Blocking
According to eMarketer senior analyst Paul Verna, “The best way for the industry to tackle [the ad blocking] problem is to deliver compelling ad experiences that consumers won’t want to block.” Even advertising students are known to block certain ads… their justification? “Great ads are always shared with us on social media, but we want to block the crap that wastes our time." And it’s not just aspiring ad men and women who feel this way. MarketingSherpa found that only 8% of consumers aspire to a world with zero advertising. Most simply prefer relevant ads at specific times.
This is exemplified in ABP’s Acceptable Ads program: “Since ads fuel a lot of the content we enjoy for free online, finding common ground seemed to make sense. We asked our users about this and they overwhelmingly agreed.” The goal here is to “encourage the ad industry to pursue less intrusive ad formats and thus have a positive impact on the Internet as a whole.”
Whether we like it or not, the future of publishing is tied up in the future of ad blocking. At some point, we’re either going to have to start paying for content (not likely), or differentiate between “good” (non-disruptive) and “bad” (annoying) advertising. Ideally, future ad formats won’t require any blocking because the industry will tune in to consumer demands (bye-bye pop-up porn). Initiatives like ABP’s Acceptable Ads program are paving a middle way as we speak. As IDG points out to its readers, “we’re all in this together.”