Ad-blocker technology – which allows consumers to prevent adverts from being served when browsing the web – is having a huge impact on online advertising. According to The 2015 Ad Blocking Report produced by PageFair and Adobe, 12 million people were using an ad blocker by June 2015, while the global cost to publishers grew to $22bn last year. Evidently there has never been a greater pressure on content outlets to understand and find ways to address the rising use of ad blockers.
Numerous factors are encouraging consumers to adopt the technology, with perhaps the most obvious being obstructive and in-your-face marketing tactics. “The internet as a whole has become overloaded with ads at the expense of user experience,” says Mark Howard, chief revenue officer at Forbes, the international business magazine. Whether it’s pages choking under the weight of endless display ads or irritating autoplay videos, many users are frustrated with being bombarded by low-quality marketing. And this is causing reputable publishers to suffer along with the bad. “It’s the tragedy of the commons,” explains Howard. “While it may not be the more premium websites that are most guilty of it, certain consumers are choosing to deploy ad blocking to counteract what has become an overarchingly negative experience internet-wide.”
Nosediving trust in online advertising practices is also proving a significant issue. Increasingly consumers are becoming more worried with the way their data is being handled and certain blunt advertising practices are not helping to assuage their concerns. Nic Oliver, founder of people.io, the marketplace allowing consumers to control and license their personal data, gives the example of ad retargeting, in which consumers that have browsed a certain product will continue to see it advertised around the web once they have left the site. Whilst the practice is entirely benign, it can understandably spook consumers who don’t understand the underlying tech. “All the naive consumer sees is this product following them around,” he says. “They go: ‘whoa, how do you know what I’ve been looking at?’”
Because of this confluence of factors, publishers and platforms are increasingly panicking about the effect ad blocking could have on their revenue, which can lead to some taking counterproductive action. “The publishers are freaking out, think ‘we’ve got a reduced number of users, the pie is shrinking so we need to maximise the value of each consumer as much as possible,” says Dominic Waghorn, strategy director at Syzygy, the digital agency. “That means adding more intrusive ads and it just becomes a race to the bottom.” Alternatively, some publishers take the nuclear option and outright ban consumers deploying the technology but this fails to recapture the revenue those users would otherwise generate and simply drives the development of more sophisticated software to circumvent detection. “They’re not going to win that arms race,” he says. “They’re on a hiding to nothing.”
Some platforms have opted for the slightly more elegant solution of offering ad-free subscriptions to users they detect deploying ad blockers but this tactic is not without flaws. “There are very few publishers worldwide who have cracked the code for how to do that successfully,” says Howard. “They need to have an extremely strong value proposition for the consumer, offering unique content that they cannot get anywhere else.” And given that the publishing industry has historically struggled to persuade users to pay for online content, relying on subscriptions is not something publishers should enter into lightly. “It’s not something that can just easily be turned on or off: you have to make a major commitment to that strategy,” he says.
Perhaps more effective is focusing on how publishers can up the value of their offering whilst keeping the disruption caused by ads to a minimum. “It’s about creating good quality engagement so that the user feels there is an equitable balance between ads and content,” Oliver says. Effectively if the industry can find a way to offer consumers positive experiences whilst obstructing browsing as little as possible, then it may begin to reverse the tide of individuals using ad blockers. “The ideal strategy is striking a better balance between disruption and value,” he says.
One of the best ways to do this is by improving the way ads are deployed. “Publishers need to work with experts to improve user experience,” says Waghorn. “If we have a better balance, people will be a bit more receptive towards seeing advertising on these sites.” By offering fewer yet higher-quality ads and ditching the most unpleasant formats, publishers may be able tempt consumers into adding their site to the ad blocker’s whitelist. And there is some evidence this strategy is working. “The media companies that have been experimenting with this have seen real improvements,” he says.
Ultimately, rather than responding to ad blocking with hostility, the best publishers are directly participating in a dialogue around the technology with their audiences. “The smart companies are thinking consumer-first,” Oliver says. “They’re the ones that are going to succeed in this ad blocking debate.” In fact, by heeding consumers’ concerns over advertising, publishers have a golden opportunity to provide a much better service and win long-term loyalty. “The ones that will triumph when it comes to ad blocking are those that are thinking of their audiences, not the industry,” he concludes.
Breaking the block
Forbes is certainly no stranger to dealing with ad blockers. “About 17% of our desktop and around 7% our global traffic comes in with ad blockers,” says Mark Howard, the magazine’s chief revenue officer. “It’s not an insignificant number when you add all that up.” Recognising last year that the problem was not simply going to go away, Forbes realised it had two options. “You can either take action and try to better understand why these people are using the technology or you can do nothing,” he says. “We always choose action over wait and see.”
In December 2015, Forbes deployed detection software and started to ask those using the technology if they would consider turning off their ad blocker or whitelisting Forbes in return for an ad-light experience. This light-touch approach removed the site’s welcome mat, as well as autoplay preroll and interstitial videos, providing a much more streamlined browsing experience. “We’re very respectful of their concerns over the ad experience and, in exchange for them whitelisting us, we’re delivering them a very different type of experience while they’re on Forbes,” Howard says.
And it added a new feature in May for those stuck behind corporate firewalls or who resolutely refuse to forego their ad blockers: the option of logging in through Facebook or Google for an ad-free environment. “We haven’t yet figured out a monetisation plan around those people but, in aggregate, we’re getting a much better look at who they are and how they engage with the site,” says Howard. All in all, these efforts to reclaim the impressions lost to ad blocking have been very beneficial to Forbes. “You can see how obviously month after month it adds up to be very meaningful,” he says.