Adblockers have been around since 2006. They started as web browser plugins that blocked ads. Now ad blocking accounts for over 21.8 billion dollars of online advertising. Adblock continues to grow, with more than 180 million active users.
Just a quick reminder of what ad blocking is: it refers to the automatic removal of most forms of advertising on web pages (banner ads, text ads, sponsored links and stories, pre-roll video ads and more), therefore making the web less cluttered with ads, and eventually more enjoyable to surf.
But one event that made ad blocking figure in the news headlines a few weeks back was Apple’s decision to allow ad blocking on iPhones. Since Apple allowed ad blockers on iOS9, advertisers and publishers alike have started panicking at the threat that instantly became much bigger.
In this post, I will look at the key numbers associated with ad blockers, the issues that they cause, and the alternatives that marketers have to advertise beyond ad blockers.
AdBlocker’s growing impact
PaigeFair and Adobe jointly released two reports, that there could be a correlation between the rise of programmatic ads and the rise of adblocking.
Other interesting data shows that : 90% of marketers say that retargeted ads are as good as or better than search ads, which supports the claims of the rise of programmatic advertising. Numerous studies (one here, another here) show that the majority of internet users dislike having their information collected by websites.
Also, when comparing “retargeting” and “how to block ads” in Google Trends, we can see a clear correlation between the two in Google search as well.
The theory that ad blockers’ high level of growth is due to the fact that more than half of total ads came from programmatic ad buying does hold up. Ad blocking is the result of the practice of using programmatic ad buying technologies, rather than focusing on providing qualitative online experiences to users.
What do consumers want?
A study from the Digital Advertising Alliance, dating back to 2013, revealed that 36% of users want more advertising that is relevant to their interests. At the opposite end, 19% want them to be more generic, which I assume is due to their willingness not to be tracked.
So there are a couple of paradoxes here:
- The data tells us that internet users do not want to be tracked, but at the same time want more relevant advertising.
- Since ad blocking has increased, publishers and advertising platforms have increased the number of ads to compensate for the loss in blocked ads, therefore increasing the clutter, decreasing the value of each ad, and contributing directly to the growth of ad blocking.
Do Not Track
Programmatic ads claim they provide more relevance to audiences, however, their ads feel more invasive due to the data collected from their previous browsing. However, there are good practices that can lower the annoyance for internet users and increase results for brands.
One of the ways of solving this problem would be knowing whether each user either has accepted to be tracked and thus will receive relevant ads or simply does not want to be tracked and to receive ads based on their online behavior.
That was the aim of the “do not track” feature implemented on the most popular web browsers, and respected by many companies and websites, however, a recent ruling from the FCC makes it possible for websites to not honor “Do Not Track” (in US at least).
Towards the end of the free web?
The continuous growth of Ad blocking behaviors could potentially have unprecedented effects on the whole online advertising industry, as well as disrupt how the web is financed.
The cost of ad blocking has an increasingly important effect on the online advertising budgets for companies and brands. As an important percentage of ads are not being displayed, the number of clicks are lower, resulting increased costs and a lower efficiency of ads. This is affecting overall marketing efficiency. This, added to bot traffic, has a big impact on the effectiveness of marketing actions.
As a result, the free web could disappear being replaced by:
- paid web, where users will pay for content
- owned web, where huge companies set up platforms that become the central piece of content delivery
We already see glimpses of that happening with Facebook and publishers.
So how did publishers react to massive ad blockers adoption?
The first reaction that comes to mind when your audience starts blocking ads on your website is to block the content of your website, asking to whitelist the website to gain access. The results show that it does not work well, and there is a risk of losing traffic, which can result in lost engagement with your audience, such as comments, or even social shares.
Another possibility would be to ask users nicely to whitelist the website. This approach works best when on community-based websites. Some publishers gave the options to block ads without adblock, like Techdirt for example.
Yet another solution is to select the ads that are showing on your website. Webmasters can take the time to select ads that they deem acceptable, which then provides a better experience for their audience. But there is a better solution emerging, called Advertising 2.0
Ad Block Plus, which accounts for about half of the total ad blockers market share, introduced the “Acceptable Ads” program, through their acceptable ads manifesto. This manifesto aims to change the online advertising spammy practices by better advertisement to stop the annoying ads cycle.
Here is what they consider acceptable ads are:
- Ads are not annoying.
- Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
- Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
- Ads are effective without shouting at us.
- Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.
Moreover, Ad Block Plus set up an ad whitelisting process, which filters bad ones and lets good ads though. While there is some controversy over how whitelisting was conducted, Ad Block Plus now has an independent review board that has the task of saying which ad is acceptable or not, and therefore which ads are displayed or blocked.
But that didn’t stop the opposition from raising their voices against the shady practices around the ad blocking and the whitelisting, sometimes referred to as “black mailing”. This refers to the agreement between big companies and Ad Block Plus, where companies like Google, Amazon and Taboola pay Ad Block Plus a fee of “30% of additional ad revenues” to get their ads whitelisted and through the ad blocker.
While other ad blockers made some similar moves, allowing some of the ads to go through, it pushed some Ad Block Plus users to switch for more strict ad blockers like Ublock.
Initiatives similar to Ad Block Plus’s acceptable ads movement are emerging
IAB (for Interactive Advertising Bureau), laid out a new standard for advertising principles: the LEAN advertising model, which stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad Choice Supported and Non-Invasive. The World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers also is calling for a discussion around Advertising 2.0
But Ad Block Plus reached a milestone with a meeting called CampDavid, in New York, where they gathered 20 leading publishers, tech companies, journalists, advertisers to discuss ad blocking. Even though important figures declined the invitation, the discussion appeared to be very constructive, and similar meetings will take place in Europe, with the goal of creating a committee to govern the Acceptable Ads initiative.
All these initiatives could mean that we are on the right track to make advertising less intrusive, and potentially stop the rise of adblocking to maintain the web a free and open space. But it is also our duty and responsibility as marketers, to adopt these advertising 2.0 principles and take part of the movement.
Native advertising is often confused for content marketing because both try to bring value to the consumer, and take the form of content: whether in the article, video, slideshows, infographics, podcasts and other medium.
Native advertising leverages content by giving it the possibility to be seen by audiences. The format adapts to the websites that it is displayed on, most likely publishers websites. The displayed advertising content adapts to the publisher content thus rendering it more relevant for the consumer. A disclosure stating that content is promoted is an important part of the model to keep the consumer’s trust.
Native advertising has very high click through ratios compared to traditional advertising. The danger is that we push content that is not content. Native advertising platforms sometimes reject content from brands that is not content, because brands try to push their products via that content. So the risk is that consumers reacts the same way as with traditional advertising, and stop clicking.
However, even if some native advertising platforms are whitelisted by Ad Block Plus (Taboola), most aren’t, and are therefore not a real alternative for marketers.
Truly native advertising however, will by-pass ad blockers. What I call truly native is advertising, in the form of content, that is published by the publishing website, as its own content. In this type of native, or sponsored content advertising, the ad blockers will not consider the content as external from the publishing website, and will therefore it will be displayed.
This solution is at the same time very effective, because cannot be blocked, but also very relevant, because both the brand and the publisher agree on the certain terms. The brand gets relevant audience for its content, generating awareness and building trust with its new found audience, while the publisher proposes relevant content to its audience, and gets paid for it.
Of course disclosing that the content is sponsored is really important here too, because brands take advantage of the credibility and authority of publishers websites by making ads appear to be editorial content, which can disturb consumers, and even hurt publisher’s credibility.
Disclosing that the content is sponsored is a way to inform consumers that the content is not produced by the publishers, but by brands, therefore protecting their credibility.
The drawbacks of this type of advertising is that it is much more time consuming than advertising through platforms, but as a result you are assured to have effective campaigns that drive results. The same principle is applied to podcasts, where the original records include ads. Or with videos, with ad-stitching, where the ads are loaded with the content video.
Wrapping it up
Data shows that ad blocking is becoming increasingly important. Online advertising is at a crossroads, and the development of current and potential future initiatives will determine which route will be chosen.
I see two clear – very different – alternatives:
- The general adoption of ad blocking tools bringing the end to online advertising and the free web as we know it
- The general adoption of responsible ads by publishers and advertisers, coupled with internet users accepting to receive advertising in order to have free web
Of course, these are black and white alternatives, and the result will most likely be a side-track mud road in that grey area. But it’s up to us to decide which road we take.
Let’s think of it this way: You know how we are all concerned with global warming and climate issues due to pollution, with the solution being every one of us becoming more responsible for their carbon footprint? Well, it’s much of the same thing with the free web. Everyone needs to start looking at the way they impact the web, and adjust their behavior accordingly, or the web could very well become too polluted to be in.
It is our responsibility, as marketers, to take into consideration how each of our ads contributes to solving this problem. Crafting responsible ads is not easy but it’s no harder than making irresponsible ones. Have a read of the acceptable ads manifesto and the L.E.A.N. ads principles, and get engaged in making advertising more responsible.
Images: ” Author’s Own“
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