Tej Rekhi, AVP, global mobile product sales at Sizmek, takes a look at the state of play with ad blocking, and why it's maybe not as simple as publishers versus consumers.
Ad blocking was undeniably one of the hot topics of the past year – but I believe there's still a major misconception in the industry around the subject.
Ad blocking is often presented as a clear-cut battle, with advertisers and publishers firmly pitted against ad blockers and their users. So pervasive is this concept that some advertisers and publishers have begun a counter-attack — superseding ad blockers with anti-blocker technology and banning consumers using ad blockers by restricting content access. Yet the allegiances and even the causes of this conflict are actually far from clear cut.
For one thing, adoption is not growing as fast as the industry initially feared. Google search trends indicate that either interest in ad blockers has peaked or consumers have already installed the blocking tech they need. Either way, the road to resolution will be complex and will require all parties involved to make allowances.
The murky morality of ad blockers
Many consumers believe that ad blockers take an uncompromising moral stance against online advertising — shielding them from annoying, irrelevant ads that interrupt their reading experience. But ad-blocking technology is not necessarily as heroic as it professes to be. Ad blockers, such as Adblock Plus, operate using a whitelisting process where “acceptable” ads are allowed to bypass filters as long as they are not disruptive to users.
For small websites and blogs the service is free, but for larger companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, there is a fee required to keep ads visible. While users can still choose to block all ads, the company’s business model is usually — much like publishing — funded by advertising.
With prominent companies more interested in short-term profit than protecting users, ad blockers are not always moral crusaders. This view is supported by speculation that Adblock Plus is the anonymous purchaser of previously independent rival extension, AdBlock, a transaction that coincided with AdBlock’s recent conversion to the 'Acceptable Ad'” programme.
So, what is behind the rise in ad blocking?
The causes of ad blocking are complex and varied. Primarily, consumers are irritated by an online experience that does not meet their needs. Advertisers have been too focused on using comfortable, familiar ad formats, rather than adapting their target audiences’ requirements.
Further analysis reveals a raft of secondary reasons. According to a recent IAB study, consumers block ads because they are interruptive, irrelevant, and seen as a threat to personal privacy. These objections are particularly pertinent for mobile, where pop-up ads dominate the screen, disrupt user activity, drain device power, and ultimately cost the user. An experiment conducted by The New York Times also showed that ad blockers solved two crucial user problems — slow page loads and high data consumption.
And how can the industry resolve the issue?
Leading publishers, such as the BBC, The Guardian and The Huffington Post are working to reduce the impact of ads on mobile page loads and battery life. However, it is clear that the industry must shift its focus from defensive to preventative action by creating a contextually appropriate online experience that offers real user value.
To discourage ad blocking, digital advertising should move away from disengaging one-size-fits-all formats and embrace native capabilities. Advertisers need to learn how creative innovations can be used to build tailored and non-intrusive campaigns that adapt to every screen, and engage consumers with rich media content.
Sizmek is already working to create better ad units and ad-building technology designed to produce superior ads inside and outside mobile apps. It is now down to the industry to harness the power of tech to improve ad quality.
The free content fallacy
Bringing an end to the conflict requires co-operation from consumers too, who need to understand that they cannot expect to access online content for free. Better education is therefore needed to help consumers understand that blocking ads removes the only source of revenue for many publishers. Continued ad blocker usage may force publishers to look for alternative revenue sources, such as subscription charges, a cost that will ultimately fall to consumers.
The rules of engagement in the ad blocking war may not be clear cut, but there are two things we can be certain of: the need for better advertising, and a wider consumer appreciation of the role ads play in content generation.
To reclaim the trust of audiences, advertisers must deploy more relevant and engaging, native ad formats that use creative content to enhance the online experience. With better planning, efficient load times, and use of tools such as HTML5, advertisers can build dynamic campaigns that inspire — instead of irritate — consumers. Only then, will the war against ad blocking finally reach a mutually beneficial conclusion.
Tej Rekhi is AVP, global mobile product sales, at ad management firm Sizmek