Understanding-Ad-Blocking

The Story Ad-Blocking is Telling Us

The advent of ad-blocking software has caused quite the stir in the advertising community. Being a recent inductee into the marketing and advertising world and a young millennial I decided to take a look into the issue. According to a 2014 study by PageFair, an organization specifically designed to address the issue of ad-blocking, ad-blocking activity rose by 69% between September 2013 and September 2014. Although their article estimates that only about 6% of internet users deploy ad blocking software, their follow-up study released on August 10th, 2015 claimed that the advertising industry lost an estimated $21.8 billion in ad revenue throughout 2015. In the U.S.A alone, it is estimated that up to 25% of internet users have an adblocker deployed. For an industry that rakes in around $60 billion a year, that $21.8 billion is startling.

For over a decade now, advertisers and publishers were able to host and serve their ads unrestricted, drop cookies on users’ computers unannounced, and track users unknowingly. As a response, active adblockers like AdBlock and uBlock were developed to counter the ad bombardment occurring on many websites. Downloads for ad-blocking software increased significantly around the globe over the past few years as users began making the decision to take control of their online experience. Most of these users resided in the U.S.A and Europe, with the U.S.A consisting of 43 million estimated users alone, and a majority of ad-blocker users were digital natives aged 18-34.

Disregard for user privacy and security have been the biggest issues for ad-blocker users. The uselessness of the “Do Not Track” request and the increase in “malvertising” incidents have caused users no longer to trust ads, assuming they ever trusted ads in the first place. Pandora  states in its Privacy Policy, “Like many other websites and online services, we do not currently alter our practices when we receive Do Not Track signals as there is no consensus among industry participants as to what ‘Do Not Track’ means in this context.” This lack of consensus is a direct example of the disconnect and lack of understanding between advertisers/publishers and their consumers. Add to that the breach in Google’s DoubleClick ad network and the potential malware infection of millions of users’ computers, and it becomes increasingly clear things really haven’t been working great.  It’s no help that publishers structure their pages so they can fit as many ads as possible to rack up impressions and increase revenue. This is especially problematic for the mobile experience, where ad-blocking software is less developed, as pages can suddenly shift positioning and result in an accidental click or tap, leading to increased revenue for the publisher, low conversion rates for the advertiser, and frustration for the  end-user.

Calling ad-blocker users “freeloaders” completely misses the point of the software.  While a percentage of ad-blocker users  intend never to see an ad, the vast majority allow “non-intrusive” ads to be shown. (Less than 1% opt-out of this option.) It seems advertisers and publishers have had it easy, and this complacency is catching up to them. Demanding the easy way out, the elimination of ad-blocking, will  only result in software that will circumvent further attempts to force invasive advertising upon users. Users are demanding change through their actions and it is time that we, the industry, listen.

The answer? Win back consumer trust. Sounds easy, right?

Wrong.

The answer will require time and effort from advertisers and publishers. The sooner we can accept the folly of the old ways of digital advertising, the sooner we can develop new ways to effectively reach users without destroying web UX.  Advertising is good for the web. It is indeed what keeps the “free web” free. By moving towards designing websites with a healthy balance between a developer-style UX (one that is fast, clean, and efficient) and ad revenue (more related native ads), we may be able to respectfully convince users that advertisements are good, safe, and necessary.

The clock is ticking for this change. Apple announced that its upcoming iOS 9 will come bundled with the option to block content in its Safari browser, blocking ads and cookies alike, effectively sealing the deal that mobile will no longer remain the “wild west” for advertisers and publishers. For Android, Firefox already allows ad-blocking plug-ins for its mobile browser. AdBlock provides a third-party plugin (which Google won’t allow in the Play Store) that will block in-app advertisements as well,  although requiring added technical knowledge to implement. The longer widespread change is resisted, the more users will push to block more and more ads, effectively choking digital advertising and causing widespread transitioning to paywalls and subscriptions. Those aged 18-34 will become more and more valuable as they age, and if they continue the upward trend of blocking ads, the situation will become even more dire if left unchanged for too long.

An alternative negative outcome may be the handing of most internet traffic flow to a few of the largest companies like Facebook or Apple as they begin releasing technology to keep traffic and ads native to their products. Facebook’s new Instant Articles allows news articles to load up to 10x faster than usual by hosting the articles and ads on their own site and will initially be iOS-only. Apple’s iOS 9 News app will work similarly to Facebook’s instant articles and will provide a safe-haven from iOS 9’s content blocker. This will result in Facebook and Apple providing the only surefire way for advertisements to be shown and revenue to flow and allow them nearly full control of pricing points for digital news ad placements.

Setting aside outdated views on digital advertising and taking a step forward will not only help get us up to par with the modern internet user, but also get us into position to look ahead and make better choices for the industry as a whole. Those who choose instead to fight the user will only find themselves cast out or bedeviled amongst the online community.

tl;dr – Respect for UX from advertisers and publishers will be the key to saving the digital marketing industry and “free web” as we know it today. Pushing for more non-intrusive, high-quality advertising will be an important step in changing the opinion of users towards digital ads.

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