This morning, DCN and WAN-IFRA, the global news body issued a “Call to Think” statement to help our industry in deal with the challenges of ad blocking. Clearly, ad blocking is a topic of extreme concern and we all need to be thinking hard about how we approach it so that we apply our efforts to what is most important: the consumer. To that end, I recently had an expansive conversation with Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, about how worried publishers should be that ad blockers have now arrived on mobile.
Here are seven takeaways from our wide-ranging conversation:
1. Ad blocking is not new, but it is escalating.
Historically, our industry has not taken this threat seriously enough even though we’ve known about a fringe group of consumers that want to block all ads since they were turning off auto-load images in Netscape Navigator in the 90s. As I wrote in March, ad blocking has escalated on the desktop and now, with iOS9’s ability to block ads on mobile, ad blocking is an issue publishers must focus on more than ever. On a scale of one to ten, my concern is at a level eight or a nine (by way of comparison, the transition to viewability never hit this level.) The cold hard truth is that there have been billions of dollars invested in ad tech software – with little consideration for the consumer – and now these same consumers are speaking up with new software.
2. This is everybody’s problem.
In part, the issue of ad blocking is a “tragedy of the commons” in which the actions of even one rogue site or ad network that creates poor consumer experiences and erodes consumer trust can end up affecting the business model of everyone, even the most valuable content sites on the planet. It might be easy to lay blame at Apple for opening up its APIs in iOS9 but they aren’t the enemy here. In fact, Apple might just be the most consumer-oriented company of our generation. Tim Cook has been one of the loudest and clearest voices calling for protections around consumers’ privacy and data. You could take a cynical view that facilitating ad blocking doesn’t hurt Apple. But if you think about it, it definitely lines up with consumer demands. That is a valid, even essential, perspective. We need leaders across the industry to focus on providing better experiences, transparency and controls that will solve this issue.
3. Emerging ad formats are part of a solution, but so is better display advertising.
There have always been new revenue opportunities—ad units, devices, and formats—that show promising growth. This will only accelerate with the rise of ad blocking. Non-skippable video ads, podcast ads, native in-stream advertising—these all will continue to accelerate because of the fear of ad blocking. Anyone who is in the content business and is trying to build diverse experiences for customers would be foolish to think that any of these solutions will be a panacea for the problems with display advertising. It is also foolish to think that technology will once again save the day to allow these ads through to the same users who have opted out of advertising. Let’s end the tech arms race. If the customer isn’t happy, they will find another way to skip ads.
4. Revenue diversification is essential, but not the answer.
We’ve been counseling our members since the first dot com bubble that they should think about expanding their business models and diversifying their revenues to be less dependent on advertising. And if ad blocking continues to accelerate you will undoubtedly see publishers testing more and more ideas. And you’ll see more technology companies testing ways to enable these ideas. However, at the end of the day, pixels on a screen that marketers want their messages to run alongside will have to be part of the mix.
5. Data is not the solution. In fact, it may be part of the problem.
The industry has created a very dangerous myth that online behavioral advertising is vital to the content ecosystem. This myth has led to underwhelming controls for privacy-focused consumers who have answered with ad blocking. In the absence of simple and persistent controls, the user will find alternative solutions.
6. Native apps are a great experience, but the open Web must be too.
Ad blocking on mobile may accelerate energy around native apps again since publishers can more tightly control their clean, well-lit environments on a native app, though there are undeniable adoption issues. Conversely, the advantages in being distributed through apps that already have high adoption and engagement rates—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat—come with less control and a corresponding fear that we’re surrendering to the platforms.
Ultimately, we can’t afford to lose the beauty of the open internet and everything that is fabulous about the browser in terms of openness, new content and new ways to explore that content. The worst thing that could happen is that we go back to private, walled-garden experiences.
7. Solutions begin—and end—with the consumer.
I think any solution that involves engaging directly with the consumer is interesting right now. The easiest most natural thing to test is asking the consumer to whitelist your site, but unfortunately all of the intel I’ve seen so far is that it isn’t getting consumers to act any differently.
Publishers need to test and learn about which options will work for them both in the short and long term. But at the end of the day the focus needs to be on giving customers what they want.
We won’t solve revenue issues with a tech arms race or a race to the courts. Premium publishers have the ability to navigate this course for the long term and have the added advantage of strong brands and established relationships with their consumers who greatly value their content.
Despite what you’ve just read, I am optimistic and believe all of the concern, discussion and search for solutions will lead to a re-focus on the consumer and better experiences that will end up benefiting the brands and premium publishers. If we stay focused on the consumer, new business models will emerge to deal with this in the long term. If we focus on any other stakeholder but the consumer then we’re doomed to fail.