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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Finding solutions in the thorny, confusing world of ad-blocking

March 10, 2016 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift@mediatwit

For publishers obsessing over ad-blocking (and few aren’t), the news lately has been mixed and confusing. A recent IAB/YouGov study in the U.K. finds that more people are using ad-blockers, but that more than half would disable their blockers in exchange for viewing content. And while Google has banned ad-blocking software in the Google Play store, they still allow ad-blocking browsers. And the IAB has set out guidelines for publishers to deal with ad-blocking visitors, but hasn’t addressed the root of the problem—the poor customer experience with ads.

For publishers treading the complex world of ad-blocking, these are strong indicators that they must figure out a healthy balance of insistence, tolerance and acceptance. Pure standardization on ad-blocking might not ever happen given current circumstances, and so publishers ought to take note and take the necessary action for their business and audience.

Popularity of ad-blockers
The IAB study found the number of people using ad blockers in the U.K. has increased to 22%, from 18% just a few months earlier. It also found that ad-blocking was most popular among 18- to 24-year-olds, with nearly half of respondents (47%) using them. And the number of people around the world who use ad-blocking software has doubled in the last two years to 200 million, according to estimates by Adobe and PageFair, an anti-blocking service. Apple’s decision last fall to allow ad blockers on its latest iOS update has no doubt propelled the propensity toward ad-blocking.

That Google, then, has taken a firmer stand against ad-blocking while still allowing for ad-blocking browsers in its app store shows how confusing this territory is. No publisher wants to lose out on the revenue that these ads generate (a report by Adobe and PageFair found that ad-blocking could cost publishers $41.4 billion globally this year, compared to $21.8 billion in 2015). But no one wants to be the bad guy to the consumer either, and the reasons people use ad-blocking software are clear: They are unhappy about behavior tracking and slow page-load times.

As Emily Bell recently put it, ad blockers are used by people who aren’t necessarily out to harm the industries behind the advertising, but who are looking out for their wallets. “Ad-blocking thrives because of a failure towards consumers,” she wrote in the Guardian. “Forcing people to consume advertising that strips their data and costs them money is hardly a vote-winning strategy.”

That’s likely why Google hasn’t completely jumped ship when it comes to ad-blocking, according to Android Police’s Ruddock. “Google knows that ad-blocking browsers are popular enough that not having them on Android could hurt the platform.”

Solutions for publishers?
So what is the best strategy to have? Guy Phillipson, chief executive of IAB UK, said transparency is key. “Part of the solution to tackle ad-blocking lies in making consumers more aware of the consequences, which seems like it’s starting to filter through,” he said. “If they realize it means they can’t access content or that to do so requires paying for it, then they might stop using ad blockers. It requires reinforcing this trade-off message—ads help to fund the content they enjoy for free.”

A few websites, including Forbes, Wired and the Washington Post, have already started doing this. When Forbes detected users with ad blockers visiting their sites, it asked them to turn the software off—and 42% of visitors obliged.

The IAB also released its guide for publishers on how to approach their consumers to turn off their ad blocking software by offering a “D.E.A.L.”, which stands for Detect, Explain, Ask and Lift restrictions or Limit access, based on the consumer’s choice. So chances are, more websites are going to start this negotiation process with users — asking them to either turn off the ad blocker or pay up.

The new IAB guidelines are not without their concerns, though, with the IAB acknowledging it’s a drastic measure that could alienate users. And as Ed Papazian of Media Dynamics Inc. questioned, “How is this going to work unless publishers with ‘good’ content, who get users to disable their ad blockers, also find ways to minimize the disruptive impact of too many ads per page and their helter-skelter intrusions on the user’s experience with the site?”

So while consumers will perhaps learn to accept the business models behind the content they want to access, the onus to make the ad experience better for users is still on the publisher. And having a better ad environment, in the end, is better for users, publishers and advertisers.

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