Ad blocking software is steadily gaining popularity among desktop and mobile users worldwide. Overall ad traffic in Canada has declined 30% in the past two years according to IAB Canada, which cites ad blocking as the most likely culprit. While 80% of Canadians say they would use an ad blocker at some point, currently the penetration is 16%, and 0.2% on mobile (IAB Canada). Marketers and publishers alike stand to lose significantly, and the threat is real for businesses that rely on ad dollars to keep their doors open. Understanding the real issue behind the trend sheds light on how to overcome it.
The growing trend in ad blocking is a symptom of a larger problem within the online advertising space. As it stands today, the most cited reason for installing ad blockers is interruption to the user experience. As industry players competed with each other to be seen and to increase profits by way of ad dollars, it seems publishers and marketers began creating ad experiences that left the consumer behind: full-screen interstitials or oversized ads that overlay page content, media-rich ads that eat up bandwidth, serving up irrelevant ads, and “ad clutter” all factor in to the consumers’ adoption of ad blockers. But a study conducted by IAB in the UK shows consumers would return to their former ad-viewing selves if there were less interference and fewer, more relevant ads. By understanding the factors behind consumer behavior, marketers and publishers can build online digital strategies that are effective and sustainable during this high season of ad blocking.
In December 2015, FORBES set an example to publishers that consumers will tolerate digital ads, but less is more. The magazine refreshed its welcome page with a message asking ad block users to turn their blockers off. In exchange they would offer them an “ad light” experience. Since then, FORBES has adopted this practice full-time and on the whole, their findings have been positive:
“Nearly 44% of our test pool (1.6 million visitors) has turned off ad blockers or white listed FORBES content and ads,” the article said. “That’s about 100,000 a day who have turned their blockers off.” FORBES has delivered 29 million ad impressions since December 17 “that would otherwise have never been seen.”
FORBES saw a positive ripple effect outside of just delivering impressions: dwell time of consumers on pages by those who disabled their blockers was “twice the amount of non-ad block users”, and the clickthrough rate on ads by those disabling ad blockers remains “above the industry average.”
Recently, IAB released open-source code for publishers to use to detect consumers who are using ad blockers. The New York Times implemented a model similar to FORBES, stating that it is opposed to ad blocking because it “does not serve the long term interests of consumers.”
Allowing publishers to serve up ads creates revenue streams for businesses, which allows them to offer content for free—a concept that many consumers are not aware of. IAB, who believes in an ad-funded internet, stated in their UK study that 56% of respondents were unaware that a website would lose revenue if they blocked its ads. IAB is developing guidelines for publishers who rely on ad content to detect ad block users and to open discourse with them about how viewing advertising enables their service. However, while creating a more balanced viewing experience, it is important to remember that not all ads are created equal.
A Whitelist-Worthy Environment
Not all digital ads are intrusive or bandwidth-heavy, but the ones that are drive ad blocking, Over half of consumers who use ad blockers use the program to block all advertising according to IAB, which means even those consumer-friendly ads on trusted sites aren’t getting through. Publishers should establish their platform as an environment where ads can be trusted, and commit to a quality experience for the user by giving them the ability to respond to the advertising they are served. Publishers can then use consumer feedback as a tool to improve their ad experience. At the IAB-hosted seminar, Business of Digital Chapter 3: Ad Blocking held in Toronto this month, panelists from La Presse, The Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada said their businesses take consumer feedback seriously. Simon Jennings, President of Group Sales at La Presse in Toronto said that the La Presse tablet app has a 91% ad approval rating among consumers. Google users can customize their own ad experience by setting their interests to make the ad serving more relevant, or block specific advertisers altogether. Using the “Mute This Ad” option on many ads, Google will stop showing those ads and others like it from that advertiser, helping to eliminate only the ads that are unacceptable to the consumer.
Google acknowledges the integral part that advertising plays to the free web as we know it, but that the ecosystem needs maintenance to keep it healthy. Google devised advertising restrictions and disables ads that don’t comply. In its official blog Google claims it disabled more than 780 million ads and stopped showing ads on more than 25,000 mobile apps because they didn’t follow Google policies in 2015. A company of Google’s size can, and does refuse to work with certain businesses because they don’t follow Google policies—such as linking to malware, placing ads next to buttons for consumers to accidentally click, and ads that overlay content the consumer is trying to view.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For digital advertising to prosper, marketers and publishers need to collaborate and build a sustainable digital ecosystem that has user experience at its heart. Understanding the driving forces behind the consumers’ rush to ad blocking helps to make the solutions clearer. From banner blindness to browser plugins, there will always be another form of ad blocking. By addressing the drivers to ad blocking, as opposed to the ad blocker itself, marketers and publishers will be able to create digital campaigns that are sustainable over time, impactful, and that reach target audiences and continue to drive ROI.