The Inevitability of Ad-Blocking (And Things We Can All Do About It)

Posted by Ciaran Norris On November 23, 2015

When the most recent iPhone came out most people obsessed over its new 3D Touch system, the incredible camera and the updates to Siri. But those who work in advertising were more concerned with a small change to iOS which allowed app developers to block “content” within Safari.

Much has been written about ad blocking since the release of iOS9 and yet it still seems like it’s a very confused subject, with no clear understanding of what it means or what we should be doing about it: so here are three common misconceptions and three steps that various parts of the industry could take to challenge the underlying issues.

 First: This genie isn’t going back into its bottle. Entertainment companies that historically sold their products, whether CDs or DVDs, have spent years learning what it’s like when millions of people decide they still want your product but not on your terms and now the same thing is happening to the ad-funded parts of the media industries.

It’s unlikely the ad industry will be able to make this a moral issue, as movie and music studios did. Ad blocking isn’t considered piracy; in fact tech journalist Charles Arthur calls it the new speeding, with many not considering it a problem and no real retribution for those who do it. One thing the experience of the music and movie industries tell us is technology never goes away, no matter how much vested interest might wish it. As Arthur also points out: “[Any] argument that tries to put a moral dam in front of a technological river is doomed. Napster; Bittorrent; now adblocking.”

Second: It’s not clear yet is how big an issue ad blocking will be. When iOS9 came out the app-charts were dominated by blockers but a recent study by GroupM’s Timothy Whitfield put an estimate of 7% of traffic being caught by ad-blockers and concludes it’s not the “Chicken Little” event many suggest.

Whilst he’s right that 7% isn’t going to bring down an industry, anyone who tells their CFO they might be about to lose 7% of their potential revenue, almost overnight, could be in for an interesting discussion. It’s also possible the real figure is much higher: many reports put it closer to 20% of desktop activity.

It’s also worth pointing out that at Facebook doesn’t currently use Safari for its in-app browser and so iOS9 ad-blockers don’t stop ads appearing on pages viewed within Facebook. With Facebook having overtaken Google as the primary referrer to many publishers, and the majority of Facebook’s traffic now mobile, if Facebook were to switch to Safari for its in-app browser, the number of pages impressions impacted could rocket.

Finally, contrary to what some suggest, no ads are immune to these blockers; in fact, there are no types of content, full stop, that are safe.

To highlight just how broad these blockers can be take Stop Tony Meow, a browser extension that swaps out pictures of former Tony Abbott for pictures of kittens. Whilst this isn’t an iOS9 app, the same sort of design could be used to block articles that include the word “sponsored” or native, video pre-rolls, or anything else the developer chooses to block and means that blockers can and will be created to block much more than just display banners.

So, what can we do about all this? There are three things we should all be trying to do, whether as agencies, advertisers, publishers or tech providers.

1. Stop taking liberties with data
The promise of digital advertising has always been that it would enable perfect targeting and kill the old adage: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted: the trouble is I don’t know which half”. However, this promise has been built on an almost kleptomaniacal approach to data collection.

Within the industry we almost make a joke of how many tags can be found on the average webpage using Ghostery but for many this constant tracking is no longer a joke and many cite this as a reason for installing blockers. There should obviously be a value exchange involving attention when content is free but it’s easy to argue the media industry has broken its side of that contract.

As Charles Arthur says: “Have I any responsibility to [online publishers not to use ad blockers]? Well, not really. Certainly as a standard reader, here’s what happened: I accepted an invitation to read an article, but I don’t think that we quite got things straight at the top of the page over the extent to which I’d be tracked, and how multiple ad networks would profile me, and suck up my data allowance, and interfere with the reading experience.”

But the fact that the vast majority of people continue to use the likes of Google and Facebook despite the revelations of how they were all monitored by U.S. security services shows we are still willing to give up almost any suggestion of data privacy: it just has to feel worth it, which leads me to the next things the industry should do.

2. Make better content
The quote above was a response to journalism professor Jeff Jarvis who equates using an ad blocker to killing “quality media and journalism”. Many publishers seem to agree and now put barriers between their content and users of ad-blockers: some are asking users to turn the blockers off in order to allow the publishers to make money; others, including the Washington Post, are actively blocking users of ad blockers unless they agree to take out paid subscriptions.

There’s only one problem here: much of this content isn’t worth subscribing to and if it was, the publishers wouldn’t be dependant on advertising in the first place. Analyst Ben Thompson recently pointed out that publishers need to make a choice between taking a niche or broad-based approach, and this applies to their content and business models: niche ones are much more likely to succeed with subscriptions. Most “news” publishers have chased this broad-based approach and it shows. Arthur, again: “We’ve now established the limits of how much news is generated each day: it’s more than fits in newspapers, but less than fits on all the websites currently dedicated to “news”. That’s not journalism; it’s a sort of horrible stenography.”

Claiming that people should pay for content when it’s obviously been created in order to drive as much free traffic as possible is a great example of letting wishes rule over reality: indeed it’s a perfect example of the phrase “Should isn’t a business model” – coined by none other than Jeff Jarvis.

On top of this is the fact that even the good content takes an age to load. All those tags that creep consumers out also aren’t really designed for the mobile web. Which means that they slow web-page load times and chew up consumers’ data allowances, both of which are probably bigger reasons for most people using ad-blockers than the tag-stalking. Even when we make good content, we’ve created a bad experience.

3. Make better advertising
The final irony in all of the furore around ad-blocking is that it’s arguable how much better advertising has become as a result of all the technology that the blockers were created to eliminate.

For publishers, it’s not really helped deliver major increases in revenue, as the New York Times highlighted in its 2014 results: Digital advertising networks and exchanges, real-time bidding and other programmatic buying channels that allow advertisers to buy audiences at scale are also playing a more significant role in the advertising marketplace and causing downward pricing pressure

And for advertisers, whilst digital targeting is pretty much unbeatable when it comes to driving immediate sales or transactions, for many categories what is required is to gain attention rather than conversion. And what that requires is great creative that is seen by as many people as possible, ideally in a short space of time – by focussing so much on ensuring that messages are seen by the “right audience” we’ve forgotten to spend enough time on the message itself.

We need to get back to making great ads (or branded content as we should probably call them now) that people don’t mind watching/reading/listening to and which entertain or inform at the same time as putting across a brand message which, most of the time, should probably boil down to “my product is available”.

Obviously there are no easy ways to stop the industrial collection of data and instead start concentrating on improving publishers’ content and the advertising it surrounds, but unless we start to try, someone else will do it for us.

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages project is to be welcomed but basically works by stripping out Javascript, thereby pretty much killing nearly all ad-tech tags overnight. Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple’s News products provide much faster user experiences, but don’t seem to be doing much for publishers.

Publishers and advertisers should therefore concentrate on creating the best possible content and ads, the latter ideally native. Whilst native ads in the form of content won’t be immune to blocking, if it truly mimics its surroundings by being interesting, rather than just plonking a direct response ad in a mobile feed, it is less likely to provoke the annoyance that likely drives most ad-blocking downloads.

Agencies meanwhile should work to ensure that they are minimising the amount of tags, scripts and codes required by questioning every request they make or that is made of them to “just implement one more tag”. After all, if most brand success comes from broad reach and awareness, what actual benefit is gained from endless micro-targeting and retargeting?

None of these suggestions are likely to bring back those for whom ad blocking is already second nature, but if we improve the content consumption experience going forward, it might stop more giving it a try. Because what we need to do is similar to what legal streaming did to piracy: It stopped the ‘benefits’ outweighing the hassle.

Back at the start I quoted the assertion that ad blocking isn’t the “Chicken Little” scenario many have made it out to be. And it’s not – yet. But if we want to stop it becoming just that, then we need to start thinking big when it comes to solutions and get back to innovating instead of intruding.

Ciaran Norris