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What Are Ad Blockers And How Are They Impacting Online Publishers?

For years, publishers and advertisers have known that their business models – free content funded by pervasive and disruptive online ads – were undermining consumers’ experiences on their sites and of their brands. So it was only a matter of time before technology was put in place that would block disruptive and annoying ads from appearing on our screens while we’re trying to read a piece of content. And thus the ad blocker was born…

Advertising on websites can exist in a variety of forms, such as pictures, animations, embedded audio or video, text, pop up windows, autoplay of audio or video etc. Ad blocking or ad filtering involves removing or altering advertising content on a webpage, to minimise the disruption, increase page load speeds, minimise mobile data allowance usage or decrease battery drainage caused by ads. Ad blockers will either target the technologies that are used to deliver these ads, such as Adobe Flash/Shockwave or Windows Media Audio, or target the URLs that are the source of the ads.

Although ad blockers have been around for some time, it wasn’t until Apple publicly embraced ad blockers via its recent iOS9 update that the digital media industry went into full-on panic mode about the potential effect that ad blocking technology could have on the free-to-consumer business model of content on the internet. Up until that point, publishers and advertisers dismissed ad blocking as something unethical, with very low adoption rates. Apple’s decision to back ad blocking not only sent publishers and advertisers into mass hysteria, but resulted in some wild and accusatory statements such as IAB’s statement that “ad blockers are engaging in highway robbery”, or Nilay Patel at The Verge stating “it is going to be a bloodbath of independent media”. Some publishers even fought back by refusing to allow people who are using ad blockers to see their content.

A recent Adobe and PageFair study on ad blocking software revealed some interesting facts. According to the study, ad blocking software is estimated to cost publishers $22 billion in revenue during 2016. Furthermore:

  • there are 198 million active ad blocking users around the world
  • ad blocking grew by 41 percent in the last 12 months
  • in the US, that number grew to 48% (45 million active users) in the 12 months leading to June 2015
  • in the UK, that number grew to 82 percent (12 million active users) in the 12 months leading up to June 2015.

What the increased uptake of ad blocking technology should tell us is that users are fed up of being interrupted with irrelevant and obnoxious advertising while they’re trying to consume content. So rather than complaining about ad blockers existing in the first place, what publishers and advertisers should look into is how they can provide a better user experience while still gaining revenue from advertising. It’s clear that the current model is flawed, and that consumers are fed up.

The real problem is not even just obtrusive or annoying ads- if that were the only downside to users there would probably be a much higher level of tolerance. The problems arise when these ads cause sites to load at slower speeds, use up valuable mobile data allowance, or drain battery life.

A recent article in AdWeek states that ad-blocking apps are routinely among the most popular downloads for Apple’s iphone, highlighting just how fed up consumers are and that they’ve reached the point where they want to take action against ads. Publishers’ responses so far center around the implicit contract between publishers and readers that says you can view free content if you tolerate ads. But the problem really lies when publishers place advertising revenue over providing a positive and enjoyable user experience.

Advertising can co-exist with readers and publishers, but it should have minimal effect on page load times and device battery life. As John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote “Advertising should be respectful of the user’s time, attention, and battery life. The industry has gluttonously gone the other way”. This article in Copyblogger suggested various alternatives including native advertising, which is much less disruptive and often well received.

So, do ad blockers spell the end for advertising on publisher sites? Of course not, it simply means that publications needs to adapt and look into monetising their sites without needing to resort to very disruptive advertising that ruins the user experience and turns people away. Digital advertising is very much alive and well, but much like TV advertising has adapted and evolved over the years, this too needs to happen online.

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