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Mobile Network Ad Blocking: Should Marketers Be Scared?

The Ad Blocker battlefield remains a critical one for businesses looking to expand reach, but with every passing week, it’s proving more and more difficult to wage the war. Now, not only are app developers finding ways to create the tools needed to block mobile ads from users’ browsers, but mobile network providers are working to block them too, in what is sure to be greeted as a threat by businesses and advertisers. But is there really cause for alarm?

What’s happening?

The first major strike in favour of network-backed mobile ad blocking came from EE in November 2015. The company’s chief executive Olaf Swantee launched a strategic review of the technology aimed at understanding whether implementing restrictions across the network would benefit customers. “We think it’s important that, over time, customers start to be offered more choice and control over the level and intensity of ads on mobile,” Swantee said. “For EE, this is not about ad blocking, but about starting an important debate around customer choice, controls and the level of ads customers receive.”

At the same time, O2 confirmed that it too was “looking at these technologies to see if they can help our customers with some of the bad practices and disruptive experiences that are happening.” This trend hasn’t abated in 2016, with Samsung confirming that it’ll be offering customers the opportunity to download ad-blockers onto their browsers. It’s a move made to help Samsung protect its brand image, as advertising industry analyst Daniel Knapp told the BBC, “Samsung wants to show customers that it is a premium brand that protects them as well as Apple [who implemented ad blocking technology on i0S 9 in October 2015].”

All four companies have accepted that ad blocking is simply a fact of digital life in 2016, and realised that it’s in their best interest to embrace it, rather than fight it. “Ad blocking is happening, regardless of our involvement,” O2 told Marketing Week, “so we are exploring the space to try and understand the effect on our customers and their mobile experience.” Research by the Internet Advertising Bureau UK from November 2015 backs the move up, showing that 18% of adult British internet users have set up some kind of ad blocker. Though that seems only a fraction, it’s put into sharp focus by the fact that only 3% of people had the technology five months prior, in June 2015.

Why is this happening?

Ad blocking is clearly increasing in popularity then, but the motivation for the increase isn’t simply to block adverts. Indeed, IAB UK also found that only 57% of people who have downloaded ad blocker software did so with the intention of flatly blocking all ads. For a significant portion of downloaders, the aim is to see only relevant and unobtrusive advertising that doesn’t interfere with their experience of a website. Or, as the report states, “a less invasive, lighter ad experience is absolutely vital to address the main cause of ad blocking.”

Moreover, there’s misunderstanding of how internet economics work among downloaders. 61% of those surveyed stated they’d prefer the free access to content advertising can deliver than to pay for ad-free access. This approach is currently being put to the test by two prominent publishers: Forbes, and Wired. Forbes created an ‘ad-light’ version of its site to users who didn’t have an ad blocker turned on, while Wired has offered an ad-free version that users can view for $1 a week. In both cases, the aim has been to tailor the experience for the consumers’ needs, ensuring that ads are kept clean, quick, and unobtrusive – or “polite” as Wired have put it – without cutting off that all important ad revenue.

What can advertisers do?

Time will tell how successful such solutions are, but it’s in innovations like these that the future of online advertising lies. Adverts are not universally disliked by internet users, just ones that don’t work to help them find what they want, or actively interrupt their experience of whatever website they’re on. So regardless of what networks and publishers do to enable or counter the ad-blocking revolution, much of the power still sits with the advertisers themselves. Useful, relevant, light, and unobtrusive ads are more likely to succeed than those that are not in this new digital landscape, so when producing ad units, businesses need to make sure they’re delivering within those requirements.


The focus on and huge increase in use of ad blockers can cause real concerns for businesses looking to expand reach and tap into new customers. But the technology has done little to change the golden rule of appealing to customers on the internet: always make what you create as user-friendly as possible. By adhering to this central tenet, businesses can ensure they’ll have nothing to fear as support for ad blockers grows.

Over to you, what’s your take on mobile network ad blocking? Let us know in the comments below or via social media and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog to get new articles straight to your inbox.

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