For some time now, we’ve been told that digital consumers are becoming more concerned than ever before about their online privacy. Even so, many have assumed that this is one area where most people are simply talking the talk. After all, it’s pretty easy to say that you’re worried about your digital footprint (which 6 in 10 Internet users do), whereas it requires rather more effort and knowledge to do anything about it.
In actual fact, there already are sizable minorities who are taking proactive steps when they use PCs and laptops; in an average month, GWI’s research shows that 45% of online adults will use a private browsing window, 4 in 10 will delete cookies, 1 in 4 will use either an ad blocker or a VPN, and some 15% will deploy anti-tracking software. That some of these behaviours have already become so common should be by far the most striking thing here. Yes, expressed concerns are still ahead of reactive measures, but in places the gaps are anything but sizable. Digital consumers really have become a lot savvier and more hands-on than many have been willing to acknowledge.
It’s in this context that we should be viewing the recent release of AdBlock Plus for Android. To date, the world of mobile has been largely protected from ad blockers; it has been difficult for these tools to replicate the functionality they can offer on PCs, and those which have tried to do so have faced major opposition from the big players in the field (as just one example, a previous version of AdBlock Plus for Android was forced out of the Google PlayStore because it interfered with apps).
But while the industry might be able to win individual battles, it’s absolutely clear that more and more sophisticated mobile ad blockers are on the horizon. Equally apparent is that they have a substantial potential audience: already, 3 in 10 of those with an Android phone are using blocking tools on their PCs/laptops (with the numbers being exactly the same among iPhone users, for whom a separate version of AdBlock Plus is in development).
Across the two biggest mobile operating systems globally, that means that almost 1 in 3 users are already attempting to block ads on PCs. That they would be keen to do the same on their smartphones seems extremely likely -- and perhaps most worrisome of all for mobile advertisers, this action tends to be most pronounced among key target groups (peaking among 16-34s, the top income quartile and in mature digital markets in North America and Europe -- with places like Germany, Sweden, France and Canada at the very forefront).
To date, some industry experts and brand spokespeople have decried the move toward ad blockers, chastising those developing them for supposedly jeopardising the free, ad-supported content and services that consumers have become so used to enjoying. At times, they have also delighted at pointing out that current mobile ad blockers can only restrict ads in mobile browsers, rather than inside apps (which are accounting for a progressively bigger share of mobile traffic).
Trouble is, all that seems a little reminiscent of other industries that have tried to combat or deny digital advances rather than finding ways to embrace and work with them. And it misses one major point: that significant minorities of consumers have become so anti-advertising in their mindset that they would actively seek out these measures. Indeed, some in the industry have been quick to attack mobile ad blockers but staggeringly slow to address the slew of abysmally poor-quality mobile ads currently out there (you know, the ones that take over the whole screen without there being any obvious way to close them, or those that place a link right next to the “x -- meaning that most users end up clicking through by accident). Outside of the very worst Web sites, such ads have long been banished from the “normal” Web; that they’re still so commonplace on the mobile Internet is a clear sign that user experience needs to become much more of a priority. Work also needs to be done in terms of educating users about how their free services are being funded.
As we move further and further toward an opt-in internet, anti-tracking and pro-privacy options are becoming the default and consumers will become still savvier about controlling their online environments. That means advertising needs to work harder to prove its value rather than simply attacking the blockers. Indeed, while the current version of Adblock Plus for Android might not work inside mobile browsers, it’s something of a certainty that each successive version will move closer and closer toward such a goal.