Why I'm Loving The Ad Blocker Controversy

It’s impossible to ignore the increasing use of ad blockers. The oft-cited report by PageFair and Adobe found that ad blocker usage has steadily risen from 21M users in 2010 to 181M in 2015.

While some have called the methodology behind the study into question, the numbers are still huge, even if you cut the outcomes in half. Anecdotally, publishers agree that ad blockers are a growing concern and the big red flag is their emergence on mobile.

As an ad guy, I love that the ad blocker issue is once again in the headlines. It presents an opportunity for our industry to hit the reset button and address the primary drivers behind the increasing use of ad blockers – mediocre user experiences and an industry-wide lack of transparency.

There couldn’t be a clearer signal from users that ad experiences need to change. If we continue on this path of losing billions of dollars in potential revenue each year due to ad blockers, the next 15 years are going to look vastly different from the past 15.



Three of the biggest changes currently underway to address this issue explain why I’m loving the ad blocker controversy.

 1.    Ad blockers drive the industry to deliver better user experienceswith regard to both content and creative.

When it comes to quality content that attracts and engages viewers, the bar is currently set too low. Content farms, confusion about which content is sponsored or not, and the growth of user generated content makes it even more challenging to effectively reach customers in a trustworthy way.

The ad blocker controversy presents an opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of ad sponsored content and experiences for users. This will inevitably spark creative and content strategists to deliver better ad experiences with fewer ads overall and more relevant offers that are more connected to high quality content.

2. Ad blockers foster greater transparency among publishers, consumers and advertisers.

In a recent survey of 20,000 users across 12 countries, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Oxford University found that 47% of survey participants in the U.S. use ad-blocking software, a third or more ignore ads, and three in 10 actively avoid sites where ads interfere with the content.

Knowing this, what’s the point of creating great ads and content if they’re not seen or only seen by bots? This brings us to reason number two.

To move the industry forward, publishers need to prioritize transparency. They can start by clearly distinguishing placements from content and by integrating placements into content. This will be increasingly more important on mobile since every second and pixel of real estate counts and users expect elegant experiences.

Also, mobile programmatic ad spend is on the rise and will account for 60.5% of total U.S. programmatic display ad spend in 2016, according to eMarketer. 

3.  Ad blockers inspire innovation by creating new revenue models.

Ad blocking vendors are enjoying the lucrative benefits of providing the technology to block ads and then charging advertisers to get white listed but one can see how this is only a temporary fix for users.

Once an advertiser pays the ad blocker’s toll, the user is subjected to the same experience they set out to avoid.

True innovation will emerge from quality content, improved transparency, and better utilization of the user’s mobile experience. What we can expect to see are more publishers boosting subscriptions and uncovering new revenue opportunities through creative approaches to micro payments and pay walls that prove to advertisers that the viewer is a) human, and b) engaged.

If you consider that upwards of 75% to 85% of a site’s content is ad-supported, it’s clear that ad blockers destroy the publisher’s business model and stunt the availability of original and diverse content.

On the plus side, ad blocking is the catalyst forcing the ecosystem to change. We’re already seeing transformation in the way that publishers, advertisers and users interact. Sweeping changes won’t happen overnight but they are underway as our industry recognizes that the way we’ve made money in the past is not the way we will earn it the future.
2 comments about "Why I'm Loving The Ad Blocker Controversy".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 29, 2015 at 10:07 a.m.

    Many good points, Eric, but I believe that the only effective solution will be for digital ad sellers to revamp the ways they place ads so they do not interfere with the users' ability to navigate sites and consume clearly defined segments of content. In other words, go to something very like TV's "ad breaks".

    So far, all of the emphasis has been on getting advertisers to use more "engaging" ads or publishers to offer more and "better" content. Also, noted is the idea of getting users to pay for blanket ad avoidance on their favorite sites and, of course, the new ploy, whereby an ad blocker is paid by an advertiser---or a website---to unblock ads.

    Unfortunately, all of this is not going to provide an industry-wide solution as there are too many players, each going their separate ways, and no enforcement. A new, and well backed standard of behavior is required to force the kind of changes that are needed, not a lot of well intentioned advice and theorizing.

  2. Mike O'Neill from Baycoud Systems, December 30, 2015 at 8:34 a.m.

    +1 for new standards.

    But ending uncontrolled data snooping has to be part of it. Widespread unease at invisible tracking, along with the inadequate response to it from industry, is a significant driver for the take up of content blockers.

    People expect their personal data to be respected. They want to be given visibility of data collection and control over its use, but many companies avoided responsibility and responded by creating more confusion. Unfortunately people have had to turn to browser extensions, some based on dodgy business models, partisan or incomplete lists, as a result damaging not only the richness of the web ecosystem but also one of its major sources of funding.  

    Fortunately the W3C’s Do Not Track process created a forum, which had broad involvement from stakeholders including civil society, marketers and the tech industry, to discuss all this and arrive at a consensus.

    With this process now complete, and with legislators around the world starting to address the public policy aspects of compliance, there is now an opportunity to re-engage to help make ad blocking unnecessary, by extending the work already done on verifiability, transparency and control.

    There does not need to be a trade-off between privacy and innovation, people want both and a win-win is now within reach.

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