So far this year, a range of studies have released new figures on the popularity of ad blocking among Internet users. The exact numbers within each of these reports might have varied depending on their methodology and geographical scope, but the one constant across pretty much all of them is that this behaviour is on the rise.
Understandably, levels of concern about this in the industry are palpable. But much of resulting debate has been dominated by arguments over the rights and wrongs of the practice, as well as who should accept blame for the growth of this trend. Meanwhile, many digital publishers have announced that they will attempt to prevent access to any visitors who use ad blockers (which in turn has prompted ad blockers to develop tactics that can overcome this). In Sweden, publishers have gone as far as banding together to organise a day when all of them will simultaneously try to close the door to ad-blocking visitors.
Far less attention has been given to understanding why people are adopting this behaviour in the first place, and how it could be countered in more positive ways. For this reason, we surveyed just over 22,000 ad blockers in February and March 2016 to understand the motivations behind this activity. Drawn from 34 countries, all of these individuals said they had used an ad blocker on their PC, laptop and/or mobile within the last 30 days -- and while some of the results are as you might expect, others are more surprising and suggest we need to revise some of the assumptions we have made about why ad-blocking is growing in popularity.
Perhaps most unexpected is that privacy concerns are not a major driving force here. Although ad blockers are slightly more likely than the average Internet user to express privacy and data-related worries, it’s just 3 in 10 of them who are blocking ads because they believe they compromise their privacy. Similarly, it’s just a quarter who are blocking them because they dislike ads which are personalised based on their browsing history. It’s not that these privacy concerns are unimportant -- it’s just that there are much bigger motivations behind the behaviour.
It’s a similar story when you look at ad blocking on mobile. The common consensus to date has been that practical reasons are prominent here. However, our research shows that only a third of mobile ad blockers want to speed up page loading times or stop their data allowances from being drained. What’s more, only 3 in 10 mobile ad-blockers are trying to safeguard their battery lives. We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns -- especially as they remain highly consistent across each age group -- but once again, it’s clear that there are bigger motivations at work here.
Particularly striking is that the top two reasons for ad blocking remain the same across every single demographic and regional split. So no matter the gender, age or income of the person, or the part of the world in which they live, they are most likely to be blocking ads because they feel that too many of them are annoying or irrelevant and because they believe there are too many ads on the Internet.
Of course, these are relatively easy reasons to cite, but it’s certainly telling that they are expressed so consistently by every single group of ad-blockers -- regardless of if they’re doing it on PCs, laptops or mobiles. Equally clear is that there is a strong correlation between time spent online by an individual and their likelihood of turning to ad blockers. By age, for example, it’s 16- to-34-year-olds who use the Internet for the longest amounts of time each day, and thus it’s this group who are furthest ahead for employing ad blockers. By region, consumers in APAC are the most engaged with their mobile devices -- and as a result, are the most likely to block ads on these devices. For PCs and laptops, meanwhile, it’s North Americans and Europeans who typically remain the most wedded to them and who -- lo and behold -- score the highest figures for blocking ads on these devices. Quite simply, the longer you spend online, the keener you are to prevent your experience being compromised by ads.
Although many individuals will always have reservations about receiving targeted or personalised messages, among current ad blockers at least it appears that serving far fewer but better or more relevant ads is one of the only hopes of reversing this trend. The reality is that for far too long, consumers have been inundated with ads that have occupied every pixel of spare space, often with little or no attempt to optimise or tailor them to the screen in question.
From the consumer’s perspective, then, the industry can preach all it likes about how ads fund free content and keep the lights on, but until there’s more control over the quantity and quality of ads -- and until consumer experience is prioritised over numbers of ads served -- it's unlikely there will be a major shift in attitude here.