There is no mistaking the general sentiment about ad blocking at MediaPost’s Publishing Insider Summit in Key Largo, where panel moderator Bob Garfield compared ad-blocking software providers to the Taliban in his opening remarks.
But as the following panel agreed, vilifying the opponent -- while doubtless satisfying -- does little to address this looming problem. So what should publishers do?
Forbes has been a leader in the publisher response to ad blocking, adopting what might be termed a “carrot-and-stick” approach. According to vice-president for advertising products and strategy Ann Marinovich, Forbes ran an experiment in which half the visitors using ad blocking software were invited to turn off their ad blockers or whitelist Forbes in return for a lighter ad experience, promising faster loading times and less data usage — or otherwise not be able to see the content.
Marinovich noted that 35% of the ad blocker users who received the message chose to turn off their blockers or whitelist the site – and that the these actually proved to be some of the most engaged visitors to the site, spending more time on the site and generating more page views than visitors who weren’t using an ad blocker in the first place.
Now all users that visit Forbes with ad blockers activated are presented with the same choice, and Marinovich reported that, “Since December, we’ve reclaimed 185 million impressions” that would otherwise have been lost to ad blockers. Nor has the “ad light” strategy been to detrimental to the bottom line as, reflecting their higher engagement, “revenue per user has been ad par or higher” than users coming without ad blockers.
However, the panel also showed that many publishers remain leery of adopting even a moderately confrontational approach to readers, and some of this hesitation stems from the very structure of the new media ecosystem, where readers are often contributors as well, and tech-savvy types more likely to use ad blockers are also among the most valuable visitors.
On that note, Patrick McCann, vice-president of data science for CafeMedia, revealed: “We have two social networks and we have to be very careful because those users are providing content for us… Many of the people using ad blockers are social influencers and we have to be very careful not to drive them away.”
The oft-repeated nostrum that publishers and advertisers need to improve the user experience ignores the fact that ad blockers, far from advocating for consumers as they claim, have a good reason to hope that things remain the same.
As Newspaper Association of America CEO David Chavern pointed out: “Not all ad-blockers are created equal… If you’re a for-profit ad blocker, you don’t want improvement in the digital ecosystem, because you make your living off of a bad ecosystem.”
Similarly, publishers may not have the privilege of rejecting intrusive or data-heavy ads, as big platforms like Facebook, Google or Apple are able to do more or less by decree. McCann noted: “We don’t have the power of Facebook going to advertisers and saying you need to give us lighter ads. The publishers are the ones taking the heavy ads, the ten megabyte ads… You can’t just walk away from that.”
Of course, publishers may choose to rely on the big tech platforms to hold advertisers to these new standards, but this would in effect mean turning over their business to the platforms, diluting the publisher’s brand and undermining their relationship with the audience – something all the panelists agreed was problematic.
Publishers can also explore alternatives to the ad-supported model, but preliminary findings on this front aren’t particularly promising: Marinovich noted that among ad block users surveyed by Forbes, 80% said they would be unwilling to pay for content.