Ad Blocking -- Time To Appease The Frustrated?

Over the last few months, a number of different tactics have been employed by parts of the publishing industry in an attempt to stem the rising tide of ad blocking. Some sites have introduced friendly messages asking ad blockers to support them financially. Others have promised ad-lite experiences to those willing to turn off their blockers. But most have simply disabled content or access until the user relents and allows them to display ads (in cases, banding together with others to simultaneously prevent users from viewing a range of similar sites).

Broadly speaking, the majority of approaches pursued so far have thus tried to force the user to reinstate ads. In these instances, the message has been simple: no ads = no access. But while this is understandable -- especially for those publishers who rely entirely on ad-funded revenue -- it’s one that carries its fair share of risk. After all, some people might be so intent on accessing that they will whitelist that site, but for each person who chooses that route there will be others who simply move on to another destination. So you might be regaining some (admittedly keen) users, but it’s at the expense of losing others -- and perhaps permanently.

The other key issue here is that we have already seen the emergence of tools that claim to detect and override the anti-ad blockers that some sites have set up. And if there’s one thing we know for certain about digital consumers, it’s that they don’t like being forced into doing things against their will or being denied access to sites (for proof of that, just look at the 1 in 4 Internet users in our research who say they have used a VPN, many of them to access content which is geo-restricted). In short, digital consumers today aren’t just demanding, they’re also increasingly tech-savvy and so simply disabling access is likely to prompt the development of workarounds. It’s not changing behaviours or attitudes, it’s just making people work harder to escape advertising. That might help numbers and revenue in the short term, but it’s not a long-term fix.

In this context, it would seem that educating and persuading the consumer is the better step forward, rather than attempting to kick them out. And while that’s of course much easier said than done, one of the problems here is that so much of the industry’s reaction thus far has been focused on the growing numbers who are using ad blockers, rather than the main motivations which are driving this behaviour.

In our research, we ask PC and mobile ad blockers to tell us their reasons for using such tools. Among the 20,000 of these individuals who we interviewed in Q2, we can divide their motivations into broad segments. The smallest group at the moment are the “Practical Ad Blockers” -- those doing it to speed up page or video load times or to preserve their mobile’s battery life/data allowance. About 20% of ad blockers fall into the group, but it’s a number that is likely to rise as mobile ad-blocking gains further traction. Next up are the “Privacy Ad Blockers” -- the 1 in 3 who say they are doing it because they are concerned about how their data is being used, because they don’t like personalized ads and because they worry about ads compromising their online privacy.

That’s a group sizeable enough not to be ignored, but by far the biggest segment are the “Frustrated Ad Blockers” -- those who find ads intrusive, think there are too many of them, believe that they take up too much screen space or that too many of them are annoying or irrelevant. Across the 34 countries we survey, nearly 6 in 10 ad blockers fall into this “Frustrated” segment, giving clear evidence that it’s the (poor) user experience which lies at the heart of the issue (something that has worsened as more and more consumers are getting online via mobiles, with their smaller -- and hence more easily invaded -- screens).

For too long, too many players in the industry have been willing to serve an overload of ads, and despite the huge spike in ad blocking, you don’t have to go far on the Internet to find pages where the user’s ad experience is still pretty terrible, even now. It’s this problem that really needs to be tackled -- although some high-profile sites have made real efforts to reduce or improve their online ad offerings, there are still too many that have yet to make any change. And on those sites that are currently blocking the ad blockers, there are too few reassurances that the advertising experience will be better than before if a consumer chooses to whitelist them.

In short, consumers need to see some compromise on the side of the industry, with sites offering lite or curated ad experiences for their users becoming the majority, not the exception. Until that happens, convincing users to flick the off switch on their blockers will be an uphill battle.     

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