Ad Blocking Steadies, But Publishers Must Stay Strong

Time to take stock. It looks like ad-blocking rates have plateaued at around 22% of British adults, according to the latest IAB UK figures. Shall we say one in five, just to make it easier? While this is up from the 15% we saw throughout 2015, the 22% seen from February 2016 to 2017 as least shows that the rising curve has now gone flat. It would appear that ad-blocker adoption has reached a stable point. 

The reason why is intriguing. The IAB's CEO Jon Mew talks about a "ligthbulb moment" as people understand the "value exchange" of advertising paying for content. The switch that has made the public realise the connection between ads and content is key publishers denying access to their material if blockers are installed. I think he's right, but only partially. Clearly there is a better understanding that ads pay for content, but regular readers will know I take a hard line on this. I really don't believe that was ever a surprise to any adult, not even a "digital native" "Millennial" whom older gurus always suggest expect content on their terms and we must live with it. I suspect, however, that they have never been unaware of the link between banners and wages getting paid. It's simple economics.

The problem was that for people of all ages, it was just so simple to block ads. Simply download a browser extension and you're away. It didn't really affect a desktop or mobile experience too much. So why not just go for a free ride?

Interestingly, then, the IAB UK research asked those people who have stopped using an ad blocker why they did so. There are two main reasons. For nearly one in four, it was because they had changed devices and the same proportion wanted to access content that was being withheld from them. Interestingly, this one in four who stopped using an ad blocker for better access to content is up from 16% a year ago. 

So I'd like to suggest that these two major reasons why ad blocking has plateaued ultimately come down to the same thing. If you have just changed a device and can't be bothered to spend two minutes installing an ad blocker, then it's likely that you also, at least in part, belong to the section of former ad blockers who don't want content withheld any more. 

There are two ways of looking at this. One is the innocent "give them a break" scenario whereby you suggest that users of ad blockers didn't get the link between content and advertising paying Web publishers' wages. I think it's far more likely that people have always known this and they were trying it on because there was no downside. Once publishers started to get tough, either through polite messages or outright content blocking, then people got the message. The message wasn't that free content works because it's ad-funded -- they knew this already. The message was that publishers are fighting fire with fire and not giving away content to digital shoplifters. 

I urge everyone to take the latter stance because as the IAB's Mew points out, the industry cannot take its foot off the gas. We can't presume a lesson has been learned and we can drop the tough cop routine. Far from it. I will bet you if publishers went back to turning a blind eye, even though the lesson has supposedly been learned, ad-blocking rates would continue to creep up.

Publishing has everything to lose from dropping the tough cop routine but no risk from maintaining it. Digital shoplifters contribute nothing -- they simply consume. 

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