Although digital ad blockers are a hot topic, the concept of consumers avoiding ads is not new. We’ve all done it – flipped past ads in magazines, changed to a different radio station when the music stops, or headed to the kitchen while commercials air on TV. Today we let technology do our ad blocking. DVRs let us skip TV commercials, paid subscriptions allow us to avoid ads altogether. Most recently, ad blockers are allowing our browsing experience to be commercial-free. Over the past years, advertisements on social news feeds and typical publishers have increased and deteriorated the overall user experience. With the rise of programmatic advertising and ad fraud, disruption to the viewing/listening experience, irrelevancy of the ad message, and general annoyance with repetitive ads are the main culprits. Consumers’ primary reasons for blocking ads are annoyance and disruption.
2018 is the year of digital ad blocking, because not only are consumers fed up, but major players like Chrome and Safari are responding to this reaction and making changes to their browsers with blocking as a default setting. Chrome plans to block advertisements on pages with advertisements deemed as most annoying by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Safari will let people turn on the “reader view” as a default to their browser, streamlining the experience and stripping out advertising so many may never see the original version. Safari has also introduced “Intelligent Tracking Prevention,” which will block the ability to send cookies to third parties determined to be trackers.
Advertisers are missing the mark with inaccurate targeting and excessive repetition. According to a survey by eMarketer, seven in 10 respondents agreed that they often saw the same ad over and over again, while more than half said they frequently saw ads for products they had already purchased. Studies by eMarketer, Adblock Plus, and HubSpot show that consumers who get a more appropriate or relevant experience are less likely to stop the use of ad blockers, or to at least whitelist those publishers. With ad blocking integrated into browsers, this cannot be ignored any longer – 615 million devices already have ad-blocking software downloaded, and the number will only increase. Advertisers and publishers need to adjust the core digital marketing strategy or risk decreasing their reach significantly.
Simply changing the tactics with what we use is not enough. Podcasts, audio ads, social influencers, and in-app engagement ads are safe from ad blockers…for now. But technology is constantly advancing, and these channels will likely face the same challenges. Ad blockers are not just blocking certain advertising sizes, but they also have capabilities to scan pages to find and block specific keywords on domains. By doing this, ad blockers can block “sponsored content” and “sponsored posts” as well as some organic content. However, if companies are not actively solving the root of the problem (why people are blocking ads), ad blockers will continue to advance their technology, blocking much of marketers’ communications.
Digital publishers stand to lose over $27 billion globally by 2020 if the issue of ad blocking is not satisfactorily addressed. With this type of money on the line, publishers are fighting back by actively trying to get to the root of the problem, right? Not necessarily.
Instead, they are turning to what is effectively ad-blocking blackmail. “Turn off your ad blocker/whitelist my site if you want access to my content.” A more aggressive step being taken by publishers is to use block walls, which completely block the content when ad blockers are detected. This increases the demand to immediately turn off one’s ad blocker.
However, this harsh technique has not been proven as effective as publishers would hope, as 74 percent of U.S. ad blockers will leave the website when faced with an ad blocker.
There is also a way to pay to play. Adblock Plus, the most widely used ad blocker, created an Acceptable Ads program in which publishers can be whitelisted if they can prove their ads meet certain conditions. By doing this, publishers are aware of what types of ads are blocked and which will be served. Better to play by the rules than not be able to play at all. This may be a first step in solving the problem of why consumers are blocking ads, albeit that some question the legitimacy that blurs the line with extortion.
To understand what is next in ad blocking, we looked at the “duopoly” of Google and Facebook, given that they receive the lion’s share of ad dollars and therefore have a lot at stake.
Google is looking to solve the foundational problem by collaborating with the Coalition for Better Ads to make ads more relevant and less intrusive to consumers. With this partnership, the new Chrome browser will automatically block ads on sites that are not compliant. Although this seems close to perfect, the Better Ads Standards can currently only focus on formats of the ads and not the overall experience. That means it will abide to the LEAN standards, meaning “lightness” to ensure fast page load and reasonable bandwidth. It cannot judge whether the ad message is relevant. But it is a start.
Unlike Google, Facebook’s focus centers on facing the ad-blocking battle head-to-head with software developers trying to reverse ad blocking on their interface. In Q3 2016, while momentarily defeating ad-blocking technology, Facebook’s desktop revenue grew 18 percent year over year, and around 9 percent from previous quarters. With mobile ad blocking not as frequent and Facebook earning 84 percent of revenue on mobile, it may be in the clear…for now, as the battle between the engineers continues.
As ad blockers continue to gain adoption and become more sophisticated, brands and agencies need to start working toward a long-term solution focused on reversing consumers’ desire to block ads. We (the creators of advertising) must focus on creating a better consumer experience and having a better understanding of the consumer data to provide this improved experience.
Overall, marketers need to take a brutally honest look at their marketing and work together with browsers and publishers to meet the consumer demand for a better experience overall. These new standards will become the norm if digital marketing is to remain a core part of our communication strategy.