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Can online publishers embrace ad blocking?

Can online publishers embrace ad blocking? Keith Fagan

We need a better ad blocker. When the topic comes up in meetings with publishers, this isn't a popular statement. Many publishers are taking measures to circumvent ad blocking, which they rightly believe to be an existential threat. However, I believe our time would be better spent embracing ad blocking and even helping to build a better ad blocker. Here's why, along with what we can do individually and as an industry.

The genie is already out of the bottle.

This shouldn't be news to anyone, but let's go over the numbers. Depending on whom you listen to, somewhere in the range of 5 to 9 percent of all web visitors use some form of ad blocking. Depending on what country and what type of website you run, that number can skyrocket, with European countries and tech sites seeing much higher rates of ad blocker adoption. That, however, is less frightening than the overall growth: according to PageFair, who gave the more conservative 5 percent estimate, ad-blocking usage more than doubled between 2013 and 2014. That there is a large demand for ad-blocking software is one reason that ad blocking is here to stay.

The other reason is one of supply. As open-source software, ad-blockers have an extensive, near cost-free army of developers. It is going to be difficult for any company to be match the open source development model. With its vast resources, Microsoft tried to do that against Linux in the enterprise space, and it arguably failed. Is it likely that online publishers, with their relatively small development resources, are going to beat that track record? Eyeo's release of a mobile browser and recent detection of native ads, and Shine's ability to block mobile ads at the network carrier-level suggests not.

So, if ad blocking isn't going away, what can advertisers and publishers do to adapt to the new reality?

The key to this lies in the different reasons people use ad-blocking software.

Protecting the consumer relationship

Luckily, many people consider ads as just part of the internet landscape. Even in a survey of its own users, over 70 percent of people who use Eyeo's Adblock Plus said they would allow some unobtrusive ads to support free websites. When ads are targeted, relevant, well-executed, and unobtrusive, consumers often view them as informative and providing a service. Unfortunately, bad ads are too common, and it's this phenomena that is driving the mainstream adoption of ad blockers.

For these consumers, it's up to us -- publishers and advertisers -- to provide them with the experience they want, which means not sacrificing experience for monetization. As an industry, we're already taking some proactive measures, such as redesigning the user experience, but we need to also tackle bad ads. Luckily, companies such as GeoEdge, ClarityAd, The Media Trust, and RiskIQ are all developing solutions to help publishers protect themselves against bad ads.

In addition, it's our responsibility to educate these consumers on the connection between the content they love and the ads that pay for that content. Numerous publishers have started to do this, but it does require a light touch, as demonstrated by Destructoid's 2013 efforts. Read the frank feedback -- both positive and negative -- readers gave to its efforts. From it, you'll gather that many people will be ok with ads, so long as the publisher respects the user experience.

But what about the stalwarts?

That does, however, leave a large population of people who do not want ads, some for good reason.

One of these reasons is privacy. Consumers deserve to be informed about how their data is being used and be given a choice. Extensions like Crumble, which enable consumer to protect their privacy while also still enabling ads to be served, go some way to doing this, as do push notifications on websites that alert visitors on how cookies are being used. If we can regain consumers' trust and empower them, then we've given them one fewer reason to need to ad-block.

There are some people though, who are constitutionally opposed to ads. So what can we do about that? One idea is to flat out deny them content, which I think few publishers would be willing to do. Another is to use a pay-wall, which has met with limited success. This is not surprising, given that a recent survey  in the U.K. found that that only 2 percent of people would pay a lump sum for an ad-free internet.

A viable alternative, however, could be borrowed from in-app games: micropayments, where ad-blocking visitors make a small payment, say 25 cents, for a non-ad serving article. A small group of thinkers, including Walter Isaacson, believe this may be the way forward. The recent launch and VC funding of various micropayment-for-content companies, such as CoinTent, may remove much of the friction involved in micropayments, for example by providing one-click payment.

The pipe dream

The best solution, though, would be to remove underlying cause of the issue. By this, I don't mean somehow circumventing ad blockers. I've already laid out the reasons why I think this is at best a short-term tactic and at worst a fool's errand.

Instead, what I'm referring to is a changing the underlying assumption behind the ad blocker model, which can be boiled down to "guilty by default unless you pay us." At the moment, most ad blockers prevent all ads (when I downloaded it, it was enabled for all sites) unless either:

  • The consumer actively disables the software for specific sites

  • You are a small business and go through the rigmarole of registering with them, or

  • You pay them, like Google, Amazon, and others have done. (According to a report by the Financial Times, a fee equivalent to 30 percent of the additional ad revenues that would be made from being unblocked.)

The first option fails the "what's in it for the consumer?" test, as most consumers probably will not take the extra effort to enable ads if they can see the content without it. This phenomenon is similar to the Tragedy of the Commons. The latter two options, especially the pay-to-whitelist option, fails ad-blocking software's public statements about finding a balance between enabling revenue from non-intrusive ads and consumer choice, especially for smaller businesses.

So what other alternatives are there? One model could be changing the assumption to "innocent until proven guilty" with the consumers needing to elect to have ads disabled on certain sites they find annoying. This would justly spare the innocent. On the flip side, there would need to be a remediation process to enable sites that have fixed the underlying issue. This is similar to what is used in the email industry, a role played by non-profit organizations such as Spamhaus.

Another, more interesting alternative is an ad blocker that combines the idea of micropayments. One such example of this is Fairblocker, which enables users to decide how much an ad-free internet is worth to them a month and then splits the payment between the online publishers that the user visits. While there are some holes in the business model, publishers could do much by promoting the use of this type of technology to consumers who are vehemently against ads.

So what's in the future?

Like anything, the future impact of ad blocking will be a product of a number of the factors mentioned in this piece. However, I think that, despite the doom and gloom, there are various viable alternatives publishers can take to increase their chances. Smart publishers will test each one and see what works for them. Whatever they choose, however, it all starts with publishers safeguarding the customer experience while also working as an industry to provide better alternatives to consumers.

Keith Fagan is senior vice present and general manager of data solutions at sovrn Holdings, Inc.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

"One hand preventing punch attack of another" image via Shutterstock.  

Keith Fagan is Vice President of Data Solutions at sovrn Holdings, Inc. where he is responsible for defining and creating custom and proprietary branded audience and content data segments. Keith is a 20-year veteran in multi-channel marketing...

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Commenter: Brandt Dainow

2015, August 11

A well considered article, but perhaps under-represents why people don't want ads and the solutions.

1) "which means not sacrificing experience for monetization" - suggests that there is an difference between user experience and monetization. The opposite is the case, better user experience leads to better returns. One of the most common objections to ads is that they are intrusive and disruptive. Many marketing professionals think this is necessary to ensure ads get noticed, due to factors like banner-blindness. Against ads designed to be disruptive there is no defence except ad blocking.

2) "It's our responsibility to educate these consumers on the connection between the content they love and the ads that pay for that content." - research is that this is a waste of time. It's been tried for years and is a complete failure. Even when consumers believe it, they don't care enough to allow their own experience to be compromised.

3) Privacy is the main concern, and consumers are justified to be worried. Research reveals consumers see no value to themselves in personalization, so don't see any justification in being tracked at all. They worry the same data is also being used to affect things like their credit score or for purposes of political manipulation, and they're correct - it is. How can they be reassured when 90% of privacy policies are unreadable legalese, which looks like a blatant attempt to hide the truth of what is being done with their data? How many websites clearly list all the advertisers and tracking agencies pulling user data through the site? How many agencies clearly list all those to whom they sell the data? Or what is being done with it? In the absence of knowledge, trust is impossible and fear is inevitable, because we all know not everyone in the world wishes us well.

Under these circumstances ad blocking is a reasonable, rational, appropriate action to protect oneself and one's family.

If people want to do their part in removing the need for ad blocking, they need to fight against disruptive advertising, make clear and intelligible their complete data useage practices, and avoid providing consumer data to anyone who will resell it or use it for any purpose other than advertising. And make sure their consumers know about it.