It's hard to scan an industry publication these days without coming across at least one headline referencing ad blocking. There's good reason for that. As tech adoption goes, ad blockers have made impressive strides the past couple of years. And while the implications for publishers and advertisers can't be ignored, they also can't even fully be understood quite yet -- and that makes them great fodder for speculation. Better yet, the topic of ad blocking and its inherent conflict has all the makings of a great soap opera -- billions of dollars at stake, a cast of players in violent opposition to one another, and a technology arms race with no end in sight.
That said, the near constant headlines on the topic of ad blocking can become easy to tune out for marketers as well. After all, ad blocking is a consumer-driven power play -- it's the masses rising up against crappy online experiences. That's an entirely understandable and yet scary and daunting thing from an industry perspective. It can be tempting to just step back and ride it out -- let nature take its course.
But, in this case, if nature takes its course and publishers and advertisers choose to ignore the rise in ad blocking behavior, then "nature" could very well result in the collapse of digital publishing as we know it and the loss of brand access to highly important customer segments. So let's keep up with developments, shall we?
By the numbers
OK, so what are we really talking here? How big of an issue is ad blocking? Well, if you blink, the numbers grow. So it's a little hard to keep track. PageFair and Adobe threw out the much-cited stat that $21.8 billion in global revenue was lost to blocked advertising during 2015. That was 2015. We're damn well through 2016, the year in which that $21.8 billion was expected to double to $41.4 billion. That's big.
It's also mobile. A more recent report released in May 2016 by PageFair and Priori Data included these highlights:
- There are twice as many mobile ad blockers as there are desktop ad blockers
- More than 419 million people are blocking mobile web ads
- About 408 million people are using mobile browsers than block ads by default
- Ad blocking browser usage nearly doubled in 2015
Ad blocking abroad
Not surprisingly, ad blocker usage varies greatly by country. In the U.S., the Interactive Advertising Bureau estimates that about a quarter of U.S. internet users have installed ad blockers on their desktops. In fact, that rate is pretty consistent regardless of device. That sounds bad. Until you start looking at rates in other countries. According to "Digital News Report 2016" from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Poland (38 percent of users) and Greece (36 percent of users) put ad-blocking rates in the U.S. to shame. And according to PageFair, ad-blocking mobile browsers are insanely prevalent in China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In China, there are 159 million monthly active users of ad-blocking mobile browsers, compared to about 2.3 million in the U.S.
In certain countries, the rise in ad-blocker usage seems to be plateauing on its own. In the U.K., recent research found no increase in the overall number of U.K. adults using ad blockers over a five-month period (21.2 percent in July versus 21.7 percent in February). However, in other countries, certain parties aren't content to let nature run its course. In China, for example, the government has issued regulations cracking down on ad blockers, and that could seriously cramp the style of Alibaba's UC Browser, an ad-blocking browser that boasts more than 400 million users. In India, the publishers are the ones rebelling. As of this past summer, many of the country's leading news websites have blocked content access for any readers using ad blockers.
Any time a large player -- say, China -- moves to squash the rise of ad blockers, you can bet you'll hear from at least one player in the space: Adblock Plus. In fact, hardly anyone noticed the impending China ban until Adblock Plus called the country out as a "bully" in a strongly worded blog post.
Meanwhile, though, Adblock Plus -- an ad blocker now used on more than 100 million devices -- is hardly an impartial champion of the people. For years, the company has allowed ads deemed "acceptable" (i.e., ads that someone paid to be deemed as "acceptable") to be seen by its users. In September, Adblock Plus rolled out an automated platform that will allow even more websites to place ads deemed "acceptable" -- and presumably subject to less scrutiny -- in front of its users.
As you might imagine, Adblock Plus and IAB are fantastic pals…
I'm just kidding, of course. They hate each other's guts. And some of their exchanges are up there with some of the best "oh no he di'int" reality TV in terms of entertainment value. Regarding the recent release of the self-serve ad platform, Dave Grimaldi, EVP of public policy at IAB, had this to say: "No matter how Adblock Plus tries to justify their form of extortion, or make it seem harmless, it is a practice that will continue to erode the value exchange that powers the free and open internet." That's pretty good. But it's nothing compared to the time IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg called the company "an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes."
The advertising response
As you might imagine, publishers and advertisers have yet to fully grasp the implications of the fast-moving developments in the world of ad blockers. Some publishers whose lives depend on advertiser dollars have reacted more strongly and swiftly than others. Take Facebook, for instance, which has rolled out technology to disguise ads on its service from ad-blocking software. As you might imagine, Adblock Plus has had plenty to say on the matter.
Meanwhile, others like Pandora are looking to native advertising to combat ad blocking (subscription required). Indeed, many industry players predict that ad blocking will continue to push native advertising forward. However, others point out that native ads can be quite susceptible to ad blocking as well.
Ultimately, publishers and advertisers are discovering that there is no silver bullet that's going to enable them to ignore the consumer angst behind the adoption of ad blockers. To combat ad blocking, the industry is coming around to the scary realization that, in fact, it might actually have to try to improve the user experience that has so greatly offended people in the first place.