Ad blocking: Five things publishers need to know

Yet over the last six months, ad blocking has become something of an obsession for the publishing industry. 

The catalyst was a report from Adobe and PageFair highlighting that as many as 20 per cent of British people and a similar percentage of Americans use some forms of ad blocking software. Then to compound matters, Apple announced that it was going to give the green light for ad blockers to work with the latest version of its mobile/tablet operating system – iOS9. 

Cue endless stories about ad blocking and the death of display advertising on mobile, which ironically enough has given a huge boost to the ad blocking industry.

Are we then at a crucial point in the development of display advertising on the web? Or should publishers not worry too much about what might end up being a temporary fad which they soon might have the digital tools to address? 

Here are five key things publishers need to bear in mind.

1. Ad blocking is already being cited as a reason for reduced digital revenues 

The big story this week has been the announcement by the Mail Online that its digital advertising revenues are up 16 per cent in the 11 months to the end of August. That growth doesn’t sound too impressive given the almost 50 per cent increase of a year ago. The site, which is among the most read in the world, is still reporting excellent traffic figures of over 200m readers per month, but it seems that digital display revenues are not keeping up.

Although the publisher hasn’t yet commented, media analysts have been very quick to point out what they think are the reasons for the slower growth – and very high on the list is the issue of ad blocking.

William Packer, analyst at Exane told The Guardian, ‘We see the recent revenue slowdown of Mail Online (despite strong audience growth) as more structural than cyclical, with mobile, ad blocking and social media all bringing new challenges to monetisation.”

It will be interesting to see how long it is before other publishers cite ad blockers as reasons for the sluggish growth of their digital revenue.

2. Ad blocking software on mobile isn’t as widespread as is being portrayed

While there is huge furore about Apple’s iOS9 incorporating ad blocking software, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the biggest mobile phone operating system in the world-  Android, which is owned by Google and has penetration of around 80 per cent – is largely ad blocker free.

Not surprisingly, given that Google boasts a huge display platform in AdSense, the browser that comes with Android, Chrome, isn’t compatible with ad blockers. There are ways of using ad blockers on Android phones but these involves downloading new browsers – like Firefox, or specialist browsers like Adblock Browser.  There are no recent figures on ad blocking on Android phones, but it seems likely that it is a significantly smaller percentage than those who will be using them on iOS phones and tablets.

3. Publishers are looking to experiment with alternative ad blocking stopper options

Help may already be at hand as there are already a number of solutions that are available to publishers which circumvent the the ad blockers. One of the most recent ones was developed by Sourcepoint, a startup helmed by ex Google employee Ben Barokas. 

Sourcepoint offers a way for publishers to communicate with readers and give them a choice. When a person using an ad blocker attempts to look at a site which has worked with Sourcepoint they see a message from the publisher.

‘We let them know that they need to accept the standard ad experience, or create a customised ad or have the option to pay for subscriber services,’ Barokas told Fipp. ‘We don’t just see this as an ad blocking problem, we see it as a ‘how do we create long term viability and sustainability for the eco system’ issue.

Barokas hopes that “in the long run we hope to create a Spotify for content in which a single login will work for thousands of publishers and someone can pay £10 a month and they can consume all kinds of content including audio, video, text etc without receiving offensive ads and not hitting paywalls.”

4. Ethical ad blockers are launching

Internet artist Darius Kazemi has developed what he is billing as an ethical ad blocker as an extension for the Chrome browser. It simply won’t serve sites that feature ads instead, delivering a message which highlights other sites that are ad free.

The Verge reported that “the conundrum at hand: users don’t want to see ads, but content providers can’t give away content for free,” writes Kazemi on the extension description. “The solution is simple: if a website has ads, the user simply should not be able to see it. This way, the user doesn’t experience ads, but they also don’t leech free content. Everybody wins!”

It may be something of a gimmick but it once again notifies those consuming content that they can avoid ads if they want to, but should not then be seeing content which has been funded largely by advertising revenue.

5. The walled garden approach is becoming an option for publishers

Once again the apocalyptic scenario of publishers deserting the open web in favour of walled garden is being seriously discussed. This doesn’t necessarily mean instituting paywalls (though they seem suddenly in vogue again), but rather only offering readers access to content via apps which also include the ads. 

The interesting question for publishers is how far do they cooperate with other walled garden style platforms owned by Facebook, Apple, Snapchat and others? The Guardian notes that Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News offer a place to publish directly that can be protected. However, many are reluctant to cede control, especially when Facebook is a huge competitor for advertising money and Apple is doing its best to make its devices free of all but its own ads. 

There are now industry observers who are predicting the death of digital advertising, and the New York Times has already started to eliminate some mobile ads from its mobile offering largely replaced by innovative native advertising offerings. For many smaller publishers though digital display is still the cornerstone of their revenue and it is a platform that they can’t afford to cede too quickly.

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