Responding to ‘adblockalypse’

A study by Irish anti ad-blocking startup PageFair in collaboration with Adobe published in August last year predicted that ad blocking technology will result in a loss of US$41.4bn to digital advertisers and publishers in 2016. The study found that the tally of just over 198 million ad blocking users worldwide represented a 41 per cent increase from 2014 to 2015, of which the US showed a 45 per cent increase and the UK a staggering 82 per cent. In the US alone, the loss of advertising revenue as a result of ad blocking is estimated to reach a figure of $20.3bn this year.

Ad blocking ()

More alarming than the findings of the actual report, was the admission that it would be difficult to accurately predict the impact of ad blocking on mobile browsing. At the time PageFair was publishing its report, Apple’s new iOS9 was a month from being released. This operating system actually launched the ability for adblockers to be uploaded to Apple’s mobile devices.

A more recent report supported by the UK’s Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) conducted online by YouGov and published in November 2015 had some updated mobile adblocking statistics, saying of the 18 per cent of British adults who were blocking ads, under a quarter (23 per cent) were blocking ads on their phones. About one in five people did so on tablets. The statistics were much higher for laptops and desktops at 71 per cent and 47 per cent respectively.

These figures represented an overall rise of 15 per cent from a similar study conducted six months earlier. Predictably, the IAB who is by its very nature supporters of an ad funded internet, described this as “a small rise” and commented that 61 per cent of British adults prefer to access content for free supported by ads than pay for content.

The reality is that increased ad blocking, despite the inconsistency of recent studies, is significant. It provides a clear message that online advertising is in fact being experienced as invasive and that a more acceptable online advertising experience is vital to address the concerns of those individuals who actively go and seek ad blocking software.

The ball has been kicked to the digital publisher’s side of the field to make  advertising effective, efficient, relevant to people’s interests and acceptable. Can this be the reason why the same people who describe the rise in ad blocking as “small”, the IAB, are developing new advertising supply chain principles called LEAN? LEAN is an acronym for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive digital advertising. The idea behind LEAN is not to completely replace existing online advertising being enjoyed by consumers, but start an additional set of standards that will provide choice for marketers, content providers, and consumers. To develop LEAN the plan is to engage with consumers to identify best practice principles and identify and solve consumer frustration.

Whether this will provide a quick fix or a new deal to digital advertisers and consumers is not yet clear, but it does indicate that the initial sentiment by aggressive advertisers to simply find a digital bypass around ad blocking (updating code or blocking all content to browsers with ad blockers) is not seen as the most wise solution any more.

It seems the attitude that ad blockers are content ‘shoplifters’ are changing. In fact, according to the managing director of the Guardian group’s Guardian Labs responsible for creating branded content across its printed and digital products, Anna Watkins, the notion to simply find ways around ad blockers is something creative publishers are not intent on at all. Quite to the contrary, she considers ad blocking as an opportunity to offer fewer but more premium quality commercial messages that will actually be appreciated by readers.

The variant of advertising they have found the largest success with is native advertising. To prevent readers from being “hoodwinked into thinking commercial content is editorially independent” they have recently launched two new types of labelling. This is to ensure it is clear and transparent when consumer encounter native advertising. Should a brand fund independent editorial content, it is marked ‘supported by…’ and if content is in fact influenced by a paying brand it is marked ‘content paid for by… ’.  

While transparency in native advertising seems noble, the entire digital advertising trade cannot suddenly ‘go native’. The creator of the term ‘intention economy’ – the notion that future economies will grow around buyers and not sellers – author Doc Searls, says the main reason people reject online ads is because of tracking. While individuals search online, technology is keeping track of this and revisits the consumer on other sites, even – and especially – social media sites. Named “surveillance capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School, Searls say consumers encounter this as the misuse of personal information and fear it more than government surveillance.

Searls says advertising that’s not based on tracking and is transparent in its economic role is still being appreciated, i.e. “ads sending strong signals about brands, and yet respect our privacy, don’t plant tracking beacons on us, and don’t lure us away from what we’re doing”. He argues that digital advertising that adheres to these principles can add value and will be acceptable, in much the same way that people do not find a threat in printed, radio or television advertising.

While this debate is clearly only starting, the upside is that there are still markets out there where the industry can aim to get it right – the first time.

Hannah Law, a vice president at Ogilvy & Mather in New York, who spent months in Africa last year to get a clear picture of branding and advertising trends in emerging markets, says young Africans are especially receptive to online advertising. Almost half of consumers in Africa are significantly influenced by advertising in their purchasing decisions. While Law says it’s “quite refreshing for marketing people to find consumers who are not totally jaded with advertising and are not looking to download ad blockers to thwart everything they do” she warns that brands should not make the same mistakes they made that evoked the drastic steps taken by the saturated markets where ads are now seen as intrusive.

“Brands need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” she says. “Brands which value transparency and live by their values will win in pan-Africa.’’ It could be that these are also the brands that will win over – or re-win over – the rest of the world.

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