The behavior of avoiding ads has been with us for a long time, in fact, probably since the first ad was developed! I think it has now entered into urban myth status, that the National Grid sees its biggest spike in power at half time in the FA Cup final, as everyone watching at home goes to the kitchen, puts the kettle on, and avoids the ads. Back in the 90’s we had the curse of the pop-up ad, which led to the development of third party pop-up blocking software. By 2004, most web browsers had pop-up blockers built in as standard and another era of ad avoidance came to an end. Of course, before pop-up ads, people had been avoiding TV ads by fast forwarding through the ad breaks on programs they had recorded on their VHS recorder, and they are now doing the same with services such as Sky+.
So the behavior of ad avoidance is nothing new, the only thing that has changed recently is the technology that enables users to block more ads has become more widely available, and therefore used. But how big a problem is this, who is it a problem for, and what can be done about it?
Forecasts for how much ad-blocking will cost the industry range from $1 Billion to $22 Billion, so yes, it could be a big problem. Talking to mobile networks and media owners, they haven’t seen a significant decrease in mobile inventory following Apple allowing ad blocking as part of iOS9, and the ad blocking apps that stole all the headlines a couple of weeks ago have now sunk into oblivion in the app charts. According to the IAB 1 in 5 UK internet users have downloaded an ad blocker, and 1 in 7 claim to actively use one, so, by all accounts, this should already be affecting desktop inventory sources.
It has been claimed by some that ad blocking isn’t really a problem for advertisers or agencies, but just for publishers. However, if inventory sources are limited, then prices will go up, having a very direct impact on agencies and advertisers. Obviously, the impact on publishers is far greater, as ad blocking poses a direct threat to their revenue stream. However, the answer isn’t just to stop people with ad blockers from viewing content (in the manner of Bild & City AM), as this is akin to burying your head in the sand. There are reasons why people block ads, and these need to be addressed, rather than ignored. In the same way that the music industry had to adapt after Napster brought streaming to the mainstream, the publishing industry will have to adapt to guarantee their future relevancy. With so much choice, the consumer has become more powerful than ever, and publishers need to provide content in a way that is most convenient for them, or risk losing them to competitors.
The reasons that people quote for blocking ads are very varied; wanting to improve load speed, wanting to reduce data usage, being sick of seeing re-targeted ads, preferring less clutter on the page, wanting to stick 2 fingers up at ‘The Man’. As an industry (both buy & sell side) we need to look at how we’ve treated consumers in a digital environment, and ask ourselves if we aren’t to blame for the situation we find ourselves in now. Was it really the best idea to just shrink desktop ads to fit the mobile screen, instead of re-imagining them in a way that takes advantage of the unique functionality of a smartphone? Has our reliance on CTR as a KPI driven the use of uninspiring creative? Is the drive for higher and higher yield responsible for the placement of so many ads on some pages, to the detriment of customer experience?
Advertisers need to put the consumer at the centre of their ad campaigns, delivering relevant, interesting, creative in a non-obtrusive way. At the same time, online publishers need to consider the current popularity of ad blockers as a clarion call from their users, and re-think the way they monetize their content. The music industry has just about managed to re-invent itself, 16 years after Napster, hopefully advertisers, agencies and the publishing industry can work slightly faster!