Why ad blocking is a problem and what you can do about it
At SpotX, we like to say that we do some of the most important work in the world because we help keep the internet free. However, progressive adoption of ad-blocking software has made this mission more challenging. According to the PageFair and Adobe 2015 Ad Blocking Report, usage of ad blockers has wiped out approximately $11 billion of publisher revenue in 2014. Usage has grown by over 40% in the last 12 months, and adoption is set to move to mobile web before going in-app. Publishers are not the only ones who will suffer from ad blockers, though. The livelihood of the internet is dependent on ads. Without them, content consumers may be less-annoyed, but eventually those less-annoyed consumers would become much more annoyed when publishers lose their main source of revenue and no longer produce the “free” content consumers have come to rely on. But before we panic, there are a few options to counteract ad blocking and prevent this downward spiral. Follow along closely to discover the right ad blocking solution for your business.
A few months ago, the IAB Technology Laboratory released its Publisher Ad Blocking Response Primer outlining the ways publishers can encourage consumers to stop installing and using ad blockers. The primer offers seven tactics for publishers to consider implementing based on their relationship with their audience. The IAB has even created the acronym (DEAL) that serves as a framework to facilitate the conversation between a publisher and its audience:
- Detect ad blocking, in order to initiate the conversation.
- Explain the value exchange that advertising enables.
- Ask for changed behavior in order to maintain an equitable exchange.
- Lift restrictions or Limit access in response to consumer choices.
We’re breaking down all seven ad-blocking solutions in detail, covering the pros and cons of each method and sharing publishers’ reported success rates to date. These solutions include:
- Notice: “The friendly ask”
- Access denial: “The assertive ask”
- Tiered experience: “Limited access”
- Payments from visitors: “Alternate value exchange”
- Ad reinsertion: “The counter attack”
- Ad lite experience: “The compromise”
- Payments to visitors: “The reward”
Ad-blocking solution #1: “The friendly ask”
The simplest ad-blocking solution, “the friendly ask,” refers to presenting a message to a site visitor once the presence of an ad blocker is detected and politely asking the visitor to disable ad blocking. Publishers have a few key decisions to make when implementing this solution.
- Where will the message be displayed? This message can appear as a page header, an overlay, or the landing page at the start of the site.
- When will the message be displayed? Publishers must decide whether they want the message to appear immediately once the visitor enters the site or after the visitor has interacted with the site for a certain amount of time, across a certain number of pages, or other engagement criteria.
- What type of message? Most importantly, a publisher must decide the mood they want to set with the message. These messages tend to use an informative tone, educating the visitor on the important role advertising plays in a publisher’s ability to create content, such as, “This site is supported by advertising. Please consider disabling your ad blocker on this website if you enjoy the content.”
Does it work?
This method appeals to users’ good nature by politely asking them to continue supporting their favorite content providers through viewing ads. Unfortunately, this method has been reported to have limited success in changing visitor behavior. PageFair ran 576 appeals on 220 different websites. Only a third of ad block users that were shown an appeal complied and unblocked the ads. Ad blockers also have the functionality to block the messaging windows so it’s possible some visitors never encounter the message. However, if a publisher’s analytics reflect that an overwhelming majority of its visitors are “returning visitors” as opposed to “new visitors”, there is a chance that those loyal visitors will fall within the 33.3% that will unblock ads making the “friendly ask” a viable option.
Ad-blocking solution #2: “The assertive ask”
The Assertive Ask is the most commonly used combatant for ad blocking. Once an ad blocker is detected, publishers deny access to the content the user has requested. Like “the friendly ask,” there are several key decisions a publisher must make:
Where will the message be displayed? Detection and the access denial may occur on a splash page at session start, inline with the requested content, or as an interstitial after ad blocking has been detected across a certain number of pages.
What type of message? The publisher must determine the tone they are going to use when communicating this ultimatum to their audience.
- The message can be as the name implies, assertive: “You must disable your ad blocker to visit this site.”
- Another approach is to inform the visitor about the publisher’s decision to deny access. “The revenue we earn from advertising is used to manage this website. That’s why we are requesting you to disable your ad blocker.”
- The message can also list the options available to the consumer in order to gain access, like through disabling ad blocking or by registering or subscribing. “You currently have an adblocker installed. Advertising helps fund our content. To continue enjoying our content please support us in one of the following ways…”
Does it work?
This strategy may seem drastic to publishers’ audiences, especially when transitioning to such a policy. The IAB recommends using the third option described above and including alternate methods of payment (subscription, micropayment). While some visitors may be turned off by this tactic and migrate to other sites, another risk to this method is that it will likely reduce content sharing since there will be a smaller audience with access. Those who have access may be reluctant to share that content with the knowledge that not everyone will be able to access it. The IAB additionally cautions that there is also a slight risk that search ranking of the content may be impacted.
All these risks aside, this practice has proven to be much more effective than the “friendly ask.” Users are much more likely to change their behavior when there is access on the line. Forbes reported that 2.1 million of their visitors using ad blockers were asked turn them off in exchange for an ad-light experience, and 903,000, or 42.4%, of those visitors turned off the blockers and received a thank you message. This allowed them to monetize 15 million ad impressions that would otherwise have been blocked.
Hopefully Forbes’ success with this method will set the pace for the rest of the industry as publishers look to reduce lost impression opportunities.
Ad-blocking solution #3: “Limited access”
The IAB also provides a “Limited Access” compromise. Rather than denying access to users with an ad blocker enabled, publishers can provide a modified, slimmed-down experience. There are a few ways to limit access for users with ad blockers installed, including some very creative solutions:
- Limited time: Some publishers may offer only a limited amount of time for users to visit the site until they are prompted to disable their ad blocker or make a payment.
- Limited content: Publishers can offer a limited amount of articles, pages, videos that visitors can consume before disabling their ad blocker. For example, a publisher might allow access to three article views per month for unregistered users who have ad blockers, and 10 article views per month for unregistered users who do not have ad blockers.
- Degraded content: Some publishers have decided to reduce the quality of content to viewers utilizing an ad blocker. The IAB uses the example of delivering 90 seconds of dead air in a video stream that would have otherwise only delayed the playing of their content 30 seconds if the user watched an ad. Some publishers have even started shrinking the size of the video player or presenting content in black and white instead of color for users with ad blockers installed.
The problem with this tactic is that some visitors may become accustomed to the degraded experience and just adapt. Another thing to consider about this method is the additional cost and complexity of implementing such a system. It could also cause inaccuracies in audience data. Since some visitors with ad blockers will continue to visit the site, the audience demographics measured by site analytics may be out of sync with the audience demographics available to advertising. However, this method is much less likely to deplete audiences than access denial. This also shouldn’t impact search engine crawlers.
Although there is very little evidence of the success rate of this tactic, it does succeed in providing publishers with a compromise between a soft ask and denying access to users completely.
Ad-blocking solution #4: “The alternate value exchange”
We’ve covered three strategies publishers can leverage to persuade visitors to disable their ad blocker. But what happens when a user is unwilling to do so? This leads us to our fourth ad-blocking solution: “the alternate value exchange.” The root of the problem with ad blocking is that it is taking away publishers’ main source of revenue. The obvious solution is for publishers to move to a different or supplementary business model.
Rather than offering publishers value in the form of ad impressions in exchange for their content, visitors can provide value through other forms of monetary or nonmonetary payments. These payment methods may be completely voluntary, serve as part of a tiered experience or required with the presence of an ad blocker. These payments include, but are not limited to:
- Subscriptions: “Please subscribe to our content for $5 a month ad-free”
- Micropayments: “Pay .50 for this article with an ad-free experience.”
- Donations: “Please make a one-time donation of $5 and we’ll remove ads forever.”
- Non-monetary payments: “Love using our app? Please rate us in the app store.”
The problem with this ad-blocking solution? It’s a lot of work. First, it can be very complicated to develop a registration and authentication system if a publisher doesn’t already have one in place. Additionally, there is increased operational complexity in processing payments from consumers, especially if a publisher has an international audience. Handling financial payments from visitors introduces a whole host of responsibilities like keeping users’ financial information private and secure. All of these financial processes can be outsourced, but that requires additional costs.
Not only is putting this system in place complicated and expensive, but landing on a price point can be incredibly difficult. Publishers must factor in covering the loss in revenue, but also arrive at a price that is reasonable to the user. Of course, there is always the lingering risk of losing the audience who is not willing to pay. The audience who is willing to pay may be reluctant to social share content, knowing that not everyone will have access. Ultimately, this method presents users with additional costs in time and money and it is unknown whether or not a publisher’s’ content is that valuable to them.
However, if a publisher currently has a form of financial processing in place, the concerns of operational complexity are already mitigated and putting this payment mechanism in place could be relatively easy. Once it’s in place, this could become an elegant solution to ad blocking and a stable source of income since the likelihood of users maintaining a subscription is high.
Depending on the content provider, publishers have seen varying levels of success with introducing a paywall. One blogger, Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish, announced earlier this year that he would forego ads and instead generate revenue through a paywall. While some were skeptical at first, his approach seems to be working, bringing in two-thirds of his $900,000 goal for the year in just two months. Additionally, The New York Times hit its millionth paid subscriber last year; however, other news publications may not share as much success.
Introducing a new payment model to your audience can be risky and complicated, but with a very high pay off. If this option seems overwhelming, there are still three more options at your disposal.
Ad-blocking solution #5: “The counter attack”
So far, we’ve been presenting the publisher with two courses of action: ask users to disable their ad blocker or ask them to make a payment. “The counter attack” skips those options altogether. Rather than asking the visitor to disable their ad blocker or make a payment, the publisher can utilize technology to bypass the ad blocker all together through ad reinsertion. This method maneuvers past the ad blocker and injects ads onto the page.
Ad blockers work by scanning pages and using filter lists to block domains that lead to third-party ad servers. The ad blockers can then prevent ads from being served while still letting publishers’ content through. Server-side ad stitching, however, combines the ad and video content into a single stream, which means that if the ad doesn’t get through, the video itself doesn’t either. Server-side ad stitching is a popular solution for video advertising, but according to the IAB, there are three main methods of ad reinsertion:
- Obfuscation: Modifying the names and locations of advertising resources so that they no longer match the patterns used by adblocking software. This is the most basic of implementations.
- In-browser: Using technology in the web browser to modify the requests to the advertising resources so that they’re no longer detected by ad-blocking software.
- On-server: Using server-side ad stitching to request the advertising and deliver it from the same server as the content.
You’re probably thinking, “Beat ad blocking? This sounds great!” but one pitfall to be aware of with server-side stitching in particular is losing the certainty of what audience you’re reaching and thus depleting the value of your inventory. By implementing ad stitching, third-party data access really takes a hit. Server-side stitching reduces access to pre-synced cookies and other client-side data. So this solution would introduce additional costs for increased technology in order to synchronize third-party data.
While the benefits of ad reinsertion are clear, arguably, this could just be a temporary solution that leads to a tech battle between ad blockers and publishers’ technology, as we’ve seen recently between Facebook and Adblock Plus. However, until ad blockers develop a solution to overcome ad reinsertion, publishers will once again be able to make money off of their content, helping sustain the ad-supported business model.
Ad-blocking solution #6: “The compromise”
Let’s take a step back and take the user experience further into consideration by exploring “ad-light” experiences. An innovative and honest ad blocking solution, an ad-light experience can become an alternative method for publishers to coax viewers to not use their blockers. Everyone is interested in providing an ad-light experience, even ad blockers. Over the weekend at dmexco, Adblock Plus announced that they were launching their new ad exchange by replacing blocked ads with non intrusive ads that fit their Acceptable Ads Criteria.
Rather than relying on a solution that is a quick fix, strive towards a longer term solution by engaging your users with ad-light experiences from the beginning. This concept stems from the IAB’s LEAN Ads program which stands for Light Encrypted Ad Choice Supported Non-Invasive Ads. It is an initiative taken by the IAB Tech Lab to put in place new standards to help publishers navigate through the next phases of the advertising ecosystem. According to the IAB, users want publishers to keep the following in mind when showing ads:
- L: Light. Limited file size with strict data call guidelines.
- E: Encrypted. Assure user security with https/SSL compliant ads.
- A: Ad choices support. All ads should support DAA’s consumer privacy programs.
- N: Non-invasive/non-disruptive. Ads that supplement the user experience and don’t disrupt it. Invasive behaviors include ads that cover content and are sound enabled by default.
The IAB’s LEAN Ads program encourages a compromise between consumers’ ad viewing choices and publishers’ right to monetize the opportunity to generate revenue while creating value.
A HubSpot study revealed how people truly felt about online ads. In their survey of 1,055 online browsers in the US and Europe, pop-up ads and autoplaying video ads were amongst the most annoying types of ads. Specifically, respondents agreed that the most intrusive experience involved ads with full page pop-up that required searching for the “X” to close out. However, 83% of respondents agreed that not all ads are bad and 77% agreed that they would prefer to ad filter rather than to ad block altogether. The ad-light experience stands a chance. Overall, here are a few things to consider for getting the ad-light experience right:
- Safety first: Ensure that you are providing a safe environment for your visitors free from potential disastrous outcomes such as fraud and off-brand content. It is one of the most important values to uphold when establishing and maintaining consumer loyalty. Make sure that the ads you are serving are safe and of quality by knowing your advertising partners.
- Sometimes less is more: This sentiment means that there are feasible ways for advertisers to reach their audiences. Generally, consumers are open to sharing their browser with ads as part of the experience. The caveat? The ads being displayed should not be intrusive. Of course, what actually constitutes an ad-light experience may vary from one content provider to the next so test out what’s best for you and your viewers.
- Keep it relevant: There’s no denying that consumers are more likely to engage with ads that directly address their needs or provide them some degree of value. Focus on giving your consumers an experience they can relate to by investing in audience targeting and/or 3rd party data.
Ad-blocking solution #7: “The reward”
“The reward” is the option to incentivize visitors to watch ads. This may seem counterproductive, but these incentives don’t necessarily need to be monetary and may carry no additional expense for the publisher. There have been a variety of ways that publishers have rewarded visitors for spending time with ads. There are two particularly popular methods of doing so:
- Revenue shares: Share a portion of advertising revenue with registered users.
- Rewards: As has been established in mobile gaming, the allocation of non-currency rewards, like gaming credits, can also be applied in non-gaming contexts by providing article access or other perks.
There are some obvious concerns associated with this tactic. For one, there is a very high risk of fraud. Users may view ads excessively to earn money or rewards. On the opposite front, the low value of this payment may not be enough incentive to motivate users. Whether or not visitors find these incentives valuable, it is still being brought to their attention that all the content is being presented to them for free or with additional value through advertising, and for that they may be appreciative.
Now you have an understanding of the seven tactics offered by the IAB to combat ad blocking. From politely asking users to disable their ad blocker to demanding alternative methods of payment and the new creative solutions being invented everyday, the main takeaway is that programmatic advertising is here to stay and the industry will continue to evolve and adapt to threats it’s presented with.
Lexie Pike, Product Marketing Coordinator