Are Ad-blockers Killing Digital Publishing?

The use of ad-blockers has risen in popularity, with a variety of them being available on the market that are often free to use. It is estimated that ‘a quarter of UK internet users will have one by the end of the year’, and this trend is set to continue. This may not seem like a big issue, but it is a big concern for those sites that rely on the support of ads as a source of income. PageFair (an app that aims to solve advertisement issues between users and publishers) estimated ‘that as many as two-hundred million web users globally use ad-blockers, with twelve million in the UK’, and publishers could have potentially lost fourteen-billion-pounds in revenue in 2015. For many, advertisements are a way of receiving payment for delivering high quality content, as the majority of internet users expect most, or all, website content to be free. When users start using ad-blocks, the content providers soon notice a dip in their monthly salary.

Beating Ad-blockers

Ad-blockers block ads, publishers change code, ad-blockers adapt to the new code, publishers change code again, and so on.

Today, internet users are becoming ‘increasingly frustrated with digital ads’, especially if they feel the ads are ‘deceptive, intrusive and disruptive’ or if they have security concerns, as most sites host third party advertisements. Without advertisements, pages load faster, browsers stop crashing and computers can run faster: ‘Consumers are demanding a better user experience and are prepared to block poor quality ads’. With most users unwilling to pay a subscription fee to access the quality content without ads, it is difficult to make users aware of the damage they are inflicting on digital publications.

Adblock Plus appears to be the most commonly used and favoured ad-blocking software on the web today. This particular software has a default filter list which contains a list of the advertisements that it deems ‘acceptable’. These ‘acceptable’ ads must meet a specific criteria, which eliminates most of them: ‘text only, no animations, no popovers and no placement in the flow of the text’. For sites to gain revenue from the ads they display on their page, they must apply to be ‘whitelisted’, and an Adblock Plus employee will then work with the site to ensure the ads meet the criteria.
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©Adblock Plus, 2016

Trying to beat ad-blockers through new technology may not be the answer. Stan Wong, CEO of VAAC Army (an app which allows the user to choose when to skip an ad when they’re watching videos), says “It has been a cat-and-mouse game for over a decade now: ad-blockers block ads, publishers change code, ad-blockers adapt to the new code, publishers change code again, and so on.”. Trying to get around ad-blockers often leads to damaging the relationship between the brand and the consumer. It has been suggested that to stop consumers using ad-blocking software, publishers or brands should offer higher quality content that’s worth paying for and to educate users of the implications of using ad-blockers (Martin, 2015), or ‘ad tech companies must commit to higher standards that prioritise quality and offer a safe, positive experience for end users’.

New applications such as PageFair and Sourcepoint (‘A platform built for publishers, providing the data needed to make informed decisions about content compensation and offering consumers multiple options of paying for the content they love.’) help publishers get around some ad-blocks. They can then apply or pay to be whitelisted or experiment with different ways to get users to pay to view the content.

How Publications Have Regulated the Use of Ad-block
The first publisher to launch a trail for an effective way of blocking ad-block users was City A.M. in October 2015. This trial targeted users of Mozilla Firefox who had ad-block software installed. During this trial, the site blurred the text on articles and readers would see a message saying:

“We are having trouble showing you adverts on this page, which may be a result of ad-blocker software being installed on your device. As City A.M. relies on advertising to fund its journalism, please disable any ad-blockers from running on cityam.com to see the rest of this content.”

The digital director at City A.M., Martin Ashplant, said that about ‘8% of the site’s 1.2 million monthly browsers use Firefox on desktop and around 20% of those have ad-blocking software installed’. By December 2015, they declared their ‘anti-ad-blocker trial a success after more than a quarter of selected readers turned off their ad-blocking software’. As their trial was a success, they have since expanded the technology across all desktop browsers, but didn’t have plans to target ad-blocking on mobile as this is a much smaller proportion of revenue for the publication. By doing this, they have shown that if the readers are loyal enough, they will graciously disable ad-blockers in order to access the content. Especially as City A.M.  found that the users who wouldn’t disable their ad-block were likely ‘the people who only came for one page visit’.

Forbes.com has taken the most similar approach to City A.M. when blocking ad-block users, the only difference being that visitors can view the homepage as normal, but if they click on an article, they will be greeted with a polite message requesting that the viewer disables the ad-block. However, ‘a noted security researcher’ disabled his ad-blocker when he was asked on Forbes.comonly to be served malware through an ad hosted on the site’.

 
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©Forbes.com, 2016

Few other publications have taken such an approach when combatting ad-block, and instead, have chosen other methods. For example, in February 2016, Wired.com announced that they would block anyone using an ad-blocker from accessing the sites content. To access the content, visitors could either ‘whitelist Wired.com or donate a dollar a week’. Similarly, the Washington Post asks visitors who use ad-blockers to either create an account or to subscribe in order to access the content. The Guardian, on the other hand, has chosen a different approach. They have decided to give all visitors access to their content, but if they detect that visitors are using ad-blocking software, a small banner appears at the bottom of the page asking users to support the site by donating.

The rise of new technologies, whether ad-blocking or regulating, is proving to be damaging to digital publications and their revenue. This task is made more challenging from software such as The Next Web which tricks anti-ad-blocking software (used by City A.M. and Forbes.com) into thinking that the visitor of the site isn’t using an ad-block when they actually are . Not only that, but in January 2016, Brenden Eich, former founder and CEO of Mozilla, released a new browser called ‘Brave’ which automatically blocks advertisements.

Furthermore, the next cause for concern could be ad-blockers for mobile. Apple announced in 2015 that the next generation of ‘Apple’s mobile operating system will allow ad-blocking extensions’ for Safari on iPhones and iPads. This created a surge of interest, and the most popular ad-blocking programmes for mobile ranked in the Top 100 downloaded apps on the App Store. Considering that ‘mobile video will account for 87% of global advertising spend by 2018’, this is a major issue. However, these top ranking ad-blocking apps are now much lower, meaning that, for the time being, mobile ad-blockers are not publishers biggest concerns.

The depth and complexity of the arguments on both sides of the issue makes it difficult to reach a resolution and is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. However, the first move in resolving the issue would be advertisers producing high quality and unobtrusive ads which would then deter consumers from using ad-blocking technology. Consumers will need to be educated and made aware of the fact that advertisements fund their favourite sites, and all the time they are using ad-blockers, the possibility of that site closing becomes more and more likely.

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