Ad Blocking: A Symptom of a Larger Problem


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Do you have an ad blocker installed on your web browser? According to the 2015 report, "The Cost of Ad Blocking," from Adobe and PageFair, there are "198 million active adblock users around the world." In the U.S., ad blocking grew by 48% last year. At this point, though, only 16% of ad block traffic is mobile. That may sound as if it's good news, but it could also mean that there is a lot of room for mobile ad blocking growth.

You've probably heard all of this before, because it has everyone from publishers to advertisers in a tizzy-with good reason.  The same report says that ad blockers cost publishers $22 billion in 2015. That's not exactly pocket change.

The reaction to the problem has been varied. In Europe, some publishers have responded by suing the ad blocking software companies. Others are blocking users who are employing ad blockers. For instance, ?Yahoo prevented customers with ad blockers installed from accessing their emails. Companies such as Amazon and Microsoft (about 300 in total, according to Ars Technica) have sought to be whitelisted by Adblock Plus (and 10% of those customers pay to be whitelisted).

It is not at all clear how this is going to shake out, and it is incredibly frustrating to publishers. Not only do consumers not want to pay (via subscriptions) for content, but now they are blocking the advertisements that are subsidizing that free content. Imagine if someone opened a startup that specialized in cutting all the ads out of newspapers and magazines before they reached subscribers. That would be outrageous, right?

Of course, readers on the web have legitimate gripes as well. Ad experiences are often intrusive, slow down load time, and raise privacy concerns. And if you're on a mobile device, you might get testy about your data being used up to download ads.

Frankly, as a consumer, I get it. I've never quite hated television commercials the way many others do. I've always seen them as a good time to run to the bathroom or to the kitchen to get a snack. (More often, they are a good time to flip to another channel where there is something else on.) But I can't tell you how many times I've been sitting at my laptop with multiple browser tabs open only to hear a video ad start playing. Then I have to sort through my tabs, scrolling up and down the pages, to find the culprit. If I'm lucky, I can simply cancel the ad. But more often than not, I just silence it. Either way, swearing is usually involved.

Technology has enabled an advertising arms race. We can retarget ads at you based on previous behavior, so we do. We can insert video ads that automatically start playing onto a page, so we do-even if it means getting you in trouble at the office. We can hit you with pop-up ads-that are practically impossible to close out without accidentally clicking through-on your mobile device, so we do. (A study from Retale found that 60% of mobile banner ad clicks are accidental.) This is not how we should be treating our readers-especially if they have done you the courtesy of actually purchasing a subscription for digital access to your content.

But advertisers and consumers have to take some of the rap for this as well. Advertisers are the ones forever demanding more from digital publishers. Meanwhile, consumers have made content providers more vulnerable to the whims of advertisers by being (mostly) unwilling to pay for content.

I started wondering what the web would be like if so much of it wasn't dependent on ad revenue. So I navigated my way over to npr.org, where the vast majority of revenue comes from readers/listeners. There was one ad-like experience on the right-hand side of the homepage-a simple box that says, "Support for NPR comes from" with a StyleWe ad. That was it. It didn't jump out at me, start making noise, or pretend to be something other than an ad. I clicked through to an article and had the same, simple ad experience. Of course, we can't all be NPR, but we can start thinking about what we want the web to look like. But nothing will change unless consumers, advertisers, and publishers can get on the same page and create an environment that works for everyone.