If the world of digital publishing were a hockey game--with the content providers on one team and consumers on the other--the outcome of tomorrow's matchup would be all but certain: The latter would trounce the former in a lopsided shutout. That's because consumers have the ultimate goalie in the net: ad-blocking technology, which prevents digital advertising such as banners and display ads from appearing on device screens.
The odds of a content providers' victory have gotten worse since Apple rolled out its iOS 9 with a built-in ad-blocking option-a move that's bound to significantly expand the practice of ad blocking across mobile. Considering how significantly online publishers rely on digital ads for revenue, the scouting report appears bleak. But with the right strategies, publishers can avoid having to forfeit, sell the franchise, or fold the team by adding new MVP-like assets and designing better plays, say the pros.
The truth is that ad-blocking apps (such as Purify, Adblock Plus, Crystal, and 1Blocker) are in ample supply, and their impact is palpable to publishers. Alarmingly, according to a 2015 PageFair and Adobe report, "The Cost of Ad Blocking," it's estimated that ad blocking will have cost publishers globally nearly $22 billion in 2015; ad-blocking usage by Americans increased 48% (from June 2014 to June 2015) to 45 million monthly active users; and the number of active ad-blocking users worldwide is now 198 million.
"Advertising is the lifeblood for many publishers," says Patrick Reynolds, VP of marketing at SessionM. "The traditional media model has publishers amassing audience, which they then sell to advertisers. But without advertising as a means of monetization, many publishers will be forced to consider different models, like subscriptions."
Avi Zimak, VP and general manager of North American at Outbrain, says ad blocking affects big and small content providers alike. "The ad-blocking phenomenon is going to affect all digital publishers, even if you are one of the responsible ones trying to give your consumers a useful experience. Publishers who are less able to diversify their revenue streams and that depend solely on advertising are more likely to be impacted in a negative way by this emerging trend," says Zimak. "We have seen the tables turn, and control is now in the hands of the users."
John Busby, SVP of consumer insights and marketing for Marchex, insists that the biggest challenge publishers face is not the ad-blocking technology itself, but convincing advertisers that their ad units are influencing consumers as hoped. "In the last 5 years, the online ad community has embraced viewability as a standard. Due to the uncertainty that ad-blocking creates, viewability may no longer be a sufficient standard to attract ad dollars," Busby says.
Trying to outsmart ad blockers via clever technology is not necessarily the answer, many suggest. "It is been a cat-and-mouse game for over a decade now: ad-blockers block ads, publishers change code, ad blockers adapt to new code, publishers change code again, and so on," says Stan Wong, CEO of the ad-accelerting app maker, VAAC Army. "This will continue until publishers adapt to new solutions."
Dave Dickman, president of Reelio, agrees. "Trying to get around ad blocking is not the best approach because it will only upset the consumer, in turn damaging that relationship between your brand and your audience," he says. Indeed, content providers need to consider alternative strategies to help them survive and thrive in the ad-blocking age. Experts suggest the following tips:
Adopt sponsored content and native advertising-"This approach allows advertisers to get face time with their audience within the context of a reader's on-site experience," says Sachin Kamdar, CEO and co-founder of Parse.ly. "Native advertising presents a much milder inconvenience to the reader and actually enhances the user experience by supporting high-quality content in journalism read many times, it allows pages in apps to load at a faster pace too." For suggestions on the best native ad strategies, read "The Native Advertising Playbook" from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).
Offer higher-quality content that's worth paying for-"Publishers should work to produce more entertaining content that benefits and engages the right consumer on their preferred platform," Dickman says.
Educate users about ad-blocking ramifications-"Consider darkening your content to anyone with ad-blocking software installed to make them understand that content isn't and can't be free. And educate all your users about the implications of ad blocking and what positive measures you are taking to protect their user experience," Zimak says. And if they are going to continue using ad-blocking software, encourage them to whitelist your site.
Invest in attribution of a mobile ad exposure through to a purchase-"This means investing in analytics beyond the click and impression," says Busby, who adds that emerging advertising technology will focus on linking mobile ad exposure to an in-store sale or inbound phone call.
Offer more shoppable content and products-"Allow readers to buy the products they see on your site to facilitate increased commission income and [an] easy checkout experience for the reader and more avenues to sell products for retailers," recommends Brian Marvin, COO and co-founder of Bringhub.
Identify when ad blocking occurs and recapture the user-"We've created an ad-blocking plug-in for our publishing clients, allowing them to store data in anonymous and known user profiles; this data informs the publisher of the user's ad-blocking status. The publisher can then pass on that status to ad partners or a tag-management vendor, email ad-blocking users separately, or present them with highly relevant content, offers, or promotions where ads should have been displayed," says Cory Munchbach, VP of marketing for BlueConic.
Just because the opponent appears unbeatable and the prospects for amassing a winning record look dim, the pep talk message from industry insiders remains consistent: Don't throw in the towel. Yes, consumers are increasingly frustrated with digital ads-particularly because they feel as if advertisers are infiltrating every nook and cranny of their lives. And no, ad-blocking apps aren't going away. But hope springs eternal if you can implement the right combination of smart tactics that nullify the ad-blocking threat. "Create advertising that has added value for readers, and institute new revenue streams," says Marvin. "The publishers are going to be the ones that survive the coming display ad shake out."
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)