Thoughts on ad blocking

If you use the internet you’ll have noticed how advertising has become more and more intrusive over the last few years, with a plethora of flashing banners, popups and annoying auto play videos. As a result many people are now turning en masse to blocking ads via browser extensions.

The problem of web advertising

Once upon a time adverts weren’t too much of a issue, there weren’t that many and we learnt to ignore them, “banner blindness” was born. Then marketers decided to use animated ads because they wanted our attention and clicks. We learnt to ignore those as well.

Clicks on banners gradually fell to rock bottom (and still are today), with click through ratios typically at <0.5%. Marketers began making ads more intrusive in an effort to get us to take notice. Ads popped up up forcing us to cancel them, they floated over the page into our line of sight, they started making sounds and videos began playing automatically.

It all started to get very annoying. We still ignored the ads, but in desperation for our eyeballs marketers made things even worse by adding even more ads. On many sites more screen space is now taken up by advertising that the actual article we wanted to read!

That’s the straw that broke the first camel’s back.

The problem of privacy

For several years marketers have employed so called “ad tech” which tracks us around the internet, monitoring what we look at, where we go, what we click on and what we buy. They use this information to build profiles of us in order to push so called “targeted ads” at us.

You’ve probably noticed ads for things you may have been shopping for recently, hours, days or weeks ago? That’s ad tech in action, creepy isn’t it?

On many news/media sites the amount of tracking code that get’s loaded into every page you visit is quite scary, often resulting in many dozens of marketing companies collecting our data and behaviour. It’s no secret that these companies make a lot of money selling this data (hey it’s my data, where’s my cut?).

The privacy straw broke another camels back.

The people’s reaction

Browser content (ad) blocking extensions have been available for many years, and once installed eliminates ads, and we can go about our business uninterrupted.

Initially, ad blockers were the preserve of geeks and the more technically literate, but in recent years they started to gain the attention of the mainstream audience which has resulted in a huge rise in usage with around 200 million people using them worldwide (and counting). Apple’s decision in late 2015 to introduce “content blocking” capabilities to IOS expedited their popularity, and also that spurred developers into developing ad blocking apps for Android devices as well.

When you enable an ad blocker in your web browser it blocks not only ads but most of the tracking code as well. The result being pages load a lot faster, our browsing data is no longer mined, and a whole lot less data usage on our mobile phone plans.

The people have had enough. Ad blockers are a solution to the problem of ads.

The marketers/publishers reaction

With ad blocking hitting the mainstream’s consciousness in 2015 their use is skyrocketing, marketers and publishers have suddenly become “aware” and are now counting the lost ad revenue.

Many online media companies have relied on ads to cover their operating costs. I think this [over]reliance as their major source of income is a bit short sighted, and now the shit is hitting the fan you have to ask why they have seemingly “put their eggs in one basket”.

There have been many scare stories published by the media of late, including ones that threatens “the end of the free internet”. That’s pure tosh and a very blinkered opinion. The internet is a free and open platform for anyone to publish to, it wasn’t created just for the media (or for ads), not to mention that millions of online businesses run perfectly fine with no advertising on their sites.

Solutions a plenty?

I’ve been looking for signs of media companies putting their contingency plans into action to offset short term financial losses, but nothing is evident from what I’ve seen. Media companies: you do have a contingency plan don’t you? You haven’t? Oh dear, it’s a bit late now.

Note: for people unaware of what a ‘contingency plan’ is, well it’s your “plan B” which you implement in case of a disaster. Adblocking could very soon turn into that disaster for the media.

Some like tech news site Wired are turning to a subscription model or asking customers to turn off their ad blockers to access content (but still be bombarded with ads). That makes sense, at least people have a choice.

Others are only now exploring alternative methods of income (no contingency plan after all then?), including “native” ads and sponsored content which, when done right, don’t usually get blocked (though they still may be ignored by us).

Various anti-adblocking apps are beginning to be available for publishers to deploy. These are meant to detect whether a customer has an ad blocker active, and if so serve alternative ads/content or even block access altogether. As a result anti-anti-adblocking browser extensions have appeared to counteract them. How long will it be until an anti-anti-anti ad blocker comes along? Grab the popcorn!

Summing it all up

Marketers and publishers just got greedy, in sheer desperation for our attention and they’ve overstepped the mark. To quote Sir Arthur “bomber” Harris;

They sowed the wind, and now, they are going to reap the whirlwind.

With more and more people using ad blockers publishers will find it very hard to win them all back (our trust in you has gone). It’s time for them to initiate their contingency plans and find alternatives to advertising for income. Let’s face it there are many ways for web sites to generate revenue, given time, effort and incentive.

Marketers need to realise that ads on the web ain’t want they used to be. It’s time to be thinking outside the “advert mentality” which, on the web, hasn’t really been effective for years because we just ignore them.

I’ve no doubt that some media sites will eventually go under because of ad blocking. That will of course unfortunate because people will lose their jobs, and I will sympathise with them, but any web business that relies on a single (and often volatile) stream of income is always going to be treading a fine line.

Media sites must adapt, and quickly, if they’re going to survive.

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