In the battlefield of digital publishing, media companies struggling to generate revenue amidst ever-declining digital ad rates are facing a new looming threat—ad blocking.
A significant minority consisting of millions of readers have already downloaded the software to block online ads, a process that has become much easier on the desktop with the advent of plug-in apps available on most Web browsers.
In 2015, ad blockers cost publishers $22 billion worldwide, according to a report from Adobe and PageFair, a new start-up that measures the cost of ad blocking. Blocking in the U.S. grew by 48 percent to reach 45 million active users and it’s expected to cost publishers here $20.3 billion in 2016. Websites that cater to young, tech savvy audiences are hit hardest by blocking software.
Now that Apple has allowed ad blockers on its mobile devices, publishers expect that relatively small group of tech-savvy readers to become more mainstream, a threat to what is in many cases the largest revenue stream for most websites.
As shocking as those numbers sound, the ad blocking epidemic doesn’t have to be an “end of the world” proposition for publishers. Instead, ad blocking should be a wake-up call to digital editors to tune in better to their readers needs and create a user experience that engages consumers, not annoy them.
“Sure, you can interpret ad blocking as really bad news in digital media,” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next. “But it also marks a massive opportunity for publishers to re-connect with part of their audience, drive more value and increase engagement.”
That may sound like an odd way to respond to what has been reported as a growing threat to many publisher’s bottom line, but Kint’s optimistic take on ad blocking isn’t without merit.
To begin with, most users aren’t driven to ad blockers to block all ads, but instead aim to improve their Web browsing experience by ridding themselves of things most publishers also hate—autoplay video, annoying pop-ups and intentionally hard-to-close interstitials.
According to a Digiday survey, between 60 to 70 percent of readers using ad blockers are willing to see flat banners, skippable pre-roll and flat banners. That drive to avoid intrusive ads and speed up page performance are more acute on mobile, where battery and data drains are a larger issue.
“A deeper problem is that ad blocking is endemic only because online advertising has become so invasive that hundreds of millions of people are willing to take matters into their own hands,” said Sean Blanchfield, co-founder and CEO of PageFair. “To sustainably solve ad blocking, we must treat these users with respect, not force feed them the popovers, interstitials and video ads that they are trying to get rid of.”
Most experts agree the key to limiting the growth of ad blocking is improving a user’s experience on your site. Vox Media, GQ and the Washington Post all made small fixes to their Web infrastructure and coding that allowed page load times to be cut by as much as 80 percent.
Newspaper companies are often the guiltiest of offering pages loaded with digital ads and tags that slow down load times. According to a study by the New York Times, Boston.com, the New York Post and SFGate.com, all performed the worst when it came to estimated load time on mobile.
“A consumer gets valued content in exchange for explicit permission to borrow their attention,” Joe Marchese, the president of advanced advertising for Fox Networks, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in support of ad blockers. “If the publisher abuses this, asks for too much attention, or degrades the experience too much, then the consumer will find another path.”
For media companies that have already placed an importance on fast loading pages and user experience, one solution might be so simple, it didn’t occur to most editors: Just ask your readers to unblock you.
After all, it’s pretty easy for just about any publisher to detect when a reader is using an ad blocker. According to data provided by GQ, IDG Communications and Forbes, between 30 and 40 percent of users who were asked by publishers to turn off ad blocking whitelisted the website.
The key is gaining an understanding from your readers why they’re blocking ads on your site and tailoring a message that speaking to their specific issue.
For Forbes, that meant posting a message on its welcome screen that asks a user who has ad blocking turned on to turn it off in order to access content, offering an “ad-light experience” for 30 days. According to chief product officer Lewis DVorkin, Forbes monetized 15 million ad impressions that would otherwise have been blocked as a result of the messaging.
At GQ, their messaging revolved around giving their young, mostly-male millennial audience a choice between whitelisting the site, paying for content or signing up for a newsletter in order to view content.
“People want to feel like they are in control of the time they spend on the Web,” said Mike Hofman, executive digital director of GQ, told AdExchanger. “Giving people an option of A or B gives them a real feeling that the brand is committed to giving them control of time spent.”
Publishers shouldn’t try to play a cat-and-mouse game—banning users who use ad blockers—that’s a losing battle for just about any media company. Instead, the focus should be on creating an environment where unobtrusive advertising respects readers while generating enough revenue to keep the lights on.
“Successful companies will be the ones that realize that while content is important, user experience is a large part of consuming that content,” Kint said. “With more and more choices out there, consumers don’t need to differentiate between publishers based on content alone.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.