Ad Blocking Is A Kind Of Populist Revolt Against The Internet Establishment

Publishers and marketers have taken users for granted when it comes to ads.

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AdChoices is a failure. Yet the IAB recently touted the AdChoices icon/program as a great industry success. In that divide and disconnect lies the problem at the heart of the ad blocking controversy — a fundamental lack of understanding of and empathy for users.

Despite the ubiquity of the AdChoices icon, multiple surveys (2014, 2015) have found consumers are either not aware of it or don’t understand it — and few engage with it. The IAB and DAA offer competing data suggesting growing awareness, but the weight of evidence shows most consumers don’t know about AdChoices and certainly don’t use it.

Ad blocking has arisen chiefly because publishers, technology providers and advertisers have largely taken users for granted, as simply eyeballs, conversions or audiences ready to be tracked and harvested at will. There’s been a long-standing paternalism in parts of the digital advertising industry that has given rise to ad blocking.

Ad blockers are addressing real-world problems and user frustrations such as slow page load times, ad clutter, malware and privacy issues. It’s being done, however, in a way that is destructive to the publisher-advertiser ecosystem and ultimately to consumers themselves.

To his credit, after blasting ad blockers as running a “protection racket,” the IAB’s Randall Rothenberg acknowledged some of the problems that have helped create ad blocking:

Multitudes of could-be formats and wannabe standards crowd screens, interrupt consumers’ activities while impeding the delivery of desired content, create supply chain vulnerabilities, generate privacy concerns, and drive fears about data security.

Ad-blocking has been a consumer plebiscite; as former Mozilla executive Darren Herman noted at the IAB Ad Operations Summit a few months back, the software offered consumers a vote – and they have voted no on chaos, opacity, and slowness.

Almost daily there are articles about ad blocking and its potential causes and impacts. And there are differences of opinion about how urgent a problem ad blocking is. WPP’s Martin Sorrell said not long ago that ad blocking hasn’t had a meaningful impact on the industry to date. By contrast, Adobe and PageFair have asserted that more than $22 billion in global ad revenues were lost in 2015 due to ad blocking.

A very recent survey from Digital Content Next (the former Online Publishers Association) found that 33 percent of US consumers were “very likely or somewhat likely to try ad blocking software in the next three months.” Simple awareness is one of the major drivers of ad blocking usage.

“Which of the following describes why you use ad blocking technologies or applications?”

Ad blocking reasonsSource: “IAB Ad Blocking Study – Online Consumers Views and Usage of Ad Blocking Technologies”

Whether or not ad blocking is currently depriving publishers of billions in revenue, there is a real problem that needs to be addressed. In my view it’s not about “standards.” It’s about an attitude of respect for users and the user experience. IAB survey data from 2014 (above) document some of the reasons that people use ad blockers.

Beyond this, many surveys have indicated a consumer demand for more ad personalization. Accordingly, most of the audience is not hostile to advertising per se, as purely a reflexive matter. Rather, people are concerned about and hostile to parts of the current experience of advertising online.

As the IAB survey indicates, the top consumer concerns are malware risks and page-load speed. By contrast, a recent Vibes mobile consumer survey found that roughly two-thirds of respondents were somewhat or very satisfied with mobile display advertising. To me this indicates that if the industry fulfills its promises to consumers of quality and relevance, many of the dissatisfactions that result in ad blocking will be addressed.

Satisfaction with Mobile Display Ads

Vibes banner satisfaction Source: Vibes, n=1,027 US adult smartphone owners

Google’s AMP project is partly an answer to the concerns above. Among multiple objectives, it’s intended to speed up pages, and it limits the number and types of ads that can be shown. Interstitials/popups are prevented, for example. And while there are many self-interested dimensions to AMP, Google is clearly motivated to clean up, speed up and improve the mobile web user experience.

There’s no single or simple answer to the rise of ad blocking. Rothenberg and numerous others are correct in focusing on the user experience. It’s less helpful to look at coercive or legal measures to attack ad blocking startups or to blame VCs for investing in them. That won’t solve the problem.

Despite the rise in ad-free subscription supported content (e.g., YouTube Red, Hulu) most consumers still want ad-supported free content and they want better ads. The challenge there is that many of the tactics used for more precise targeting and relevance are scary to consumers.

It’s critical to focus on protecting users from bad ads and malware and to make ads creatively better and more relevant. At the same time, consumers need to have a sense of control and understand how their data are being used by marketers and publishers.

No more paternalism.

In many respects, the rise of ad blocking is analogous to the populist uprising against establishment candidates in this year’s presidential election cycle. As the IAB’s Rothenberg has correctly asserted, “Ad-blocking has been a consumer plebiscite.”

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Greg Sterling
Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land, a member of the programming team for SMX events and the VP, Market Insights at Uberall.

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