May 12, 2016

Publishers are finding that work-arounds are better than confrontation as they deal with the ad-blocking challenge, a recent research report from WAN-IFRA finds.

The Frankfurt-based international newspaper trade group had earlier suggested that publishers must admit responsibility for ad clutter and bad user experience.

This latest goes further. It recommends three main strategies, all conciliatory:

  • Make user experience better, posthaste, so that the majority of users who do not yet deploy ad backers will not see the need to. Essentially the suggestion is that publishers need to weed out cookies that slow load times and simply refuse to accept obnoxious ad formats.


  • “Find ways to encourage users with ad-blockers to agree to be served ads.” The fast-growing body of research on ad-blocking shows willingness to whitelist favorite sites or take the blockers off in exchange for a “light ad” experience. Financially, the tradeoff for serving those better ads to a bigger audience can be a net plus.


  • “Focus on mobile-ready advertising opportunities.” Ad-blocking is much more prevalent on desktop than smartphone. Native ads (so far) are less likely to be blocked and apps are less of a focus than the general web. So smart development of high-quality mobile ad units will have the side benefit of helping check the momentum for ad blocking.

The report draws an analogy to last decade’s wave of direct email advertising, which eventually spawned spam filters as a reaction. In dealing with the clutter that has created the current wave of ad blocking, the report concludes, “the basic measure is to take control and clean up.”

(The report does concede that disentangling from third-party programmatic ad servers will be difficult).

While clear in its conclusions, the report chronicles a range of practices and evidence. For instance, it surveys the offerings of four leading ad block blockers (the research was sponsored by one of those, Sourcepoint) without endorsing that approach.

The report also notes the stance of the three major platform companies. Because user experience is their selling point, they are comfortable enabling ad blocking. App-oriented Apple and Facebook see relatively little downside to their own advertising base; Google, which relies more on the open web, may.

Another chapter rounds up the results of the many surveys major sites have taken of their own users. Generally those users are not so much responsive to pitches about the cost of good journalism, at least in the absence of a promise of improved experience.

If WAN-IFRA is right, pay-up-or-else notices, however politely worded, and a popular strategy last fall in the first wave of concern about ad blocking, may be on the wane in favor of more measured conversations with users.

Another two chapters on legal dimensions of the issue find that “suing is risky” and that in the European Union especially, even deploying software to detect the use of blockers may be in conflict with emerging privacy regulations.

The report mentions the recent action of the Newspaper Association of America to serve a cease-and-desist notice to Brave Software, a new venture that removes ads, asks users permission to substitute its own and promises to split the proceeds with publishers. While not directly criticizing this shot across the ad-blocking industry’s bow, the report contends that confrontation with ad blockers may too easily be interpreted as confrontation with users.

The report concludes:

Publishers have an opportunity to redefine how advertising works online and save the mechanism of advertising that supports content on the open web. Focus on the positives. Focus on where you can make a difference. Make your users happy again.

Two cheers for that, but I’m not sure industry practice is close yet to catching up. If I’m being served fewer annoying digital ads, I haven’t yet registered the difference. And on my reading diet, repetitive pitches from publishers themselves to subscribe are prime offenders.

With its European base, WAN-IFRA has seen bigger percentages of users deploying ad blocking and faster growth. Rates above 30 percent are not uncommon in France and Germany where a more tolerable 15 to 18 percent remains the ceiling in the United States.

The 76-page report (free to WAN-IFRA members and for purchase to others) is yet another reminder that the problem is not going to melt away — roughly $22 billion in ad revenues is at stake, it asserts. And indignation is looking less and less like a solution.

Advertiser attitudes may take some changing too, Dean Roper, WAN IFRA’s director of insights who oversaw the report, told me via email:

“Obviously there is a real struggle with (some) brands that want to grab attention any way possible versus the publisher delivering a decent user experience,” Roper said. “Are we headed for less is more? Probably. (But) that’s a very short, oversimplified answer to a very complex issue.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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