August 9, 2016

News this morning that Facebook will block ad-blockers on most desktop displays may be mainly about preserving its own huge ad revenue base.

But a quick sampling of reactions confirmed that the move will be highly welcomed by publishers and the advertising community, deeply worried about the growing ad-blocking threat.

It’s good to have the king of the internet in your court.

Randall Rothenberg, longtime president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) issued a statement giving kudos to the social networking giant:

Facebook should be applauded for its leadership on preserving a vibrant value exchange with its users. Its decision to respect advertising as an essential ingredient in connecting users worldwide is spot-on, and should be replicated across the free and open internet.

Also among those offering praise was the Local Media Consortium, a big player in digital placements for newspaper sites and local broadcast. Director Rusty Coates commented vie e-mail:

The Local Media Consortium applauds Facebook in addressing ad blockers head on. As the LMC has said in its white paper, among content publishers, there are going to be a number of strategies in dealing with ad blockers, publishers that work with these companies to whitelist their content to those who combat them.

The bottom line is that advertising pays for quality content and quality user experience, and user data enriches advertising experiences by making ads more relevant. It’s our job to remind our readers and viewers that we care most about delivering quality, and being transparent about how we pay for it.

David Chavern, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, was similarly pleased but also goaded those who are putting the ad-blocking issue on the back burner. He wrote me by email:

Eventually everyone who has ad support online faces the risk. Any online publisher who says “not my problem” — because of in-app delivery or native or whatever — should understand that Facebook does think it is a growing problem. And if Facebook thinks that, why not you?

As we have stated before, the ultimate answer lies in vastly improving the online ad environment. We need to figure out digital ads that are not derivative of print or TV, and that people want (or at least don’t mind) seeing. In the meantime, there are bad behaviors of ad-blockers (ad replacement, paid white-listing) that we also have to call-out.

The bottom line is that Facebook’s action here should be a wake-up call for any publishers who haven’t taken ad-blocking seriously so far.

As Chavern’s comment reflects, many U.S. publishers continue to have a muted response as ad-blocking has grown more widespread. Use of blockers still ranges between 5 to 15 percent on most newspaper websites and thus can be absorbed without huge revenue impact because the inventory of available space does not sell out.

In Europe, where rates of ad-blocking range as high as 30 or 40 percent, the phenomenon is viewed as a current rather than future crisis.

Studies by the IAB and the international trade group WAN-IFRA have argued that publishers need to take some of the blame for cluttering their sites with obnoxiously intrusive ads and tracking cookies.

That can make for an especially bad user experience on cellphones, causing slow loading times and eating lots of data.

So, what are Facebook’s tactics? The company explained to The Wall Street Journal today that it’s adding new code that disguises most ads from ad-blocking detection. The company framed the move as improving user experience and added that it takes pains already to create a climate of tolerable ad formats.

As Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook’s vice president of engineering for advertising and pages, told the Journal:

Facebook is ad-supported. Ads are a part of the Facebook experience; they’re not a tack on…This isn’t motivated by inventory; it’s not an opportunity for Facebook from that perspective.We’re doing it more for the principle of the thing. We want to help lead the discussion on this.

The use of ad-blockers picked up when Apple introduced its iOS operating system last year with a feature making blocking easier. Google has also been friendly to blockers, so it will be worth watching whether either reverses themselves to match Facebook’s precedent.

The action may also tend to mend fences with the many organizations that have started this year to publish some or all of their content directly to Facebook. Some have been worried by tweaks to the Facebook algorithm, such as a recent one that gave more weight to content recommended by family and friends.

That could depress traffic and unilaterally changes the rules of the game in publishing to the platform and sharing revenues. And Facebook’s continued dominance over news distribution has caused no shortage of hand-wringing among publishers who worry they may be losing direct relationships with their audiences.

Meanwhile, the ad-blocking dilemma has spawned a number of vendors who offer a mix of counter-measures to minimize damage (without flat cutting off those refuse to disable ad-blocking).

I asked Johnny Ryan, head of ecosystem for Ireland-based PageFair for a reaction, and he was highly positive too:

What Facebook is doing is the smart move. Advertising that is respectful should be shown. I take this as an endorsement of our own approach at PageFair: Empower publishers to serve ads in a manner that blockers cannot circumvent and use standard formats that do not jump around the screen, snoop on users’ data, or slow down the page. Publishers need to be able to show ads to support their businesses. Otherwise we lose the diversity of the web.

The ad-blockers themselves conceivably may have counter-measures up their sleeve. I tend, however, not to bet on success of those taking on resource-rich Facebook directly.

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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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