Who will block the ad blockers? Publishers are proceeding with caution
Apple iOS 9 launched a week ago and with it comes the opportunity for users to install ad blocking software for its Safari mobile browser. So what are publishers doing to counter the added threat to the reach of their digital advertising?
It is a logical question. But I'm finding that, for now, the consensus response is to wait and gather more information, see what options vendors offer and puzzle through how best to preserve ad revenue and avoid antagonizing or running off users.
"First we need a good understanding of how much users -- both subscribers and nonsubscribers -- are coming to our sites with ad blockers," Raju Narisetti, senior vice president, strategy, at News Corp,. told me in a phone interview, "My hunch is that it's between 5 and 25 percent," he added, with those who access content through Google searches and social media referrals at the high end.
Ad blocking software is not new and there are tools being used in response to them. The leading vendors of response systems to ad blockers -- PageFair and Sourcepoint -- use as their calling card primary research on the extent of blocking and the demographics and motivation of those who do. Sourcepoint and comScore found that the practice was much more widespread in Germany and France than in the United States.
What's more, their response products seem to be nuanced and experimental -- not telling the blockers to get lost but rather initiating a dialogue about subscriptions and other options. Sourcepoint is offering free trials to selected potential clients of a system that lets publishers pick among several messages.
The SourcePoint story is an interesting one. Its co-founder and CEO Ben Barokas left a high-ranking position at Google this summer and has raised $10 million in venture capital. His departure coincided with CEO Larry Page saying that Google would continue to allow ad blocking for the time being, essentially valuing user satisfaction above some loss of ad revenue, still by far Google's main source of income.
Though ad blocking is not new. The wave of recent coverage with the added capability in the iOS 9 raises the question of whether the practice will spike and if so what new solutions will be built.
I'll leave it to others to explore the tech challenges of developing a system that works across platforms, but they are substantial, especially if you want different protocols for different audience segments as Narisetti suggests
As with paywalls and digital subscription pitches, which were refined over a period of years, there is the potential for mischief in customer relations. Case in point -- the Washington Post did some A-B testing of possible response messages to those who blocked ads. Several who got them concluded -- mistakenly -- that this was going to be standard procedure going forward.
Washington Post spokesperson Kris Corrati wrote me:
The test used a few different approaches to see what moves readers to either enable ads on The Washington Post, sign up for a newsletter or subscribe...Often, we run tests like this, not in reaction to a problem, but to learn, and we are still digging into this issue.
The New York Times does not block ad blockers. Kinsey Wilson, executive vice president of product and technology (and a Poynter trustee), said in an e-mail:
Like all publishers we're obviously concerned about the integration of ad blocking into iOS 9 and the apparent growth in the popularity of ad blocking. We're watching the issue closely and working hard to ensure that the digital advertising experience at The Times is a good one for readers and advertisers alike.
While most publishers may be holding back, the flow of big-picture opinion on defanging the blockers is robust and often heated.
Randall Rothenberg, chief executive for the Internet Advertising Bureau, the lead trade association for digital advertising, did an interview with the Wall Street Journal and a bylined piece in Ad Age earlier this week. Acknowledging "there is a real issue," Rothenberg nonetheless wrote:
Ad blocking is robbery, plain and simple -- an extortionist scheme that exploits consumer disaffection and risks distorting the economics of democratic capitalism.
He was slamming the ethics of the practice, known euphemistically as "whitelisting" in which some vendors collect fees from advertisers and publishers to be exempted from the blocking.
For a contrarian view, Media Post columnist Ari Rosenberg argued that the industry and the IAB are now reaping what they have sown with screen blocks, autoplay and other obnoxious and intrusive digital ad conventions. Rosenberg wrote:
Ad-blockers have given consumers a voice in the online ad world -- and that voice is loud, it is clear and it is filled with venom.
Some see a looming existential question: Wider adoption of ad blockers (and likely counter-measures) will lead to higher subscription fees and harder paywalls, a further boom in native advertising (more difficult to block) and shutdown of some free sites that have bet their all on digital ads.
Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile had an elegant essay on those future-of-the-web issues on his personal blog, titled "What we break when we fix ad blocking," His thesis:
If we assume that ad blocking will survive and thrive, the interesting question will be whether in seeking their own unilateral answer to their problems, users find themselves with a web they hardly recognize and one in which the hopes they had for a better experience are confounded by their own actions.
Should the upshot at many platform-style sites be more native ads mingled with content of uncertain origin, Haile added, the choice will often be between ad clutter or degraded content:
As users we may have to ask ourselves whether the frame of the Mona Lisa being covered with McDonalds' ads is less attractive to us than the idea of a clean frame around a portrait of the Mona Lisa eating a Big Mac.
At a more here-and-now level, Narisetti told me, premium sites with long-time paid subscribers should be in the best shape since they keep intrusive advertising to a minimum. But that leaves the question of what the best fit will be for non-subscriber traffic.
The interests of publishers and digital advertisers should align, he said, and "this is a case where Google's interests should align too." The right messaging to those using ad blockers, he added, "may be the occasion to talk honestly about the economics of the business."
As for timing, Narisseti said, "There's not any reason to panic, but it is good to have a strategy earlier rather than wait too long."
My conclusion: these are training camp days for an industry response to ad blocking. We'll check back for an update in another month or so when more are playing the actual games.