October 23, 2015

Over the last month, a new tone has crept into the debate about how to respond to the increasing use of ad blockers. Industry groups now concede the bigger problem behind the problem is slow load times and that they have only themselves to blame.

Wednesday the Local Media Consortium, which represents many but not all newspaper companies in placing digital ads, published a short white paper on the ad blocking challenge and recommended an array of strategies.

But it also admitted that the core of the matter was slow page loads, irritating customers, especially those accessing news sites on a smart phone. The paper concludes:

As an industry we allowed technology-driven efficiencies and revenue optimization to take precedence over the user experience of our readers. This is perhaps an understandable failing given the need for increased revenues to support our journalism. But, it is a tradeoff readers find unsustainable, and ad blockers are their most visible response to the problem.

The standard-setting Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) was even more explicitly “mea culpa” in an October 15 paper.  Scott Cunningham, who manages IAB’s tech lab wrote:

We messed up. As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience.

Later in the paper, Cunningham elaborates:

Through our pursuit of further automation and maximization of margins during the industrial age of media technology, we built advertising technology to optimize publishers’ yield of marketing budgets that had eroded after the last recession. Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty.

The fast, scalable systems of targeting users with ever-heftier advertisements have slowed down the public internet and drained more than a few batteries. We were so clever and so good at it that we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves. This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices and tried their patience.

IAB proposes developing a new ad standard with the slightly ponderous acronym LEAN. Conforming ads would be:

  • Light
  • Encrypted
  • Ad choice supported (i.e. not auto-play)
  • Non-invasive

That’s quite a turn from what IAB president Randall Rothenberg was saying a month ago when he characterized ad blocking as “robbery, plain and simple — an extortionist scheme.” — though he left the detail of how to fight back vague.

In a third recent development in the same vein as the two papers, Google announced October 7 an initiative it is calling AMP for Accelerated Mobile Pages.  Initial partners planning to use the new software and cache loading system include Twitter, the New York Times and BuzzFeed.

Google’s move is viewed in some circles as a counter to Facebook’s earlier launch of the Instant Articles platform, also aimed at faster display.

While the tech giants can provide a quick fix on slow loads, I fear that cleaning up the mess described will be an involved and time-consuming process. The clutter of code and promiscuous use of trackers typical of publishing sites are there to prop up shaky digital ad revenues.  Subtracting all that out will not be helpful, at least in the short run, for  publishing sites where digital ad growth has slowed or even declined this year.

Plus the deployment of ad blockers, easily enabled by Apple IOS 9, will lead to some direct revenue loss.

The Local Media Consortium white paper took a shot at estimating that impact.  Assuming a 15 percent blocking rate and some inventory recovered and sold, the loss would be roughly 10 percent.

A digital executive involved in crafting an ongoing response to ad blocking explained that on closer inspection the issue involves more than loss of revenue from those ads. “It’s more like identity blocking.  It blocks your ability to track the traffic…and in some instances even to count visitors viewing the content.”

Standing pat isn’t much of a strategy.  News site load times, uncompetitive on any platform, are that much slower on a smartphone.  Smartphone users are more impatient and likely to abandon a slow loading site.  And the phone demographic tilts to millennials, who publishers are trying to woo with tailored content and presentation.

Telling those deploying ad blockers to pay up for a subscription or get lost isn’t a good option either at a time when publishers have invested heavily in coaxing occasional users to become regulars who will eventually be willing to pay.

So, unappealing as it may be, the digital half of the publishing business probably now need to face the music and take a step back on revenue to hold and expand audience.

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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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