Ad Blocking and the Future of the Digital Landscape

Passion Digital Passion Digital 10/11/2015 5 minutes


I recently attended a breakfast seminar in Edinburgh (hosted by DigitalLBi and BIMA Scotland) which covered the rather contentious subject of ad blocking, and the assorted panel of speakers raised some incredibly interesting points which I thought were worth sharing.

What is Ad Blocking?

At their most basic, ad blockers are applications such as plugins or browser extensions which remove or alter advertising content on web pages.  Certain ad formats which have been known to ‘annoy’ users (such as pop-ups or aggressive re-targeting ads) have bred a marketplace in which consumers are looking for ways to remove these ads as they feel it detracts from their browsing experience.

Over the past few years user adoption of ad blocking has been increasing fairly rapidly; PageFair reports that UK ad blocking grew by 82% to reach 12 million active users in 12 months up to June 2015.  It looks like this issue isn’t going away any time soon, further exacerbated by the fact that a tool in the latest iOS release, called Content Blockers, will now allow iOS 9 users to install ad blocking applications directly from the App Store itself.


The Challenge for Marketers

There are several ways in which these ad blockers are causing headaches for marketers, none of which can be easily resolved:

Inflated CPM (Cost Per Impression)

Many programmatic buying services on the web cannot presently, rather embarrassingly, report on how many of the ad impressions they’re selling have actually been blocked! In short, this means that as a client you may be paying for impressions which never occurred.

Certain publishers are beginning to place code within their own content which registers when a user is actively using an ad blocker, but for the time being RTB software providers seem to be lagging behind.  Perhaps it’s a case of burying their head in the sand. 

Unappealing Solutions

One of the primary solutions to overcoming ad blocking is to play ball with the ad blocking service providers themselves.  If we ignore, for a moment, that ad blocking software promises users blocked ads except those on a white list (which is sponsored by advertisers!) and ad blocking software essentially extorts advertisers into paying to be on the white listif we ignore those issues and play ball, pay the ad blockers to be white-listed and have our ads displayed to users, what impact is that going to have on our brand or our client’s brand?

Consider that the user has actively chosen to install ad blocking software, yet somehow they’re going to be seeing our ads, because we paid the ad blockers.  That doesn’t sound like an affective or desirable way to build a relationship with the consumer to me.

The Challenge for Publishers

Poor User Experience

When you consider what content actually replaces that ‘blocked’ content, one of the major flaws of ad blocking applications is revealed. Some tools block ads but don’t replace the content with anything, which disrupts the intended HTML structure and can only detract from the overall user experience, which in turn can only be bad news for advertisers and publishers alike.

Broken / Outdated Funding Model

One of the main themes from the seminar was that of educating the end-consumer.  The general consensus was that if the user truly understood the need for advertising (the value exchange between content producers and content consumers) then they would be less likely to use ad blockers in the first place.

Sean Blanchfield, an online gaming engineer who worked on Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, comments that “Users are inadvertently putting their favorite websites out of business”.  So perhaps educating the user is the key, but I’m not entirely convinced.

Anyone working in the digital space is empathetic to the plight of online publishers; we know that they rely on ad revenue to finance the production of the content. But beyond that, does anyone really care? [tweetable alt=””]Content is so readily available online that users simply expect that this content should be free [/tweetable](and by free, I mean free of charge and free of advertisements).


Perhaps then the solution is to give the user no choice, to put up a pay-wall and demand a subscription fee in exchange for content. If The Sun’s recent actions beneath Rebekah Brooks are anything to go by, perhaps not:

The paper’s implicit admission that people were not willing to pay online for its brand of witty journalism comes as the media industry is divided over whether paywalls or online advertising are the remedy to the sector’s struggles at a time of declining print revenue. Reuters.

The Challenge for Users & Consumers

Poor User Experience

As above, using ad blocking software can detract from the user experience.  Try buying something from Amazon or booking a flight with tracking cookies and third-party scripts disabled.  Not only is this bad news for the site owner but this can also be incredibly frustrating for users, particularly if they don’t realise that the ad blockers is causing the issues.

Lack of Personalisation

Advertisements are not always a bad thing.  One example given in the seminar was Skyscanner; they’re local to Edinburgh so they usually come up in conversation when it comes to digital marketing here.  They run some extremely sophisticated dynamic remarketing whereby a user searches for a specific journey, then if the price drops later in that month the user is served an ad telling them as much.  Great for the user, increased revenue for Skyscanner. And they’re not the only ones doing this – most airlines that use low prices as their value proposition also utilise this technique.  With ad blockers in place the user isn’t going to benefit from this, or any other discount-focussed re-targeting.

Skyscanner AdOk… bad example.

Finding a Solution

The panel of speakers concluded that the current situation is a result of a lack of forethought, and indeed irresponsible advertising, by agencies and ad networks whereby users have been targeted too aggressively or inaccurately to the point where we have reached the proverbial tipping point.

If one were to turn back the clock several years and have another go, then quality, relevancy and entertainment value would be core facets of any ad.

Filtering out the low quality and irrelevant advertisements would go some way to negate the nuisance factor and ensuring ads were engaging and entertaining would ensure that the animosity towards online ads was less likely to develop.

Alas, too little too late.  So what next?

We may not be able to win back those already lost to the ad blocking ether, but marketers can focus on stemming the deluge of lost audience by adhering to those principles above. [tweetable alt=””]Today, we exist in a big data society, and firms can leverage that plethora of data to serve better ads[/tweetable], offering users quality, relevancy and entertainment value. Learn and improve based on past mistakes or continue to lose potential customers to ad blockers.