Adblocking could allow news publishers to turn hate into opportunity

By Earl J. Wilkinson

International News Media Association (INMA)

Dallas, Texas, United States


Jason Jennings walked the aisles of the San Francisco INMA conference hall with passion and perspiration. Like an evangelist trying to make his point, the best-selling author looked newspaper publishers in their eyes and let spill out something rarely spoken publicly in 2001: 

“Advertisers hate you.” 

They hate how you increase advertising prices by double digits each year. They hate the low standard of creativity in print. They hate the lack of metrics. They hate that you jam so many ads on a single page. They equate the newspaper advertising game to banks, hospitals, the military, travel agents (an equation made famous four years later). 

Someday, Jennings seemed to suggest in a crescendo closing, this hate is going to come back to bite you. 

Strangely, the pre-transformation audience of publishers – those creators and sellers of print ads — erupted in applause.

* * *

Fast-forward 15 years. Sitting in a non-descript San Francisco meeting room a mile from where Jennings spoke years earlier, I watched a man on a television screen explain the ramifications of an advertising-ravenous news industry – except now, consumers could do something about it and advertisers could transparently measure the effects of consumer actions.

Years after publishers lost big chunks of their print dollars as Jennings predicted, Johnny Ryan sat in his office half a world away in Dublin, Ireland, and via videoconference spoke thoughtfully about a subject that could potentially deprive publishers of what’s left of their digital dimes: adblocking. 

It was the last of five days of the INMA Silicon Valley Study Tour. The 30 executives participating in the tour were long past fatigue, heavy on the coffee, and maybe today was stretching the appetites of even the hardiest of media and technology lovers.

Yet they sat in rapt attention as Ryan, head of ecosystem for PageFair, laid out adblocking as a technology that allows the blocking of advertisements before being loaded in a Web browser. It is a linear threat to news publishers that has the potential to be an opportunity. 

Ryan shared some key facts about adblocking: 

  • As of mid-2015, there were more than 200 million ad block users worldwide. 
  • 10% of ads on news Web sites are stopped by adblockers, and that’s much higher for video. 
  • Millennials are disproportionately using adblockers – notably men. 
  • Adblocking is more prevalent in Europe (10%-38%) than the United States (10%-17%). 
  • Mobile is a “non-event” in the West thus far, whereas Asian mobile browsers come with adblockers – by default! 
  • Although PageFair calls adblocking a “linear” event, the data shows a dramatic rise in adblocking in 2013-2015 vs. 2009-2013. 

People turn on adblockers for sensible reasons such as slow Web site load times, ads obscuring content, privacy, and bandwidth. 

Ryan, who in his 2010 book A History of the Internet and the Digital Future said the first two decades of advertising on the Web were a “disaster,” described the four steps that led to adblocking: 

  1. The need for Web sites to monetise led to unrestrained advertising. 

  2. The increase in ad volume and page clutter led to experience interruption and data snooping.

  3. This led to a decline in audience goodwill, attention to ads, and trust. 

  4. This all led to users blocking Web-based advertisements. 

INMA believes adblocking requires urgent action by news publishers and partnership with the platform giants that are now part of the digital ecosystem that we inhabit. 

We reached out to Johnny Ryan and PageFair to provide the same kind of quick written overview for INMA members of the adblocking phenomenon. This week, INMA released “What To Do About Adblocking,” an executive-level overview of the subject and its implications for media companies. 

The INMA report traces the rise of adblockers, its shift beyond the desktop to mobile devices and ISPs, and ultimately the cost to news publishers.  

Despite the hype around adblocking, the report warns there is some exaggeration of the threat’s speed. Likening it to climate change, Ryan suggests adblocking is a steadily rising phenomenon that, if unchecked, can be catastrophic in terms of displaced publisher revenue. Yet adblocking growth is not exponential, either.

In the report for INMA members, PageFair goes into consumer data to better understand the motivations for adblocking – ultimately suggesting blockers represent a premium audience segment for marketing communications if publishers simplify their ad offerings. 

Beyond recommendations, the INMA report also discusses tactics to avoid: 

  • Technologies that use domain rotation. 
  • Shifting focus to native advertising. 
  • Seeking refuge in “walled gardens.”
  • Think long-term before engaging with “acceptable ads” schemes.
  • Appealing directly to blockers but permitting them to view content.

Some of the remedies push against what key players in the digital ecosystem are doing in response — including leading publishers. That’s OK as this is a report designed to spur discussion and debate. 

Adblocking today might elicit a wry smile out of Jason Jennings. Of course, consumers are turning off your obnoxious pop-ups and creepy retargeted ads, he might say. Of course, advertisers don’t want to port over the concept of junked-up print advertising pages to digital spaces. Of course, this is going to spill over to mobile devices. 

They hate you. 

Ryan takes a more measured approach and suggests that media companies move to a creative era in which they serve up ads consumers won’t rebel against. PageFair data suggests those are disproportionately: 

  • Text display. 
  • Still images.
  • Video skippable pre-roll. 

The same PageFair data suggests less consumer willingness for popovers, video non-skippable mid-rolls, display with audio, video non-skippable pre-roll, interstitial, animated display, and video skippable mid-roll. 

Adblocking is a big topic for which we have not yet seen the “end of the beginning.” The consuming public loves publisher content, yet likes only certain parts of monetisation.

What’s next for the media industry? “What To Do About Adblocking” for INMA members is a first step. Stay tuned for more.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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