ad blocking: 10 things learned from #dms16

Ad blocking: Digital Media Bugbear 2016. Ruler of Column Inches. Greatest Use (or Misuse) of Technology of the Year.

At last week’s Digital Media Strategies event, I was lucky enough to chair a roundtable on the subject. These breakouts usually provide lots of interesting tidbits – they’re the part of the event where people really put their guard down and speak their minds. A great place to find out what publishers, tech companies and everyone else in between really thinks, in other words.

Here’s what I learned:

1.     Some tech providers really are taking no prisoners. One described a new video solution it was offering that shuts the blockers down at source. Notably, it was left to the publishers on the table to point out they didn’t feel this was the way forward.

2.     Anyone thinking of entering an arms race with the blockers should be aware what they’re dealing with – an open source army of people supporting it. Are there any guarantees that today’s ad blocker blocker will even work tomorrow?

3.     Since the launch of iOS9, mobile ad blocking hasn’t taken off in the way some expected. Still, we need to learn the lessons of desktop and rein in the takeovers and uncapped retargeting campaigns if we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes. Heavy ads sapping peoples’ data limit is another major concern.

4.     Three’s announcement around embracing mobile ad blocking at a network level may have been more PR bluster than genuinely workable. However, it reminds us of the benefits of building app audiences over mobile web - app ad blocking being a lot trickier, involving ‘deep packet sniffing’ (not my phrase) which violates app store rules.

5.     As discussed at the roundtable, then announced to the trade press in the days that followed, Swedish publishers are coming together to trial anti-ad block messaging en masse – turn off, pay, or see access limited – and as you can see from Digiday’s reporting, many see even this approach as too heavy handed. Whatever your view, you can bet others will follow this type of collective action if it works.

6.     Paying to be whitelisted, which incidentally the Swedish publishers refuse to do – is another option. However, the collection of publishers and tech companies on the table agreed there can be little argument by now that Eyeo/Ad Block Plus is in it for the money, not the user.

7.     Another lesson here is around the path of least resistance. Since it’s just a couple of clicks to download Ad Block Plus and use as default, that’s what most people do. While it only takes a little more effort to override its ‘approved’ (i.e. mostly paid to be whitelisted) ads, most people stick with the standard settings – hey presto, business model.

8.     Conversely, the same could be said for the very existence of ad blocking: As long as we have bloated ads that slow down loading times, eat up data plans, follow you around indiscriminately or otherwise degrade the user experience, ad blocking will exist. People have drawn the parallel with music piracy more than once – and did the moral (or even legal) argument help there?

9.     There was much grumbling about the histrionic tone of IAB US Chief’s address on ad blocking on this side of the pond. Less attention around his pronouncements that ads had to get better – but they were there too:

“Multitudes of could-be formats and wannabe standards crowd screens, interrupt consumers’ activities while impeding the delivery of desired content, create supply chain vulnerabilities, generate privacy concerns, and drive fears about data security. Ad-blocking… offered consumers a vote – and they have voted no on chaos, opacity, and slowness.”

See here for a definitive list of all the reasons people block ads.

10.  In other words, everyone is aware of the problem. Untangling the knot is a little trickier. On this point, it was also interesting to note Google presenting its Accelerate Mobile Pages (AMP) project at the event. The proposition is pretty clear – AMP is built on a scaled down, JavaScript-light version of HTML – and hey presto, a new, more user-friendly user experience is restored. Someone at the event also told me Google might be rolling out this service to desktop too. Could this be the beginning of a (more) beautiful new relationship between publisher, advertiser and user? Could Google be launching its own, more business-friendly version of an ad blocker? While it’s keen to emphasise it is supporting that entire ad ecosystem, it also talks about encouraging ‘beautiful’ not ‘irritating’ ads, and elsewhere there are hints of the ‘community’ playing a role in separating one from the other.

Will AMP play a role in stemming the flow of ad blocking from desktop to mobile? Could this be the beginning of the end for Eyeo’s ‘old-fashioned extortion racket’? No-one knows, but it’ll certainly be interesting finding out.