Buyers' Guide to Blocking the Ad Blockers 2017
Though some websites have been hurt worse than others, virtually all advertising-funded websites have suffered some revenue loss due to ad blockers. In this Buyers’ Guide, I’ll discuss the alternatives— technological and otherwise—available to publishers that are feeling the pinch.
In a seminal blog post from October 2015, Scott Cunningham, senior vice president of technology and ad operations at IAB, and general manager of the IAB Tech Lab, admitted, “We messed up. As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of user experience. ... This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience.” Cunningham was referring to poor ad-related experiences, which he felt contributed to the creation and popularity of ad-blocking software. This blog post launched IAB’s LEAN program, which I’ll discuss in a moment. For those who didn’t get that memo, consider the famous Will Rogers quote: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Figure 1 shows the number of trackers found on livingly.com, a site you’ll get to if you click the wrong icon on CNN or ESPN. Each tracker takes a bit of time to load, which delays page load time. Each tracks yet another piece of data about you and your browsing habits, ensuring that if you look at golf clubs on Amazon, you’ll be seeing golf-related advertisements for the next 3 months. While 70 is an exceptional number, the Ghostery plug-in found 35 on CNN, 29 on The Wall Street Journal, and 38 on Forbes. The number of information sources, and the publisher’s responses to that data in the form of personalized ads, contributes to slower page load times and, potentially, page stability. Throw in intrusive ad practices like pop-up ads and audio and video that auto-start, and it’s not hard to see why many turn to ad blockers.
The IAB’s LEAN Principles stand for Light, Encrypted, Ad Choice Supported, and Non-invasive, and the IAB is in the process of converting the acronym to actionable guidance. A good place to start learning about LEAN is the post, “How LEAN Can You Get? A Scale and a Score Will Tell You.” Significantly, the article suggests that “there is a threshold for page load-times that should not be crossed, without risking consumer disaffection. It is equally clear that some factors—such as excessive and redundant data calls from an ad unit—contribute inordinately to these barrier-busting load times. Our goal is to identify the right thresholds and their contributing factors, and incorporate them into our LEAN scoring mechanism.” The article also notes, “Preliminary research implies strong consumer demand for skip—the research from IAB UK indicates that unskippable video ads are a primary driver for installing ad blockers, and that having an option to skip would cause some ad blocking users to reconsider.”
Those looking for additional guidance should download Teads.tv’s “Manifesto for Sustainable Advertising,” which includes 10 specific recommendations in its “guidelines to engage, not enrage.” These include avoiding interstitial and pop-up units, using skippable video advertising formats, and limiting the number of ads per user.
These documents are a great place to start for any publisher concerned about current or future revenue loss due to ad blockers; the best way to discourage ad blocking is to eliminate or reduce the reasons that visitors to your website install them (see Figure 2).
TweakTown is a site that reports on computing technology content and news that has decided to start a dialogue with those using ad blockers and offer them an alternative.
DEALing With Ad Blockers
Beyond improving the advertising-related experience, the acronym-loving IAB recommends that publishers DEAL with the problem by Detecting ad blocking to initiate a conversation, Explaining the value exchange that advertising enables, Asking for changed behavior to maintain the exchange, and either Lifting restrictions or Limiting access if the consumer doesn’t agree. To facilitate the first point, the IAB Tech Lab offers a free ad-block detection code to all members. Promisingly, a U.K. study by the IAB/YouGov on the state of ad blockers found that 54 percent of web surfers who enter a dialogue with publishers regarding ad blockers would consider turning them off if that was the only way to view the content.
Sourcepoint, a consultancy and technology provider, is helping to facilitate those kinds of publisher/website visitor conversations, and potentially finding new ways to compensate publishers for their content. Sourcepoint primarily works with premium publishers, and most engagements start with publishers installing Insights, a measurement tool to assess ad-blocking losses over their multiple properties. Depending upon what the publishers learn, they may decide to install Dialogue, a Sourcepoint tool that lets them offer different compensation choices to the user. With Dialogue, and the Sourcepoint platform, publishers can perform A/B testing on different offers and messaging to determine which delivers the most revenue.
What’s interesting about Sourcepoint is that unlike the anti-ad blocking tools discussed next, it doesn’t force advertisements down the throats of visitors who have already expressed their desire not to see ads. Rather, it enables an intelligent dialogue that reminds visitors of the role that advertising plays in content creation, and allows them to compensate the publisher in different, less objectionable ways. Though as yet unproven, this dialogue may deliver more revenue to the publisher than the existing ad-based model.
How Ad Blockers Work
Before venturing into anti-ad blocking technologies, let’s explore how ad blockers work, using Figure 3 as a reference. Under the traditional ad-delivery model, publishers deliver content directly to their users, with periodic calls to a third-party ad network to deliver an advertisement. Before making these calls, advertisers may mine data from the various data sources shown in Figure 1, enabling extremely targeted advertising. However, this schema also makes it simple for ad blockers to monitor and block calls from the player to known ad servers. Since the ad doesn’t get served, video playback quickly resumes, and often the viewer wouldn’t even realize that an ad was supposed to have been served.
Client-side advertising insertion; image courtesy of Verizon Digital Media Services
For perspective, though client-side advertising is easy to block, it’s the preferred technique for most advertisers because it enables extensive communications between the player and the ad network. For example, it enables all the information displayed in Figure 1 to easily pass from player to ad network, helping shape the ad-buying process and enabling programmatic buying, where computers bid based on demographics and other known buyer info. Of course, this infers a robust client-side application, which can supply features like interactivity, detecting when the ads are obscured by other windows, or disabling the viewer’s ability to fast-forward through advertisements. These types of functions are simple to supply on computers and mobile devices, but they’re more difficult to include on inexpensive OTT devices and Smart TVs. I explain more on why this is important in a moment.
There are two approaches to dealing with ad blockers, client-side anti-ad blocking technologies, and server-side advertising insertion.
Client-Side Anti-Ad Blocking Technologies
Client-side anti-ad blocking techniques work by outsmarting the ad blockers, though most vendors are understandably tight-lipped about what they’re actually doing. For example, according to Frédéric Montagnon, founder and CEO of New York- and Paris-based software developer Secret Media, his company developed a technology that encrypts the URL in the ad call, and replaces it with a proxy that can’t be recognized by the ad blocker. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, Secret Media also scrambles the URLs and search engine keywords of the ads every second, and each time the webpage loads.
The vast majority of young adults skip online video and TV ads at least some of the time, making them hard for marketers to reach.
144 million people around the globe are using ad blockers to skip ads, and some of the biggest companies online are sitting back and letting it happen.
Ensuring that paid online video ads are actually seen is a good thing. But the recently created standard is more of a joke than a useful benchmark.