So here’s an awkward question … How many of you are reading this article without ads? Don’t be shy if you are. You’re definitely not alone.
You’ll be getting even more ad-blocking options with next week’s launch of iOS 9, which is supposed to support content blocking extensions. That could be a big step forward for the technology, which has been a largely desktop-only phenomenon until now. Naturally, the news has prompted another round of handwringing about the impact that ad blocking could have on the publishing business.
Even without Apple’s support, ad blocking has been on the rise. There are now 198 million global active users of ad blocking software, up 41 percent from 12 months ago, according to a recent report by PageFair and Adobe. The report also estimates that ad blocking will cost publishers $22 billion in revenue this year.
Some caveats: PageFair isn’t an objective industry observer, since its business revolves around helping publishers circumvent these blockers. Also, the impact on mobile may be reduced as more content is distributed on apps and social networks. Lastly, there have been arguments that ad blocking won’t hurt publishers as badly as you might think, because the ad business has always been “lossy,” with lots of wasted money, whether you’re talking about TV or print.
I’ve been watching the discussion with particular interest and, yes, a little fear, since it’s something that could affect TechCrunch’s bottom line — and with it, my job. So over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asking people in the media and advertising industry for their perspective. Were they worried? And if so, how are their going to adapt?
The ethics of ad blocking
It’s no surprise that advertisers and publishers who make their money from advertising aren’t exactly fans of blockers. What is surprising is that no one seemed to disagree with the argument that online ads have gotten out of control. Yes, they said, we’ve all seen ads that are too pushy or dramatically increase load times, and yes, they understand why people are unhappy about how their data gets used to target those ads.
“I think if we don’t acknowledge that, we’d be fools,” said Scott Cunningham, senior vice president at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (a trade organization that helps establish online ad standards). “So does that mean ad blockers are good or right? Absolutely not. Do we have an accountability and responsibility to address these things? Absolutely — and there’s a lot that we’re doing now.”
That was the viewpoint I heard again and again: Yes, there’s a problem, but ad blockers are not the answer.
For example, Harry Kargman, the founder and CEO of mobile ad company Kargo, agreed that in many cases, online ads have created “a bad consumer experience — from an annoyance perspective, a privacy perspective, a usability perspective.” At the same time, he said that as the industry works to solve these problems, it also needs to convince people that when you use an ad blocker, “That’s stealing. It’s no different than ripping music. It’s no different than pirating movies.”
AdBlock Plus, by the way, recently released its own ad-blocking browser for iOS and Android. It’s also working on an extension that will block mobile ads in Safari.
But let’s get a little more specific about why people are rejecting online advertising. Naturally, the answer depends on who you ask.
Does anyone like advertising?
PageFair says it surveyed 400 people in the United States and that found the number one reason they use ad blockers, or would use ad blockers, is, “If I feel my personal data is being misused to personalize the ads” (though PageFair also says ad quantity was the most common complaint among millennials).
Williams, on the other hand, said the number one reason users cite for installing AdBlock Plus is annoyance with ads (though privacy is also a factor, and he predicted that as ad blocking moves onto mobile, “it will be more about data and speed”).
The distinction is important, because different complaints have different solutions. TakeDisconnect, which already offers mobile ad blocking software and is working on new tools to take advantage of iOS 9.
Since Disconnect is focused on privacy, it doesn’t block all ads, just the ones that are targeted using third-party data. Co-founder and CEO Casey Oppenheim said that if an ad only uses first-party data (i.e., data from the website you’re visiting), then his software won’t interfere.
“Especially in a world where consumers don’t want to pay for software, advertising becomes critically important,” Oppenheim added. “So just for us, being a blanket ad blocker is not something we’re really comfortable with.”
“Especially in a world where consumers don’t want to pay for software, advertising becomes critically important.
AdBlock Plus, on the other hand, has created an “acceptable ads” initiative where users are presented with “non-intrusive” ads. These ads look pretty different from the ones we usually see online — for one thing, they’re “preferably text only.”
Williams admitted that the company hasn’t found “the perfect balance” yet, but he noted that only a single-digit percentage of AdBlock Plus users have opted out of seeing those acceptable ads — he said it’s “proof that people will be okay with a certain type of ad.”
Naturally, not everyone in the ad industry is a fan.
“I don’t think it’s a valid approach,” said the IAB’s Cunningham. “You hear the extortion comment all the time, but I prefer to look at it as, it just honestly negatively impacts the value chain between the publisher and consumer.”