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Growth of mobile ad-blocking presents challenge, opportunity for advertisers

Two diametrically opposed visions of the Internet are locked in an arms race that will certainly result in changes to our online experience. The idealistic vision sees the Internet as a happy, wholesome place where creators and their audiences can meet, and where those audiences can support the creators “directly and sustainably” if they so choose. The other vision is one where the idea of great content has got lost in the “clickbait headlines and slideshow articles” that dominate the web, all with the goal of generating advertising revenues. Creativity, freedom of expression, openness, and community, versus big bad spoilsport advertising: which side will prevail?

This topic is in the news again because of a new report from tech company PageFair on the rising use of mobile ad-blockers. The report claims that almost one-fourth of the world’s 1.9 billion smartphone users are now using ad-blockers to keep out unwanted advertising. Most of the users are in China and India, and one reason they do it is to improve page loading speed and reduce bandwidth consumption. The report says that Internet infrastructure is less developed in those countries, and therefore blocking ads helps users keep their data costs down. The sharp rise in use poses “a serious threat” to the future of media and journalism in emerging markets, predicts PageFair.

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The use of ad-blockers is rising in developed countries too, more so in Europe than in North America, and not only because of page loading issues. In the UK, for example, a mobile network called Three has become the first European carrier to block ads at the network level, according to CNET. The web browsers Opera and Brave both have ad-blocking options, and Safari also allows it. PageFair says it found no less than forty-five different ad-blocking browsers available for download on iOS and Android. The group also found 229 different content-blocking apps for iOS.

If not only because of painfully long page-loading time, why else do Web users want to block ads? A roundtable discussion among representatives of consumer groups, publishers, advertisers, agencies and browsers, organized by PageFair in New York City, found that people’s reasons for using ad-blockers fall into three categories: user experience, which is compromised by the annoyance of obstructive and obscuring ads; performance, which is hindered by page load time and by security issues; and privacy. The group agreed that blame for this user discontent was shared among all industry stakeholders.

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One participant, the CEO of the World Federation of Advertisers, Stephan Loerke, said that the industry had heard the message “loud and clear” and that it was “determined to take the lead” in understanding what is driving people to use ad-blocking.

A much stronger statement came from the CEO of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Vincent Peyrègne said bluntly that his industry had “knowingly allowed bloated ads to run amok on news sites, packed with enough tracking software to annoy readers ad nauseam, and causing a host of UX problems for users. We have to fix this.”

And the CEO of the Newspaper Association of American made the point, perhaps a little desperately, that the public is not inherently hostile to advertising. People like the ads on the Superbowl, he said. “What people hate are bad ads.” But his other insight, that the ad industry has not yet found an “ad vocabulary” that works in the digital environment, is the one that may give advertisers hope. Advertisers need to develop the equivalent of Vine videos, he said—7-second ads that are engaging and enjoyable. Otherwise the ad-blockers will “take over” and we (news providers) will be left with “small subscription models” that don’t reach most of the public.

We as an industry knowingly allowed bloated ads to run amok on news sites, packed with enough tracking software to annoy readers ad nauseam, and causing a host of UX problems for users. We have to fix this.

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The subject of ad-blocking is of more than passing interest to companies like Google and Facebook, which rely on advertising. Google so dislikes the ad-blocker apps that it does not allow them in its Play Store. A solution being taken up by more and more of the originally print-based media like online newspapers and magazines is to adopt a paywall. The bottom line is, someone has to pay for the content.

Writing in the New York Times, Mark Scottmay noted that some companies that rely on advertising consider ad-blocking to be a violation of “the implicit contract” that people agree to when viewing online material. If that is their best argument, their fate is surely sealed.

Perhaps the best outcome, if industry players take the challenge seriously enough, will be some form of Internet advertising that is less obtrusive, less annoying, more creative and more effective. Advertising that people won’t mind seeing and hearing, like those Superbowl ads the man mentioned.

From a number of stakeholder roundtable discussions about ad-blocking held in New York and elsewhere, ideas about how to deal with “the blocked Web” have emerged. Given that the technology exists to display ads on the blocked Web, advertisers and publishers should respond to the new opportunities it presents. On the blocked Web, for example, users would have immediate tools to reject and complain about advertising. Only a limited number of “premium” advertising slots would be available, which would make better impact for the brands, “clean up” the user experience, and incentivize better creative. There would even be a new standard maximum page-load time that publishers and advertisers would commit to. These new approaches should also be used when advertising on the “normal” Web, so as not to further antagonize users.

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