Tackling Ad-Blocking: Strategic Choices

Dr Johnny Ryan, PageFairWhile ad-blocking poses a threat to both the buy and the sell-side of the industry, it’s fair to say that publishers have the most to lose, as advertisers will simply shift spend to other channels if the ad blockers come on top. One of the companies working with publishers at both a technological and strategic level is PageFair, an anti-ad block company that tracks billions of ad block hits each month across more than 3,000 client websites. Here Dr. Johnny Ryan, Head of Ecosystem at PageFair, explains what publishers can do to avoid the pitfalls and to face ad blocking head on.

PageFair has tracked the rise of ad blocking for several years, and reported each year a significant rise in the number of users who block ads. When we surveyed ad blockers in the United States it became clear that they were not willing to accept unskippable video advertisements, or popup advertising. However, more than half of those who already block said they were at least somewhat willing to accept skippable video advertising.

Three anti-ad blocking strategies to avoid

Publishers frequently make three common mistakes when trying to counter ad blocking:

1. Asking Nicely Usually Won’t Work

PageFair has tested appeals across hundreds of our clients websites. The results are remarkably low. Here are the data from 576 separate appeals that PageFair ran across 220 publishers’ websites. Only a third of a percent (0.33 percent) of adblockers added an adblock exception after seeing an appeal. And of those, one-third made only temporary exceptions, eventually switching ad blocking back on for the site on which the appeal appeared. In other words, only 0.22% made a permanent exception.
I know from speaking with leading publishers across the globe that these figures are not unusual. The best conversion rate I have heard about so far is 2%, which was for a non-English language newspaper of very high pedigree.
In our tests we also appealed to users to make a financial donation to support the publisher. Only three users per million (3/1,000,000) did so when given the option. The appeals method netted publishers only $10 per million visitors.

2. Blocking Access Will Only Work for a Few

Publishers have experimented with blocking access to their content for users who are using ad blocker. This is not a solution for the majority of web sites. A visitor to a site whose content is a widely available commodity not switch off their blocker because they can find the content elsewhere with relative ease. For example, a person who blocks ads has little incentive to switch their blocker off in order to gain access to a news report sourced from Reuters, AP, or another mainstream newswire. They can simply find the same story elsewhere.
However, blocking access may work for publishers who have unique, high value content. A live sports event, for example, is unique and harder to find at alternative sites. What this means is that a small number of premium publishers may be able to block access with good results, but even they can only do this for some of their content. For everyone else, blocking access is a bad idea.

3. Cat and Mouse

This option is the most dangerous of the three. By changing where ads are served from, or how they appear to be referenced in the code of the page, one can temporarily defeat an ad blocker. The ad blocker will have to update its list with the new location of the ad before it can be blocked again.

What is dangerous about this “cat and mouse” – or “trench warfare” – approach is that it appears to succeed for a period of time. But it fails to take into account the large community of people who contribute to the ad blocking lists – probably pro bono for the most part. Eventually, the ad blocker community tires of updating the lists with each new location of each new ad and retaliates with a blanket block of all javascript on the publisher’s site.

What that means is that the publisher find their analytics and any other features driven by javascript broken. And although the adblocker community will eventually enable the core features, the publisher finds themselves in the bizarre situation that they have to liaise with the ad blocker community whenever they want to implement something new on their site. And publishers should be cautious because there are several vendors on the market that offer precisely this service.

The Pro-active Approach

Over the last five years, we have found that the best or are three things you can to do to counter ad blocking.

First, get the intel!

Before a publisher invests in a strategy, it’s important to gauge just how much ad-blocking is affecting their site. An audit, which is something we offer to publishers for free, will give publishers which provide metrics and a dashboard to show ad blocking activity on their site. For some publishers the problem is acute, in the 50%+ range. For others it is <5%. A publisher must know the scale of the problem before taking any further action.

Second, show simple, respectful ads

It really is possible to bypass ad-blockers with respectful ads. For example, we run a whitelisted remnant ad network and the ads will appear in front of most ad blockers. These are very simple ads and are allowed through by most ad blocker systems.

Third, help set the standard for Advertising 2.0.

Ad blocking is a mass rebellion by 200 million consumers against bad advertising. We believe that publishers must lead in setting the standard for ‘Advertising 2.0’. The industry has to move towards a model that does not allow third parties to snoop on users’ data, that runs ads that are unobtrusive, and to a middle ground where the user is respected while also supporting the publisher.

We have a patent pending technology that can put the ads back. But we do not want to put back ads that 200 million consumers have already rebelled against. Publishers must lead in deciding what is appropriate for their visitors to see. For the first 20 years of the commercial Web it has been advertisers alone for the most part that have made the decisions on advertising. Publishers are the ones feeling the pain. They must start to lead the way.

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