Ad blocking: reaching a tipping point for advertisers, publishers and consumers

Last week, mobile operator Three UK announced it will block advertising on its network in a trial taking place in mid June.

Three’s action marks a new milestone in long-running arguments about online advertising between the online advertising industry, individual web publishers, and consumers who are the targets for much of that content.

There’s growing opinion – authenticated, so to speak, by the increasing use of software to block online advertising – that a large proportion of advertising delivered primarily via web browsers is obtrusive, annoying and unwanted.

The explosive rise in ad blocking techniques, notably software you install on your computer that prevents display advertising showing in your web browser, finally gives control of such content to the consumer rather than the creator and distributor, who decides what advertising content they want to see on their online journeys.

In its Q1 2016 Advertising Benchmarks report, comScore noted that such a state of affairs is a wake-up call for advertisers and publishers to improve the quality and experience of such advertising.

As consumers are now empowered to block advertising they don’t like, it makes good sense to persuade them to see your ad rather than continue with a business model that is based on a belief that control remains in the hands of the advertising creators and distributors, so people have no choice but to view those ads they regard as obtrusive, annoying and unwanted.

There’s plenty of research and reporting that is persuasive in its conclusions that unless advertisers abandon this business model people will continue to block content they regard, in effect, as spam.

In April, the Guardian reported on research by eMarketer saying that almost 30% of British web users will use ad blocking software by the end of 2017.

In 2014, just 9.5% of UK internet users – at that time about 5 million – had installed adblocking software. That will have doubled to 18.5% – about 11 million – by the end of this year. By the end of 2017, almost 15 million internet users, 27% of an estimated 54.4 million UK web users, will use an adblocker.

But, it’s not only the perceived obtrusiveness, annoyance and unwantedness of online advertising that’s the issue. There are other warning signs that advertisers and advertising-content distributors ought to consider, and they focus on mobile data usage and consumption.

It’s not hard to see that unwanted content that consumes mobile data is an issue for consumers, notably one of cost. Now they have an easy way to avoid and prevent that consumption (and cost) by blocking the content from reaching their devices in the first place.

Lightening the Load

For many consumers cost isn’t only, or even partly, an issue – it’s more to do with page-load times. A research report by Deloitte earlier this year addresses this point well.

For users, the most immediate impact of ad-blockers is page load times: a page that would have taken 10-15 seconds to load over a fast 4G connection can now take 2-3 seconds. Further, pages are presented mostly ad-free and white space replaces the areas reserved for ads; no ads pop up to obscure what you are reading.

A less visible consequence of ad-blockers is that trackers get barred too, inhibiting the reuse and resale of the user’s browsing patterns. Some sites install dozens of trackers onto a user’s device. Further, each ad, while small in size, can readily feel obtrusive within the minimalist confines of a smartphone screen. All additional ad content can bulk up each web page considerably, potentially increasing load times, consuming data allowances, and depleting the battery.

Interestingly, Deloitte doesn’t think ad blocking on mobile devices will be a major issue at all in spite of such statements. Read their detailed predictive report for their full take.

Publishers are beginning to take note, though. In the US, Digiday reports on what one magazine has started doing.

New York Magazine is getting real with its advertisers, telling them the website can’t guarantee viewability of their ads if they don’t consume less data.

“If the advertiser provides creative that does not load in a certain time, then there cannot be viewability conversation,” said Ron Stokes, executive director of client advertising solutions.

The website will not offer viewability guarantees, which are increasingly being demanded by advertisers, unless they adhere to the data limits.

Which brings me back to Three UK and its experiment on blocking ads at the network level.

The mobile operator says its experiment is designed to “revolutionise the mobile advertising experience” with its three principle goals in mobile advertising:

  1. That customers should not pay data charges to receive adverts. These costs should be borne by the advertiser.
  2. That customers’ privacy and security must be fully protected. Some advertisers use mobile ads to extract and exploit data about customers without their knowledge or consent.
  3. That customers should be entitled to receive advertising that is relevant and interesting to them, and not to have their data experience in mobile degraded by excessive, intrusive, unwanted or irrelevant adverts.

According to Tom Malleschitz, Three UK’s Chief Marketing Officer:

The current ad model is broken. It frustrates customers, eats up their data allowance and can jeopardise their privacy. Something needs to change. We can only achieve change by working with all stakeholders in the advertising industry – customers, advertising networks and publishers – to create a new form of advertising that is better for all parties.

I’m sure many consumers would agree. And if Digiday’s report is any indicator, advertisers too.

Three says it will be inviting customers to take part in its experiment which is scheduled to take place over a 24-hour period during the week commencing June 13. Customers who choose to take part can sign up via the Three UK website.

This means that if you’re part of the trial, you won’t see advertisements as you browse the web or use apps on your devices connected to Three’s mobile network. You should enjoy load-time improvements, maybe along the lines of what Deloitte suggest in their report I mentioned earlier.

All things being equal.

Three told the BBC it was in the early stages of testing the technology and did not know whether it would charge customers for an ad blocking service, but said it would not “white list” advertisers, were it to launch one.

Can’t wait to hear the outcome!