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Mark Finney 

Beating the blockheads: reasons to be cheerful part 2

Beating the blockheads: reasons to be cheerful part 2

In the second report from the frontlines of the ad-blocking war, ISBA's Mark Finney examines how the publishers are fighting back

In part one I talked about the Coalition for Better Ads which is largely focused on slowing the growth of ad-blocking by improving the user’s advertising experience. In this article, I will focus on the ways in which publishers (armed with ad tech) are tackling the users who are already ad-blocking.

Freeloaders and Gangsters

The web is a wondrous thing, full of rich content and knowledge 99.9% of which is made possible by advertising revenue; although according to 2015 research by the IAB, more than half (56%) of those surveyed were not aware that blocking ads meant that websites would lose revenue.

Ad-blocking is an existential threat to this wonder we have created and I have little sympathy for those who promote it, and nothing but contempt for Adblock Plus whose business is predicated on exploiting advertisers and publishers by blocking their ads and then forcing them to pay to unblock them. They are nothing but digital gangsters.

What if we ask them nicely?

For a while the main tactic used by publishers to win back ad-blockers was to ask them nicely to add their sites to the "whitelist".

People, when surveyed (by the likes of the IAB), pay lip-service to the idea, but when push comes to shove they either won't or can't figure out how to whitelist a site. To be fair, it isn't nearly as straightforward to do as it should be.

Digital native

Native content was seen as the publisher's saviour, but that hope was short-lived. This is not a solution to ad-blocking because of CAP rules (laid out here in these IAB guidelines) which force publishers to identify native editorial (or advertorials as we used to call them) as "paid promotion" or "brought to you by...", lest the user should be misled.

Unfortunately, this also provides helpful signposting for the ad-blockers and their zealot followers too. There is a small army of these people complaining about publishers on forums and the ad-blocking companies are acting, shutting a lot of digital native content down; they are even blocking things that might be ads just in case.

Massive babies

The Adblock Plus Forum is worth a visit if you want to learn more about the psychology of ad-blockers in general and to understand the very specific reasons why many people block. I understand how bad experiences drive people to block, and I have full sympathy for mobile customers who see their data allowance eaten away by advertising, but some of the people on these forums are unbelievable.

Here is a typical example: "The reason I installed ABP was because of a game called territory war 3. At the end of each match the game forces you to sit through a 20 second full screen advert before you can play another match."

I had to wait 20 whole seconds? Grow up, massive baby. What is clear to me after reading these posts is that ad-blocking has little or nothing to do with "privacy" for many. Some of them want everything for nothing and they couldn't care less how many digital publishers go out of business, just so long as they don't suffer any minor interruption or inconvenience. Enough is enough.

The promise of the Blocked Web

I have always been interested in the idea of alternate realities and parallel universes, so I have PageFair's Dr Johnny Ryan to thank for the term "Blocked Web" - the world-wide web as it exists without advertising - a very different place to the one visited regularly by the majority of web users.

The "normal web" is shrinking, like the polar ice caps as the blocked web grows with each new download of ad-blocking software. Like climate change, this process is happening much quicker than most people realise. The difference in PageFair's thinking is the realisation that adblocking is not simply a challenge to be overcome, but an opportunity for advertisers.

By definition it is uncluttered and the audience has abundant attention. Also, the incidence of fraud will be very low (probably), since bots don't install ad-blocking software. Now imagine approaching this blank canvas afresh. A different universe requiring a different approach.

Reintroducing advertising, carefully

Publishers are turning to ad tech companies offering solutions to adblocking - ways in which ad-blocked traffic can be recovered and monetised. Some of these companies, like PageFair, can enable publishers to recover the ad with consumer choice or without, depending on what each publisher decides. Others such as SourcePoint encourage the publisher to enter into a dialogue with the ad-blocking user to offer them compensation options to gain access to the content. This could be micro payment (on an article by article basis), or agreeing to view an advertising. There is a whitepaper available for download if you want to know more.

Rezonence's approach is also based on value exchange, but the mechanics are different. The user is granted access to premium content in return for accepting a meaningful and brief brand message or experience; in return the advertiser compensates the publisher.

Who will the ad-blockers blame?

PageFair has been serving simple ads on the Blocked Web at scale for some time, and, interestingly, they report that users respond positively to the advertising. However, if someone has chosen to block advertising and yet advertising continues to appear, it seems likely that blame will be apportioned at some point, especially if the privilege is abused.

Who will they blame? The publisher, the ad-blocking software, or the advertiser? We need to understand more. I am all for the concept of reintroducing advertising into the blocked web, but it has to be done thoughtfully and with care. Also, intuitively I feel that the approach of reintroducing the blockers to the concept of value exchange is the right way to go.

Collective action

Finally, it's worth mentioning that real success against ad-blocking has been achieved by publishers banding together and denying access to content. This has happened in France, Sweden, and Germany and rumour has it that this tactic will soon be used by UK publishers.

Since asking politely doesn't help, and making less intrusive "better ads" will not bring back the ones already blocking, the time has come to get tough. Rather than worrying endlessly about ad-blocking we need to act.

Users who block are telling us something useful - the short-term pain (for publishers) is very real, but they are helping us all in the long run. We have the opportunity to reset online advertising if we listen to them.

Should we force them to view advertising against their will? Yes, I believe so, as long as we have first tried to win back blockers by explaining the importance of the value exchange, and that we avoid the same mistakes on the blocked web as we made on the normal web.

These technological solutions cannot be a free-for-all, and we simply must treat the user better. That said, the something-for-nothing culture will eventually kill the free web unless we nip it the bud now.

Mark Finney is director or media and advertising at ISBA

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