AdBlock Plus, the service that prevents ads loading on sites a user visits, is on the face of the natural enemy for publishers, as the ads it blocks remain the main source of online revenue for most. Even when the service allows publishers to pay to appear on AdBlock’s whitelist, allowing ads that meet certain criteria to appear, that has implications for publishers, as Steve Chester of the Internet Advertising Bureau expressed at a debate on the subject at Kingston University:
“[Adblock are] perceived to be holding businesses hostage and saying ‘well you can be let through if you pay a fee and if you conform to a certain level of advertising you haven’t defined’. That’s what we think is quite aggressive.”
But the fact there is demand for the service – there are 350 million users of AdBlock Plus alone – highlights a a core contradiction at the heart of digital advertising. People find online ads intrusive, and often more intrusive than in any other form of media.
That’s especially true when it comes to digital video ads: Research earlier this year by ad buying software company Strata found that 36 percent of people polled found that online ads were more annoying than television ads.
On the face of it that appears strange. The reason given by most commentators is that ads are irritating only when they interrupt user experience, and the television ad lives entirely within those interruptions. Arguably, they’re the reason why many television programmes even have pre-ad break cliffhangers – to convince the audience to stay through those interruptions. So why do digital audiences feel that online ads are even worse?
AdBlock’s Ben Williams told TheMediaBriefing following the Kingston University debate that it’s all to do with internet users’ perception that the internet is being fundamentally altered by ads:
“That’s really the ultimate philosophical idea of the tool is that as the internet has been taken gradually away from users, here’s a way for people to get that control that they had at the advent of the internet back.”
Part of the problem could be that there’s an understanding among audiences that, by and large, display ads are irrelevant and not particularly of interest to someone on a quick jaunt through the internet.
At the debateat Kingston University, representatives from AdBlock Plus, Dennis Publishing’s online arm Dennis Interactive and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) agreed that the needs of the user were paramount, and that ads that interrupt the user experience might ultimately do more harm than good. Chester told the audience:
“I think the important thing is trying to get the user experience right. Nobody wants to annoy consumers. Yes, there are ads out there that essentially carpetbomb you with advertising but the majority of people we work with who are members at the IAB want to create an experience that works for both the consumer.”
However, AdBlock’s Ben Williams expressed the opinion that carpet bombing is exactly the reason adblockers began springing up in the first place:
“I think that annoyance would be the first thing. What we’ve seen is that ads started out and they were relatively not annoying and then they got to be a little more annoying and ad blockers sprang up. Right now we’re averaging about 2 million downloads per week. It’s just a response to ads becoming more intrusive.”
However, just because the participants in the debate might have agreed on the reasons why so many people are now using AdBlock Plus, that doesn’t mean they all agreed on what the answer is.
Dennis Interactive managing director Pete Wooton was frank about his company’s need to have as many ad impressions as possible, and keen to stress that the annoyance of irrelevant ads can be avoided:
“At the end of the day, we really only have one revenue stream which is advertising income. At Dennis Publishing the bit of the business that is our websites is about a £15 million turnover business, and we spent about £11 million a year on creating content, building platforms and reducing and building an audience.
“I appreciate that some advertising is less than perfect and I, as a consumer, get annoyed at times as well, but I don’t think ‘junk’ is a fair representation of everything online. We’re all kind of agreeing that non-relevant advertising can be annoying. The interruptive bit is definitely really annoying, the non-relevant’s really annoying. Well, us collecting data on you helps us making it more relevant.”
He also pointed out that AdBlock’s business model, while perfectly in line with their moral stance on returning power to users, is reliant on cutting publishers out. In a follow-up interview, Williams acknowledged the fact they do allow some ads through is the most controversial part about AdBlock, but that:
“Back when we were first rolling out about 76% of people said they didn’t have a problem with ads if they were done differently.”
At the debate, the IAB’s Chester thinks closer collaboration between publishers, audiences and advertisers to create different ads entirely is a better alternative than services like AdBlock that cut advertisers out of the loop entirely, to the detriment of the publisher:
“We think there’s measures that you can undertake that don’t then essentially cut off the services and revenue streams for companies like Dennis who are trying to create really good experiences for the user, but don’t then strangle their viability.”
Legacy publishers’ sites, however, are no longer the sole destinations for information that their newspapers or magazines were pre-internet. As a result the impetus for audiences to visit their sites is lower because of the sheer variety of competitors, and any obstacles to enjoyment of those sites are more likely to drive them elsewhere.
Williams says that, until publishers learn to behave with restrain when it comes to embedding non-interruptive ads, we’ll continue to see people adopt ad blocking technology:
“We have about 350 million downloads, so that’s 350 million people who are voting with their mice that they don’t want to see all the ads that are on the web. There’s a qualitative difference between a good ad and a bad ad. If you’ve been on the web enough it’s very hard to go to a site and know before I go to know if it’s going to have ads that are relevant and that aren’t annoying me.
“We have encountered many ways that people try to circumvent us. Spiegel did that for a while, and it kind of backfired. There’s the technical way you can try to circumvent ad-blockers – the thing is, we’re open-source, we have people to workaround the workarounds.”
Update: TheMediaBriefing has been informed that there have been 350 million downloads of the software, rather than active users, the number of which is between 55 and 60 million. Williams explains the discrepancy:
“A particular user could have downloaded ABP then on a single computer, but then discarded the computer two years later. Then he gets two more devices, downloads ABP on both, then discards them two years later … etc.”
Ultimately, AdBlock’s stated goal – to return power to its users in the face of an increasingly interruptive internet – has picked up over 350 million adherents, in addition to those who use other ad blocking software. The question for publishers is whether they can work out a way to serve ads to their audiences that give both advertisers and their audiences what they want. Otherwise, the number of people choosing to bypass them completely is only going to grow.