What’s going on?
Viewability is the zeitgeist inside the industry, outside it’s all about Ad-blocking. On desktop there’s very little friction to installing an Adblocker. On mobile there is still friction to root or sideload, but with iOS9 adding new blocking support mobile will grow massively.
Google still make it hard to do with Chrome on android, but with Firefox it’s as easy as on the desktop.
Even my mum asked the other day “there’s too many ads on Facebook how do i use this blocker i heard about on the radio” – for her it wasn’t a discussion about data, or intrusiveness – just the shear frequency getting in the way of her Facebook fix. The radio show in question wasn’t some niche podcast, but BBC’s Radio ’s flagship news show (4m).
Users are annoyed by the high frequency, interruption getting to the content, and talk of their ‘data’ being hoovered up corrupting their web time against them. Their browser is after all technically called a User-agent, it’s their agent online, requesting content from the Publisher on their behalf and showing them the returned content on-screen.
“Basically anything that might affect me viewing the site or will play a sound that I don’t want to hear – like a ‘highly engaging’ Ad that covers the whole screen – it’s like the loud guy at the bar, he thinks he’s the coolest guy in the world and everyone wants to be his friend, really he’s just an obnoxious drunk.”
Generally users don’t mind visible, hate in intrusive and abhor invasive.
There’s a view amongst those over 30 that as you can skip a tv or radio Ad with a PVR or podcast, then online Ad blocking is morally the same. Those under 30 have a view that everything on the net should be free.
There are lively debates going on that are worth reading, and I’ve tried to answer each in the FAQ below.
What kind of Ads?
I’m not talking just bad creative, bad contextuality, or even bad puns – but ones that users feel break to undeclared social contract between the publisher and themselves.
Full page interstitials are often cited as “crossing the line”.
Platforms sold to Advertisers as “High impact” formats, and you see why they’d buy them as they look good and promise high engagement with a user. The dirty secret with these formats is that they often count clicking the close button as ‘engagement’. I once spoke to someone who made these, they said they ran a click-heat map for a campaign and all the ‘clicks’ counting click through engagement were around the close button. They never ran a heatmap again…
In-banner video or Flash Ads that aren’t muted, it’s like going to someone’s myspace page with auto playing music. Super intrusive examples
Sheer weight of browser requests. Ghostery, ABP, uBlock all lay bare all how display ads work, calling so many demand sources, each dropping cookies for user data, header bidding will only exacerbate this. There may only be 3 slots on a page, but over 20 ad requests would be made.
When the value of the space to show an Ad is too low, ironically when there is not enough data to know anything about the user, or it is a non brand-safe site like a torrent or illegal streaming, then you get these really low rent Ads. Not many people want to meet busty russian chicks in their area.
At least punch the monkey was fun….
Is there a legal limit on bad Ads?
Publishers are allowed to show as many Ads as they like. Of course there are region specific laws around advertising content like firearms or alcohol, to children, and miss advertising products
There’s a legal frequency cap for Ads shown on Television –around 8-12mins per hour, but this does not apply online.
How big a problem is it?
Picking up speed across the board, in some demographics like male-gamers, it’s already over 50%. All the big media sources are picking it up, even the NYTimes.
Options for Publishers?
1. Go to war – defeat the Adblocker and show Ads anyway (SourcePoint, PageFair). Use code like FuckAdBlock. You’re entering an arms race with a large and enthusiastic open source community, along with ignoring the user’s explicit instruction to not show an Ad.
2. Content Blocking – stop access to the content unless the user deactivates or whitelists them (Hulu & 4oD)
3.Build a paywall – A full paywall limits your pool to those with disposable income, and then it’s a zero sum game, there’s only so many subscriptions a person is willing to have. Micro-payments still have too much friction and don’t work. A part paywall can seem attractive, but the irony is that those will to ay are often the ones that Advertisers pay most to reach, and therefore can disproportionately cannibalize your remaining ad revenue.
4. The “Jimmy Wales” – detect the Adblocker and ask users to whitelist your site. (3-5% people will)
5. Ride out the storm – only work with non-invasive Ad demand partner. Strip out all the invasive units. Engage & educate your users on your revenue model, data you collect and the Ads you’ll allow. Do more transparent native. Get enough scale to enough dance with the devil and get on a Adblockers default whitelist.
There’s no silver bullet but data disclosure and higher Ad quality more strategically used are a start.
In the long run, there could be a hidden benefit to blocking ads for advertisers and publishers: Ad blockers could end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses. If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive, and are far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail.
Won’t people just end up paying for what they like?
This is a very rich western world view, and talked about by those who have disposable income.Even for them it’s a zero sum game, people will have so many subscriptions. If you’re a knowledge publisher then spreading & discussing ideas is key, and in a world where 50% of humanity live on less than $2 a day you’re shutting out a lot. In china where Ads are even more prevalent Adblockers have negligible penetration.
In the same way Browsers eventually stopped pop-ups and popunders, they will eventually bake in blocking of full-page interstitials and invasive ad formats. Chrome pausing Flash ads on 1st sept is the first step.
Imagine “Interstitial blocked” or “Annoying Ad unit banished to hell…”
There are interesting services like Adieu.io built on appnexus, this lets users essentially buy the Ad space on sites themselves, with the publisher earning revenue in their standard method. It works out to $10 eCPM which is a bit cheeky for the mass market, but interesting nevertheless.
Won’t the big guys just solve it?
Google and Facebook obviously have too much at stake to let this continue right? Yes they are both heavily reliant on Ad revenue, but both are pressing mobile as their future, which is harder to block ads in-app and so kicks the can down the road. There’s no leadership from either, and the IAB has put out very weak language on the matter, discussing the in-fighting between mobile operators and publishers rather than the consumers who are actually doing the blocking.
Over time the implied contract between publishers and users will find a natural balance. In the same way that Crackle, Hulu & YouTube exist in a world with Netflix, Now tv & Amazon Video, Advertising will still exist and subsidise the content, but users will want a less intrusive experience in return.
The mix of ad supported to subscription paywalls will grow, but only in demos with enough disposable income, the irony is that as these demos are the most valuable for Advertisers to reach, the overall revenue from the remaining Ad space will drop.
What am I doing about it?
I believe online Advertising serves a valid purpose, but without doubt bad players shoehorning invasive ads in users faces, and tracking their every action has crossed the line. I will never work with or create companies that do this. There is right way, but it requires integrity and a will to create something of lasting value.