Ad blockers: comparing how publishers and users react to them

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Digital advertising is experiencing a major existential crisis lately with the challenge of ad blocking becoming popular among an increasing number of users who seek for a better online experience.

The case of ad blocking is not new, but it noted a significant growth during the past years and according to a report from Adobe and Pagefair, it grew about 41% from 2014 to 2015.

There are more than 198 million active ad block users globally and this costed publishers $22 billion during 2015.

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Users blame the growth of annoying ad formats for their need to use adblocking. 

This in turn creates the need for publishers to re-invent their strategy to respond to the rise of ad blockers, in a way that benefits both their advertising budgets, but also the user experience.

Why users turn to ad blocking

User experience matters to everyone browsing sites daily and the increase of intrusive and annoying advertising led many users to ad blockers, in order to enjoy a smoother reading experience on the web.

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Image by Tune 

Although not every site displays disruptive and irrelevant advertising, previous bad experiences are making users install ad blockers, also affecting the ads that could be more interesting, or relevant to them.

Once a user gets (really) annoyed by an intrusive advertising (and there are many such cases), any solution that could block such an experience in the future is more than welcome.

There are many reasons that make users install an ad blocker, but the main ones are:

  • Annoying ads
  • Increasing  number of ads
  • Slow site performance
  • Irrelevant ads

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Image by Teads

According to a report by Teads, annoying and intrusive ads are the main motivator that makes people install an ad blocker and what’s even more interesting is the fact that many users may not even visit a site again if they are asked to disable an ad blocker.

Many sites decided to use technology to detect the readers that browse their site with an activated ad blocker (see more below), preventing them from reading the content (without seeing the displayed ads), and this wasn’t received very well by the users, who decided to express their frustration on Twitter.

Users tweet about ad blocking

It seems that the users’ point of view is quite clear, as the majority of them are asking for an improved browsing experience with fewer ads, especially those ads which disrupt their reading habits.

What’s more, there is also a rising concern about privacy, data consumption and site performance and all these cannot be disregarded by publishers.

As the creation of content is all about the user, there is a challenge that needs to be handled in a way that keeps both sides happy, if possible.

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Twitter poll conducted by Smashing Magazine

How publishers react to ad blockers

Up to now, publishers are experimenting with several different approaches on how to reduce the use of ad blocking and as you can see from the examples below, some approaches are more aggressive than others.

NY Times

The New York Times joined recently the publishers that ask from users to disable their ad blockers in order to access the site, starting with an experimentation of it at a small sample of the users.

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As it mentioned in a pop-up message,  “the best things in life aren’t free” and that’s why it’s providing two options to the ad blocker users: either to subscribe, or to whitelist the site, in order to access ads again.

Wired

Wired also blocked its content from ad blocker users, asking them to whitelist the site, or pay $1 per week to enjoy the content, as they rely on ads, mentioning that they “help us keep the lights on”.

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Washington Post

Washington post blocked adblock users its content earlier than others, which led to an extensive online discussion on whether this was a good idea, as many users preferred to turn to other sites, instead of disabling their ad blocker.

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Forbes

Forbes is also experimenting with asking visitors to disable their ad blockers and according to their data, 42% of the users actually disabled the plug in, in order to keep reading the site’s content.

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Smashing Magazine

Smashing Magazine decided to embrace the changing nature of advertising and users’ frustration over excessive promotion and that’s why it only placed a friendly banner, encouraging users to support the site through their books and their conferences.

As they mentioned, they still need to cover their lost advertising revenue, but in their own words, “we firmly stand behind our decision to keep the content of the site accessible no matter what happens. Fullstop. 

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Guardian

Guardian is currently adopting a softer approach to ad blocking by only placing a footer encouraging ad blocker users to become Guardian Supporters, in order to maintain the independence of the company.

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However, the site seems to be ready to consider more aggressive approaches, in an attempt to gain back the lost advertising income and the problems they are facing with the increase of the ad-free user experience.

Opera integrates an ad blocker

Opera has announced the integration of ad blocking technology to its latest developer version and it is the first PC browser to do so.

According to Opera’s blog post, the in-built ad blocking will speed up a page’s load time up to 90%, while it will also offer a browsing experience that will be 40% faster than this one offered with the activation of a third-party ad blocker.

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This decision is crucial for the battle’s future between users and publishers and whether ad blocking is killing the web as we know it, since it reminds us that user experience is still the primary focus and although Opera is not the first browser users pick, it seems like a business decision that could increase its popularity.

According to Krystian Kolondra, SVP of Engineering and Head of Opera for computers,

Advertising fuels the internet, allowing for many services to be free for users. But, as our new research shows, most webpages today are significantly slowed down by bloated ads and heavy tracking. We don’t accept it – we want the web to be a better place for us all, as users.

Are users willing to disable ad blockers?

The psychology of the user is complicated and people seem to be divided whether they prefer to disable their ad blocker to browse their favourite sites again, or find an alternative source for their information.

Some users prefer to complain on the internet about the sites’ aggressive strategy towards ad blocking, while others are willing to disable their ad blockers, provided that they’re asked about it in a convincing way.

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According to the research by Teads, users wouldn’t install an ad blocker if they were able to skip an ad, close it later on, or turn off its sound, while they also care about its relevance to their interests.

It’s not that users suddenly lost their interest in advertising, but as they get more demanding, exploring more options to consume content, they are expecting from publishers to get more creative and find a balance between user experience and profit.

It’s all about maintaining engagement, without being annoyingly intrusive.

Is the “DEAL” approach the solution?

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is suggesting an approach that publishers could adopt in order to reduce the effects of ad blocking, naming it the “DEAL” approach and it’s divided in four main steps:

Detect the ad blocking

Explain to the readers the importance to maintain advertising

Ask them to disable ad blocker (or suggest ways to keep displaying ads)

Lift the restrictions

This is broadly the approach that the big publishers we mentioned above start applying and it might indeed lead to their desired results, although it’s still important to study the users’ behaviour, in order to ensure that it won’t have the contrary results.

For example, how do you ask them do disable their ad blocker? Do you prefer an aggressive approach, or are you focusing more into educating them about the importance of online advertising to keep the content going?

What’s the future of this battle?

We are not expecting this battle to end anytime soon, as both sides are not willing to surrender yet.

However, as long as users remain the main focus, they will demand to be heard, along with their changing needs and habits.

Thus, ad blocking might take online publishing to a new direction, after evaluating what went wrong in advertising and alienated readers from it in such a decisive way.

It might be time to examine new forms of advertising, in the most creative and appealing way for the user.

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