Ad Blocking Revisited

A while back I discussed the potential outcome of ad blocking (removing or covering all display advertising on a page) on this industry. Most of the responses I received were from angry Internet zealots. They told me the Internet was born free and should stay that way.

Though I can empathize with the quest to destroy more intrusive online advertising, I also realize this mission stands to eliminate less-intrusive advertising as well. Those ads keep publishers in business, allowing them to provide content without subscription fees. Content is free to consumers when advertising pays for that content. Content can either be “born free” with some form of advertising or have no advertising but require fees from users.

At the time, I was disappointed more agencies, advertisers, and publishers didn’t weigh in on the topic. The reality is ad blocking is proliferating. If we marketers don’t address ad blocking’s outcome on the way we do business, it could damage the effectiveness of all our efforts.

The situation is the same today. So why revisit the topic?


Mozilla’s Firefox easily enables its users to block all a Web page’s display advertising by installing an extension for the browser. This open source browser has seen phenomenal adoption over the course of just a few months. At press time, the latest penetration figure was 7 percent, or 22 million downloads. It’s surpassed Netscape. (Microsoft’s Internet Explorer still has roughly 84 percent market penetration.)

There’s an enormous amount of buzz propelling Firefox, and the number of users will likely grow dramatically in the next few months. Firefox’s ad-blocking extension has had over 92,000 downloads.

This may seem daunting. Yet we can take steps to adapt to this changing environment:

  • Evolve ad models. Before ad-blocker demand reaches a tipping point, publishers should test more user-controlled publishing models. In other words, give users the choice to view content with ads for free or without ads for a fee. (Salon uses this model.)

  • Subsidize browsing. Perhaps publishers could pay for the consumer’s Internet access. In exchange, the browser would be a controlled environment in which ads couldn’t be blocked.
  • Integrate ads with content. The idea of building special sections with advertiser-influenced content has been around for years and is effective. The user sees value in the information, and the advertiser gets the message across in a more credible manner than typical advertising. The longer-term issue is that publishers must limit how often they integrate ads with content to preserve their journalistic integrity. If a site crosses that fine line, it stands to lose its audience.
  • Narrowcast. Make all online advertising more relevant. If we could really find a way to let the consumer define preferences and interests, we could deliver advertising to those consumers who are most receptive.
  • Develop more innovative ad formats. Recently, United Virtualities released Shoshmosis, a product that incorporates expandable functionality, video, and the ability for users to click certain products in the video to purchase. This is the first widely available format with this functionality. If we can continue to make advertising interesting and innovative, we stand to keep people engaged. Engage users, and they’re less likely to block your message.

I spoke with a couple of industry friends about this; James Hering of TM Interactive and Young Bean-Song of The Atlas Institute. Both are less concerned about these types of technologies than I. They feel the marketplace will evolve as necessary. They point out when IE 6.0 came out, there was a great deal of concern about allowing users to eliminate cookies from their Internet browsing experience. As it turns out, it never became a real problem.

Will ad blocking be that real problem? I’d really like to hear from advertisers, agencies, and publishers about their ad-blocking concerns and what actions they’re taking to continue to engage the online audience. This is something we must consider and discuss as we work toward online advertising’s next evolution. What do you think?

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