Another Hurdle: Ad-Blocking Software

As sites struggle to accelerate along the path to profitability, we are seeing bigger and more intrusive ad units. A year and a half ago, many publishers were afraid to push the boundaries of online advertising, preferring instead to stick with standard banner advertising. Now, the industry is pushing more and more for an “interruption” model of advertising, similar to what we see on TV and radio.

Ads Get More Intrusive

The evidence is everywhere: increased site support of pop-up interstitials and SUPERSTITIALs; rapid acceptance of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s new (and much bigger) ad units; and the increasing popularity of “out of banner” ads, including various DHTML executions and units like those supported by eyeblaster. Even the venerable expanding banner ad is moving from a click-initiated expansion to one that’s initiated by a mere mouseover.

It seems logical — if people are no longer responding to banners, perhaps because they’ve been able to tune them out, then let’s throw up something that they can’t ignore so easily. But if users can’t ignore the ads, will they be annoyed by them instead?

People Get Turned Off

People don’t like most advertising. Given the option, most folks skip or ignore ads somehow. TV commercial breaks mean it’s time to check what’s on the other channels, grab a snack, or head to the bathroom. Or maybe you can “zap” the ads if you’re a “time shifter.” Radio ads typically mean it’s time to switch stations. And many Web-ad formats simply get ignored.

VCRs had the potential to become TV ad-killing machines. If a viewer could watch something and play it back later, what’s to stop him from fast-forwarding through the ads? Nothing, except that it’s too much of a pain to fumble with programming a VCR to record your show and get the tape queued up. And now the personal video recorder (PVR) is positioned as another potential TV spot-killing beast. As I’ve mentioned here before, almost 90 percent of TiVo users fast-forward through the ads.

I’ll say it again: People don’t like advertising.

So along came online ad blockers. The software has been around in various forms for a couple of years now, but it never really caught on. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t work all that well or it’s difficult to use, or maybe it’s simply because current Web-ad models are easy to manually tune out without installing specific software for this purpose. Whatever the reason, the user base of ad-blocking software is relatively small right now.

But perhaps its time has come. If people don’t like advertising, and the industry pushes toward a more intrusive model, the popularity of online ad blockers could explode.

It’s an Advertising Virus

Ad blockers turn advertising into a computer virus. Those of us who make our living from advertising will do what we can to beat the ad blockers. We’ll figure out how they work and then find a way to get past them and deliver ads to users. And that will work for only as long as it takes the software companies to create a “patch” that screens out our latest attack.

Does this sound familiar? Absolutely. It’s the model that antivirus applications work on, regularly downloading new virus definitions so that the software is constantly up-to-date.

Think this sounds crazy? It’s already happening. Check out what I pulled directly from the home page of a site selling ad-blocking software:

    Are you tired of waiting for obnoxious banner ads, chain-site advertisements, and other unnecessary fluff to download? Are you tired of looking at all that crap? Well, now you can get rid of it!

    [Our ad blocker] is customizable shareware software that replaces those unsightly advertisements with a clean, crisp, transparent image.

    Download yours today!

    Don’t forget to download the latest Ad Definitions
    Updated December 14, 2000.

With fewer than 10 million users of this kind of software, there’s no need to panic yet. But the user base is growing. And the software companies are aggressively marketing their packages, including some scary bundling deals with PC and modem manufacturers.

So we are presented with a significant challenge: Find an online advertising model that is simultaneously effective and entertaining or valuable enough that users won’t want to block it.

I’m up for it. Who’s with me?

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