Adblocking: 5 Stages of Grief & What’s Next

Alex Dixie in Advertising

in Advertising

Not another article on adblocking I hear you say. Surely everything that can be said on the topic, has been said? In some ways, I would agree. However, go to any adtech event and there will always be a session on the topic. Speak to people in the industry and ask about key concerns; adblocking is always at or near the top. Clearly it is therefore an issue which is still front of mind for many advertisers.

ADTEKR itself has published a number of articles on the topic. So why another article? To take the conversation back to the start and consider some fundamental principles. To look at solutions and success rates. To consider where the industry goes next.

Back to the start

Let’s firstly step back and consider the oft-asked (but fundamental question), why do people block ads? If you talk to consumers it is primarily due to (i) annoyance and (ii) irrelevance. Simply put, intrusive ads annoy consumers. Instead of being ancillary to the content being consumed, they interrupt the experience. And interruption is not good for any part of the advertising chain – if a consumer wishes to engage with a piece of content, their positivity will be directed towards that content. If an ad interrupts, even the best creative and most effectively targeted ad, it immediately and unavoidably becomes a target for negativity from the consumer.

On a mobile device, it is even worse. Everyone has experienced the full page ads which pop up with difficult to locate close buttons. It is estimated that 60% of all clicks on mobile advertising are due to “fat thumbs” – undesired clicks which only result in frustration for the consumer and an immediate hammering of the “back” button to return to the previous app/page. Yes the app publisher benefits from being able to charge for a click but no other value is realised. The advertiser has paid for a click which has no benefit, with the consumer often exiting before any advertising content has actually loaded. The consumer is frustrated and irritated; not just at the advertiser but at the app publisher also for loading the app with intrusive ads. Overall, the net effect is firmly negative.

The reaction from the industry to adblocking as an issue is uncannily similar to the 5 stages of grief.

Stage 1: Denial

When the spectre of adblocking first loomed over the industry, the first reaction was denial. “This isn’t a mainstream issue” people said. And the approach generally taken was that of the ostrich – ignore it and it will go away.

Stage 2: Anger

As the problem grew, the messaging developed into “woe is me, adblockers are evil, this shouldn’t be allowed”. Combative stances were developed; “block the adblockers” was shouted from the rooftops. The issue continued to grow, however, and increasingly adoption moved into the mainstream segment of the public.

Stage 3: Bargaining

When anger failed to make the problem disappear, we moved to bargaining. Publisher messaging changed from “you cannot access our site with an adblocker installed” to “here’s why advertising is important; we promise a better experience if you let us show ads”. And some traction was gained. The conversation changed and consumer education started to make people understand that advertising was not per se bad. Yes there are some bad actors which tarnish the industry as a whole but generally brands and publishers understand that bad advertising is not good business.

But despite this, adoption rates for adblockers continued to grow.

Stage 4: Depression

Where much of the industry currently sits. The reason that people still want to continue these conversations is mostly due to a solution failing to become immediately apparent. No magic pill has been developed to make the problem go away and the industry is unsure where to turn next. People complain about the problem but provide no meaningful solutions.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Some parts of the industry are already at this stage and got here more quickly than others. As some remain languishing in depression, others have moved to accept that adblocking is an issue which the industry must accept is not going to disappear overnight. It requires acknowledgement of the issue and the underlying causes of dissatisfaction from consumers. And it requires an industry-wide solution – adblocking is an all or nothing approach.  If a user is already feeling negative towards advertising and sees another intrusive ad which tips them over the edge, they may well then install an adblocker. This results in all advertising for that user then being blocked; generally users do not configure the adblocker at a granular level to prevent advertising from a specific advertiser.

Some have embraced the adblocking challenge and see it as an opportunity to reform an industry which has somewhat lost its way – ploughing into targeting technology at the expense of user experience and creative. As poor campaigns and poor creative continues to struggle, there is a definite competitive advantage for those who can build campaigns which are successful and embraced by consumers.

Finally, a cohesive solution?

Speaking to key figures in the industry, they believe the solution is two-pronged: firstly the education of consumers and secondly improving advertising itself.

Consumers need to understand the value exchange involved with ad-funded content. Content cannot be provided entirely for free – either the web has to change as we know it and everything becomes on a paid-for model, or there has to be an acceptance that, with certain parameters, advertising is necessary. When provided with this messaging, recent IAB research shows that a large percentage of adblocking consumers are willing to consider deactivating adblockers once they understand this issue.

One interesting development is the fact that adblocking is now becoming a much more mainstream topic. Two years ago when adblocking started becoming an issue it was still seen as a niche concern – there are certain types of users who will block ads, but no one else will; no need to worry more generally. However, as the adoption rate has increased, you are now seeing weekly articles on mainstream news sites, such as BBC News, talking about the challenge of adblocking and the impact it’s having on the advertising industry as a whole.  And I believe that as consumers read more about adblocking, the conversation with the industry becomes easier.

Some publishers will continue to adopt the approach of blocking the ad-blocker, and, with the right messaging, it can work.  For example, as previously reported on ADTEKR, City AM launched a trial earlier this year where they detected and blocked adblockers.  The results? 21% of the users who accessed the site with an active adblocker switched it off with no discernable difference in the website’s exit rate. Importantly, the messaging presented was not simply “sorry this is our content you can’t access it”, instead it was education-focussed –displaying a meaningful information notice which allowed people to understand why it is that actually ad-blocking is not necessarily a fair approach to consuming content.  Users with the adblocker installed are exactly the type of user that publishers need to talk to about why advertising on content is needed.

When is an ad “acceptable”?

One approach adopted by many adblockers was that of whitelisting or “pay to display”, whereby advertisers can pay adblockers to allow their ads to still be seen. Is it right to adopt this type of approach where the only criteria for ads to be allowed through the barriers is the financial clout of the advertiser? Is this truly respecting the choice of the consumer? The answer must surely be a resounding no.

However, this does not mean that all companies creating adblockers should be completely ignored and vilified. They are clearly reacting to an established consumer sentiment; if there was no desire on the part of consumers to block adverts, the install numbers for adblockers would be insignificant. Eeyo, creators of Adblock Plus, earlier this year held a round table debate with key industry leaders with the aim of agreeing the definition of an “acceptable ad”. Although some may question whether the adblockers themselves are the correct people to be leading these initiatives, the ultimate goal and intent must be applauded.

The industry is also trying to address these concerns with the creation of initiatives such as the IAB’s “LEAN” (Lightweight, Encrypted, Ad-choice supported, Non-invasive) advertising scheme. However, success will be difficult to achieve in isolation; buy-in will also be needed from the adblockers themselves. I can very easily envisage a solution whereby adblockers agree to permit ads which meet the LEAN principles whilst continuing to block other, more intrusive advertising.

Old habits, old issues; new habits, better advertising

Many of the issues currently being faced by the industry can be blamed on old habits still being ingrained into the minds of marketers. As the advertising stack took off and as targeted advertising exponentially grew it was very easy to ignore the consumer experience, ignore the creative that’s being produced and fall into simply treating enhanced targeting as an excuse to reduce focus on the creative.

Recently there has certainly been a realisation that this model does not work. Targeting and creative cannot be successful in isolation. Yes, best practice is to ensure that you have an effective audience segmentation targeting solution but the best campaigns (and those valued by consumers) make use of effective creative and use technologies such as frequency capping and negative retargeting to ensure that the message stays fresh and is only delivered to those who may be interested in a manner in which they may be interested.

This not only results generally in a better campaign, but it also acts to counteract some of the annoyances for consumers; defusing the issues causing users to turn to adblocking.  The onus remains on advertisers and the industry more generally to work together to make online advertising more engaging, increasingly seamless and less of an interruption which becomes a negative impact to the content they want to consume. Adopting initiatives such as “acceptable ads” and LEAN will certainly help, provided these are combined with an effective consumer education campaign. Advertising needs to move to being user-centric, designed to provide an effective message to a user with minimal intrusion. Consumers can love advertising – 135 million views for the now classic “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” advert is a great example of just how powerful a campaign can be when it positively resonates with an audience.

Adblocking will not be solved overnight. However, the majority of the industry is now approaching the issue in the right way. And change will come. Over the next 12 months, we will see a cohesive approach developed by industry bodies such as the IAB. Adblocking is here to stay in one form or another, the challenge for the industry is to prevent it growing further and to start to re-educate consumers on why advertising is vital to the web as we know it.

Adblocking: 5 Stages of Grief & What’s Next was last modified: June 3rd, 2016 by Alex Dixie