While ad blocking is really nothing new, Apple’s decision to allow it as part of the company’s recent iOS9 release has brought the issue front and center, sending the digital advertising industry into a frenzy of epic proportions. While publishers, advertisers and networks knew it was coming, it still seemed to catch them off guard — with no clear solution at the ready and billions of dollars at stake. The good news is that a dialogue has begun. While most experts can argue both sides of the issue, it’s becoming clear that change is needed if publishers are to survive. Advertising as we know it must become more engaging and value added to avoid being blocked.  

Mediaspectrum’s team recently participated in the International News Media Association (INMA) European News Media Congress in Budapest where ad blocking was one of the hottest topics discussed. A key takeaway was the need for media companies to embrace this issue as a way of influencing positive change by depending less on display ads and more on great content. Ad blocking isn’t likely to go away, but opportunities exist to manage its impact with industry standards that benefit us all.  

Ad Blocking Basics

According to INMA statistics, 200 million people globally are blocking ads today, with a 94% growth year-over-year. What’s more, ad blocking technology is no longer being used only by the young (51% male and 31% of female users ages 18-29 use ad blockers). Adults over the age of 60 (25% male and 15% female) are also blocking ads.  

While there are many reasons why people use ad blockers, it really all boils down to wanting a better user experience. While many media industry professionals would never dream of using ad blockers, most can understand their attraction. Spend a few minutes trying to navigate some websites on your smartphone and you will experience it first-hand. Ads that having nothing to do with what you’re looking for pop up with seemingly no way to close them – as the “x” box becomes more elusive by the day. Then there’s the video that starts playing out of nowhere. It happens, and it’s not fun, but it’s important to remember that not all ads are created equally.  

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

While all things may be fair in love and war, that’s not the case in today’s digital advertising arena. Because most ad blocking apps offer an “all-or-nothing” solution, good ads are being blocked right along with the ones that are causing all the trouble.  

This makes for an ugly situation as many advertisers are focused on delivering quality content and limiting the number of ads they serve on any one platform. Native advertising, while largely misunderstood by users, is also something that many advertisers are turning to as they seek to add value and capture the attention of readers.  

Some publishers are turning to options like Apple News or Facebook Instant Articles for their advertising, but those too are not without controversy. The point is that there’s no one one-size-fits-all solution, and with no set rules that’s likely to remain true.   

Is There a Fix for Ad Blocking?

We certainly hope so. In the long run, a better user experience is good for everyone. The question is how are we going to get there?

Caspar Van Rijn, director of digital strategy at Mediahuis, agrees that native is one way to go.  He’s of the opinion that if advertising is of high quality and non-intrusive, people will stop using ad blockers. INMA presenter, Walter Verschelden, co-founder and publisher of Belgium’s Newsmonkey, believes that a whole new advertising model is in order and that today’s focus on display ads is not sustainable. He’s also a big proponent of educating consumers. “They don’t know they want native advertising, so we have to approach them correctly and show them the pros of such actions.”  

He may be onto something as investing in more native advertising is one solution that’s being considered by many. Google seems to think it’s time for the industry to agree on advertising standards. Still others believe that a quality-over-quantity approach is the way to go.  

Even ad blocking companies are weighing in by suggesting that publishers join forces with them to create a compromise. In a recent Computer World UK article, Adblock Plus lead investor Tim Schumacher said, “We are the only ad blocker which tries to force compromise between users, publishers and advertisers. It’s not perfect but we are trying. It seems odd that people are trying to fight the one ad blocker that, among over 100, is trying to build the middle ground,” Of course, that would put all decision-making power in the hands of the ad blockers.  

While there’s no clear solution, just yet, we’re hopeful that this dialogue will result in one soon.  As Von Rijn said at the conclusion of his presentation, “Ad blockers are here to stay, and we have to make advertising a whole lot better.”  We agree and believe that improving the user experience to a point where ad blockers are no longer needed should be the ultimate goal.

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