Thanks, but No Thanks. Ad-Blockers Gonna Stay?

|January 13, 2016 0
Image courtesy of artur84 at freedigitalphotos
Ads have never been friend-zoned to this degree. Is this a time to introspect or a cue to find new ways of accosting, engaging and befriending viewers whizzing away in digital streets? Buckle up. We are going deep, really deep.

Pratima H

INDIA: “If some girls walk into a café for half an hour and the menu serves only two types of beverages, how many cups will the owner’s cash register ring?”

Mr. Raison-Detre turned away from the whiteboard and looked askance at his posse of pupils. Some had spiked hair, some had neon-yellow highlights, and some were well, eerily and fashionably bald. But he had great trust and hope in what lay inside these well-coiffed craniums. He had always found prolific outcomes once the sparks inside these amazing brains were well-ignited.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Today, the outcome appeared extra elusive. Clippety-Clock, the bantling with always the first hand to show up otherwise, was yawning in full glory. Hopscotch, the urchin who always changed his first answer after a debate, had been stone-faced since the beginning of the class. Eenie-weenie, often the last but surest one to venture a guess, had chewed three-fourths of his pencil, but with boredom instead of interest.

Mr. Detre finally threw his hands in exasperation and asked Majime, who in turn, tossed back a weary look and a tired answer. “It doesn’t matter how many waiters or beverages are in question, the number of cups consumed will be in an exponential graph and directly proportional to the number of girls and their chatter-topics.”

Silence and blank faces engulfed the class with more ferocity.
Taking a sharp hint well in his stride, Mr. Detre wiped the board and drew another problem.

“This, my friends, is another café. A free-coffee café where our first player ‘A’ walks in, expecting some respite from the grind all around. He has barely taken a seat with a free cappuccino when another fellow B ensconces himself with a hot Latte and a book. Thankfully, ‘B’ has a strange placard pinned on his tie which says ‘DnD’. ‘A’ and ‘B’ continue sitting in a comfortable silence enjoying the beans, view, the solitude and the mellifluent silence. A few minutes later though, their lovely reverie is broken rather rudely by a guy ‘C’ who doesn’t bother asking politely before he usurps a seat right across A’s couch. As ‘C’ spins on his bar stool, and adjusts the strings of his guitar, ‘A’ mutters a not-so-hushed ‘How Intrusive’. B looks up but continues to devour his book indifferently. Even before ‘A’ can find words to communicate his ire, ‘C’ utters: “I am the one who pays for this free café. I like people to be comfortable, sit around and listen to my own renditions once in a while. I hope you like my first song.”

And he starts rolling: “Smelly Cat. Smelly Cat…..”

The cat was definitely out of the bag, as now everyone in the class was looking up, eyes and ears afire, and the sound of many wheels turning was clearly audible to a happy Mr. Detre.

“So folks, what scenarios can play out and what probabilities and permutations can follow now?”

Hands shot up like a merry explosion of fireworks.

Mr. Detre smiled and started with Clippety-Clock.

‘A’ has every right to ignore ‘C’ and ask him to leave

Really?

When a prospect/viewer/reader/audience/TG snubs an advertisement that’s, of course, the sentiment spinning furiously inside. Turning down volume, getting up to get another beer from the refrigerator, tuning off mentally, even listening to one’s spouse’s rant have been the measures employed so far whenever the urge to ‘skip an ad’ had bellowed.

Digital sweeps in and this ‘skip’ button appears in less subtle ways to the happiness of millions of viewers surprised and elated alike, at the possibility of escaping the ad-ritual in the bigger ceremony of watching an episode or a video or reading an article, an essay, enjoying a cooking lesson, a song, or a social-network skirmish. And that cat-video.

But these powerful buttons have evolved into more powerful knobs shouting a completely unambiguous Do-Not-Disturb-Me/Stalk-Me-EVER sign with the advent of Ad-Blockers.

Yes, Ad-Blockers. The world could not get more Oxymoronish right, but weirder things have happened thanks to technology.

Ad blocking grew by 41 pc globally, Ad blocking estimated to cost publishers nearly $22 bn through 2015Image courtesy of smarnad at freedigitalphotos

Ad blocking grew by 41 pc globally, Ad blocking estimated to cost publishers nearly $22 bn through 2015

With ad-blocking software, it was now possible to not only ignore but block an advertiser’s enthusiasm to sing paeans about anything s/he was hawking with a definite force. Install the software and you can rest easy (hmm, how much of that happens will pop up soon but we will digress later) and read that thing you want to read, or watch that thing you want to watch without any unsolicited banners, sudden pop-ups, or Constipation-cure-display ads-in-a-news-item-about-helicopters.

In three simple and unbelievable words – ‘A’ is free.

Ad blockers, apparently, give more than freedom to users. With no ads hogging scarce bandwidths, now speed, connectivity and upload times improve (or at least appear to) dramatically. The mobile eco system has been embracing this concept with lots of guts and gusto and when even someone like Apple opens the door to this concept in the latest iOS version, not much remains to be said about ad-blocking’s growing footprint.

The wave has been growing. If names like Apple have started encouraging developers for ad-blocking software in mobile devices, blocking apps are mushrooming too, while Browsers (UC, Mozilla Firefox etc) are picking a ground in this ad-block frenzy as well, with Telco operators (Digicel) close on the heels in support of blocking ads lest they harm a user’s data caps.

Marsha Grant, spokesperson for Eyeo Ad-Block Plus, paints the why and how of this new phenomenon like this.

“For one thing the ad industry is more aware of users who surf with enabled ad blockers. That’s why we’ve seen a rise in anti-ad blocker technology in the past year. Also mobile ad blocking was an important topic, especially since Apple allowed ad blocking technologies to work on its devices. All of these factors led to the ongoing ad blocking debate which is far from over.”

Everything said, done, blocked, not blocked, she maintains: “Every user can decide if or if not s/he wants to block ads.”

For browsers, the new wave means lot of new connotations.

Kenny Ye, MD, UCWeb India shares a perspective. “Browsers give users the choice of an unfettered mobile browsing experience by the addition of varied plugins. In the case of ad-blocking, like some other desktop and mobile browsers, ad-blocking comes in an opt-in plugin on UC Browser to protect users against unpleasant browsing experience that sometimes can even be harmful in the form of malicious or phishing ad placements. For us, we look at this purely from the perspective of user experience, and are not in a good position to comment on other ensuing debates around it.”

Hopscotch interrupts to ask here: Who is ‘B’ though?

Detre welcomes the question.

In August 2015 the PageFair-Adobe ‘State of Ad blocking’ report pointed at a 200 million number of people using adblocking. Dive deep and we see that Central European countries appear to have the highest rates of adblocking in the West. As to more demographic slicing, there is a certain proclivity toward millenials. For the desk-top vs. mobile chops, a very low level of mobile ad blocking is being observed in Page Fair’s data and while that is being augured to change; for the moment ad blocking stays a desktop phenomenon. A vast majority of users for Adblock Plus put it for their desktop computers as browser extension, and at the same time the mobile usage is on the rise. Geography wise most of Adblock Plus users are located in Europe (56 per cent), 22 per cent are from North America, 10 per cent from South America, and about 12 per cent from Asia, as Grant helps us peep in.

“We don’t track our users so we cannot tell you how old the average Adblock Plus user is, but all signs point to a highly educated, tech savvy and fairly young group.”

But the ‘Really?’ does not leave so easily. Can ‘C’ be actually asked not to play those songs?

After all, for any content medium; subscriptions, pay-walls, or other monetization models come way below the centuries-long and obvious method of an advertiser/sponsor footing the bill. If an advertiser is indirectly supporting the content you consume, has /she not got the right to say to you what s/he wants about a brand or a concept?

‘C’ is making it possible for people like ‘A’ to have a space and a cup for a full day, so asking for his ten minutes to hear a song isn’t like asking for a limb?

Ten minutes! Precisely. The very thing that Eenie Weenie picks up to argue when Mr. Detre pauses for a breath.

Shouldn’t ‘C’ make its songs better?

….and shorter and cooler so that no one is forced to hear them?

Why would anyone block an ad if it is not annoying, helps the viewer in some way (information, engagement or entertainment) and does not interfere/slow down/mix up badly with the coffee s/he is having?

But then that is not happening it seems and to make matters worse, some advertisers have been leveraging digital mediums for their possibilities of snooping on user data and privacy too. User experience with heavy-weight ads that take forever to load add to the mayhem.

It is not just the availability of technology but a larger threshold of disillusionment and rebellion on the side of users that has pushed them to block ads, as many rightly argue. Uberisation and sharing economy are pouring in a Déjà vu of sorts after the Napster episode taught the music industry the flip side of not-enough-freedom.

If 2015 was the year ad blocking came out of the closet, 2016 will be the year that ad blocking takes the world by storm: Marsha Grant Image courtesy of criminalatt at freedigitalphotos

Ads have increasingly stolen more and more of users’ data. Users are rebelling against this system: Ryan, PageFair

Picture this. IAB says that even if 34 per cent US folks are using ad-blockers, about 89 per cent do it for reasons attributable to user-experience. If only ads had been swift, neat, healthy, delicious to start with, there was no need to trash them in a blocking bin.

Dr Johnny Ryan, Head of Ecosystem, PageFair, an anti-adblock company brings a lot of candor and ruthless insight at this point. “We understand why some users block ads. Ads have become increasingly problematic. But publishers must be supported. We are working to enable publishers to show ads that respect consumers and support the publisher.”

When asked about the real triggers of adblocking growing so large, Ryan skips all the expected ‘Umm’ and Err’s and hammers at some nails impressively. “Publishers have permitted advertisers to target their audiences with ever more annoying advertising. Increasingly brash ads interrupt users’ experiences, slow their machines, and snoop on their data. On the consumers side, blocking these annoying ads has become very easy. With a few clicks you can install software on your browser that blocks ads. Users are voting with their browsers and saying ‘no’ to intrusive advertising.”

In an AdBlock research, search, text and conservative banner ads scored high with a disruption score of less than 5 per cent in a survey while the other more annoying ones got a 90 per cent score.

Advertising has ‘messed up’ unforgivingly in many ways after all. Even Scott Cunnigham from Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) had confessed in a post: “We have steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience…”

Ryan seconds that sharp statement. “If ads continue to obscure content, slow websites, pry into data and break the audience’s trust with publishers and editors, then a large technology platform company like Facebook or Apple will have the opportunity to step in and set the rules, just as happened to the music industry.”

He brings to the table two big problems as he sees it. First, the formats and level of creativity are poor. Second, ads have increasingly stolen more and more of users’ data.

“A system of constant surveillance drives online advertising. Users are rebelling against this system. “Adtech”, the industry of companies that make money by harvesting and reselling Internet users’ data, is due a major disruption as a result of adblocking.”

Search, text and conservative banner ads scored high with a disruption score of less than 5 pc in a survey Image courtesy of vectorolie at freedigitalphotos

Banner ads, animated banners, pop-ups and video ads got the absolute worst score more often than any format (a 90 pc disruption score) in a survey

Ask Grant and she lauds the new turns happening in the industry. “We are glad to see that the IAB has admitted that the ad industry has made severe mistakes. The user has to be regarded as the most important link in the advertising game and that’s why so many users install ad blockers. They are so annoyed by bad ads that the only alternative to enjoy surfing the web is with an ad blocker.”

‘B’ is better off?

If you have a clear, no-nonsense placard that helps you block the likes of ‘C’, the cafes would be a new and slightly unfamiliar place indeed.

But in a good way or a bad way? Majime challenges Mr. Deitre.

For one, you can escape all those unsolicited blinkers, screen-hijackers, pre-rolls, sudden pop-ups and what not.

But at the same time, one is tempted to chew the cud from the other side. Through long decades of being stonked with billboards, banners and jingles from the smarmy to the spiffy to the emetic variety, users should have been thick-skinned or ad-blind enough to not need any button to help them nix ads.

With his interesting, poignant vantage point of being on the other side of this paradigm, Ryan does not concur, first, he brings to notice that many video ads are still non-skippable. “Adblock users are angry about that. Second, with an adblocker activated an Internet user has a cleaner and faster experience. Even if one could ignore blinking ads, their presence on a site might cause a delay in the loading of a web page. And as people move to mobile as an important reading device, visually intrusive ads become particularly troublesome.”

For Grant too, the question of relevance seems redundant. “Ad blocking technology is highly relevant. It protects users from being infected by malware and allows them to enjoy their online experience without being annoyed by blinking banners or auto play video ads.”

Ryan weighs in many dimensions well and cautions that publishers have to act.  “Publishers and website owners are in the same situation now as the music industry was in the early 2000s. Users will continue to rebel, seeking better alternatives.”

This, in Ryan’s reckoning, is deeply worrying, because if publishers retreat into walled gardens like Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles, the large tech companies will become the gatekeepers of what once was free content, and this will end the open Web as we know it.”

Some Big Cheese names and publications have started exploring call-to-support banners when they detect a reader with ad-blocking software installed. This is a time after all when not just ad revenue channels but long-standing subscription models see dent from additional revenue options, in-app subscriptions etc.

What if there was another bloke ‘D’ on the table?

What about that, a curious Mr. Detre asked Eenie Weenie back when he popped this question.

Eeenie Weenie rambled but presented a new picture as he sketched a rough possibility in his head. “If ‘D’ had the same note placed as ‘B’ had but beneath the do-not-disturb doodle, he also pasted exceptions in fine-print for the songs that he wouldn’t mind listening?

“Hmm. You mean a white-list?” Mr. Detre absorbed this new track.

Native Advertising or white-listing have indeed come up as ways of circumventing or confronting the uneasiness that sets users into ad-blocking snits.

But Adblocking can defeat native ads, Ryan opines. “Links to sponsored posts on the frontpage of Buzzfeed, for example, are removed by adblockers. Paid content is often butchered by ad blocking. Services like Taboola and Outbrain are blocked fully.”

We are able to block native ads; we do not, however, block ads in apps, Grant chimes in.

If plug-ins that blocks online ads, start offering white lists of websites which are exclusively allowed to serve ads despite the presence of an ad-block, what are the latent ethical, commercial and economic angles here?

As to White-listing being a paradox in an ad-blocking world, she reasons this way. “It is a way of establishing better ads within a sustainable ecosystem of the internet. Our users know that ads support their favorite sites, that’s why a vast majority of our users allow Acceptable Ads to be shown in their browsers.

For the German start-up Eyeo (with a strong play in the ad-blocking space with Ad Block Plus and which highlighted 2015 with a court victory in Germany against some publishers), Grant asserts that they will always keep on working towards the main objective: making the Internet a better place.

“This means that better, contextual advertising can live in harmony with complete user control. We also just improved our Acceptable Ads criteria in anticipation of handing them to an independent committee, which will, starting around mid-2016, take complete control over the Acceptable Ads initiative. In fact, we’re hosting an event in February in London to help us figure out how best to form this new committee, which will essentially be a European version of the American one that happened a few months back

Where will ‘C’ go?

Hopscotch could not forget the new quandary where C was being left in. The concept of blocking ads will not just stir but shake up the economics of the industry as we know it. Answers to uncomfortable questions will have to be found quickly before the fog deepens.

“We don’t believe in blocking all ads; rather, we developed a model by which ads that agree to meet user-generated criteria can be whitelisted and seen by our users. The largest entities on that list – about 10 per cent – pay for the service we provide and thereby make it free for the other 90 per cent. We call it Acceptable Ads, and it allowed us to get away from 100 per cent ad blocking. Acceptable Ads not only solved the issue of monetization for a free product, but it also encourages better ad formats.” Argues Grant.

If 2015 was the year ad blocking came out of the closet, 2016 will be the year that ad blocking takes the world by storm: Marsha Grant Image courtesy artur84 at freedigitalphotos

If 2015 was the year ad blocking came out of the closet, 2016 will be the year that ad blocking takes the world by storm: Marsha Grant

Ryan avers that the new scenario certainly does disrupt the entire system that has supported online content on the Web for the past twenty years, and the online advertising industry. “PageFair has the technology to defeat adblocking, and display ads. But before we deploy this at large scale we need a set of principles that publishers determine, along with consumer groups. We do not want to put back ads that 200 million people have already rebelled against.”

What that means is that the middle ground is new form of advertising that respect the consumer and supports the publisher.

The L.E.A.N proposition from IAB warrants a thought here. Light, Encrypted, Ad-Choice Supported, Non-invasive ads: Now that sounds really LEAN!

IAB Tech Lab’s L.E.A.N. Ads program, supported by the Executive Committee of the IAB Tech Lab Board, lays down principles that will help guide the next phases of advertising technical standards for the global digital advertising supply chain. Its proposition says: “Among the many areas of concentration, we must also address frequency capping on retargeting in Ad Tech and make sure a user is targeted appropriately before, but never AFTER they make a purchase. If we are so good at reach and scale, we can be just as good, if not better, at moderation. Additionally, we must address volume of ads per page as well as continue on the path to view-ability. The dependencies here are critical to an optimized user experience.”

Grant discerps that making better ads is definitely a step in the right direction. “Our approach would be the Acceptable Ads initiative, which is our idea of creating a sustainable Internet. The current criteria of Acceptable Ads allow only static ads without animation that are clearly labeled as advertising and are separated from the content to not obscure the reading flow of an article that the user is reading. Also, some size restrictions apply.”

“Now we’re including the ad industry, publishers and user groups to take part in the discussion. “That’s why we are working on establishing an independent committee which will take over the responsibility of the initiative in the near future.” She lets on.

Basic plumbing aspects of an ad need attention too so that heavy, slow, data-guzzling, bandwidth-hogging ads can change into something better. As per an Adblock plus research, users felt most annoyed by pop-ups, animated banners, all-around banners and unskippable video ads. “Now it’s time for the ad industry to react, if they want to engage users with their products.” Grant firmly suggests.

Ryan is betting his optimism and strategy on a future much more balanced than the skewed and nebulous one now. “PageFair’s mission is to secure the future of the open Web by reestablishing a fair deal between consumers and publishers. We have the technology to put ads back, through the adblockers. But we do not want to put back ads that users have already rebelled against. We are working with consumer groups, publishers, browsers, and brand-builders to develop guiding principles for advertising that will protect the diversity of the Web, respect users, and support publishers.”

He claims confidently that PageFair has worked on this problem for several years, and has achieved scale. “We working with global leaders in the ComSore 100 and are active on thousands of sites across the Web, and measured 18 billion hits in the last month alone. Because PageFair technology recovers lost revenue for publishers and websites in a way that keeps users happy, and which corrects the problems in advertising that have caused the crisis, our client list is exploding. PageFair’s plan is to rapidly expand to meet the demand.”

It is important that users realize that consuming articles, music or movies costs money and that if they want to support their favorite pages they can make a start by allowing Acceptable Ads. Also one of our objectives for the future is to research alternative payment methods for writers, artists, etc as Grant recommends.

She quips well. “The Internet is still a free place and regulation is always too late. Best to let users determine how the Internet works, within reason.”

In sum, if 2015 was the year ad blocking came out of the closet, 2016 will be the year that ad blocking takes the world by storm, her mantic words hang in the air.

Meanwhile, thinking caps need to get smarter both for that beret-donned regulator and that cow-boy hat flashing advertising creative. At the end of the day, an ad which is not a distraction but a compelling spot of engagement, an ad which does not impede an online real estate’s performance but rather augments, ripens, enriches it; will never need an ad-block button.

“That would be a place where ‘A’, ‘B’, C’ and ‘D’ can sip and sit together without visible, invisible placards or fences.” When Mr. Detre wrapped it with his customary ‘That Sounds Good?’, the class seemed to be sipping the words in rapt satisfaction. For two minutes.

Because exactly after two minutes, a much-encouraged and adrenaline-charged Detre was scribbling another problem.

“What if Bieber and Dylan are sitting in a café? Let’s explore some scenarios my coven.”

The class immediately erupted into blanket confusion. “What? Both of them, TOGETHER! Isn’t this supposed to be a reasoning class?” they snubbed.

The bell had not rung but Clippety, Hopscotch, Eenie and others started walking out, back into their previous state of disillusionment.

“Hey, where are you going? Am not done yet!” Mr. Detre could only scream helplessly.

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