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Repost: Ad blocker coverage from RP3 blog, September 2015

Apple’s recent release of content-blocking extensions for iOS Safari has industry pundits up in arms, pontificating about the social contract that viewing ads is the payment for getting free content, predicting the downfall of publishers, eulogizing the open web, and bemoaning other major changes in the publisher/consumer relationship. But very little has been said about what this means to marketers. For example, do you know if you end up paying for ads that are blocked? (Keep reading for the answer.)

Apple has been careful to maintain that they’re focused on data usage and privacy, but the prevailing dialog has been about blocking online ads. So in Part One, we’ll answer questions about what it means for your ad buys. But iOS9 can also block other things including content and design assets like images and fonts. So in Part Two, we’ll address the ramifications for your website and other owned assets.

Q: Recent polls show 16% of Americans use ad blockers on at least one platform, which is up 48% over last year. Should marketers be worried about opportunities missed with ad blocking users? Or is this a demographic digital advertising can’t reach anyway?
Some marketers do need to be worried, as these are people they may really want to target. Intuitively, they’re likely more affluent, early adopters, and probably more socially connected. There could be content plays, but other types of content blocking could present challenges in that space. Ad blocking potentially pushes you toward more of an earned media strategy, but even that could be very tricky, depending on what you are trying to market.

Q: Ad blockers primarily target digital display and SEM results (along with social networks and other tracking scripts). If ad blockers severely reduced the reach of those channels, are there other kinds of media that can take their place?
Marketers will have to look to new channels to reach this audience. Consider connected TV for example, as that audience probably has a fair share of cord-cutters. There are other, more innovative digital strategies that are more suitable for reaching a high-tech crowd than standard display ads. And you have to think about traditional channels and real world experiences, because they are still very important.

Q: But what about the rumors that you can pay to get past ad blockers?
Of course, if you want to stick with the same channels, there have been reports that some popular ad blocking apps are actually selling access to “select” advertisers, ones that meet certain “acceptable” criteria, allowing their ads to bypass the very blocking these apps are designed to deliver. But that’s only if you’re willing to pay extra for the privilege, which seems shady at best and dishonest to consumers purchasing the app at worst.

Q: Programmatic is taking a lot of the blame because automated ad exchanges are being accused of serving large numbers of low quality ads, leading people to block ads altogether. What should marketers know about the quality of the networks they’re using?
The negativity that many people have around ads is because some marketers aren’t using the tools available to them wisely. Programmatic buying can lose sight of the craft of media planning and buying. By commoditizing it, we allow people to form an opinion based on poorly done display. It’s done with lack of craftsmanship, and often driven by inventory availability over strategic need. You also have to make sure you’re dealing with vendors who are reputable. It takes a lot of time and vigilance to manage them and get the results you’re looking for.

Ironically, users who are attracted to ad blockers are probably not the people being targeted by programmatic anyway. Programmatic is still best used when volume is a necessity—and generally this lends itself to retail and direct marketing.

What other questions are on your mind about content blocking? Share with us in the comments and we’ll help find the answers. (By the way, the answer to that very first question is no. You don’t pay for ads that are blocked, as they are never served in the first place.)

part two

Last week, we discussed how iOS 9’s new content-blocking extensions affect marketers when buying ads online. These extensions, however, can block more than ads; they can also block elements of your own website.

Q: Why would someone block parts of my site?
Apple has said that the point in enabling this technology is to allow users to “block unwanted content and better protect their privacy.” Performance is another reason. In order to do what they do (that is, share marketing information among partners), ad servers add extra connections that need to be made every time an ad is accessed. All these extra connections, not to mention the assets being pulled down in the process, increase the time it takes for web pages to render. And rendering time is a major factor in successful website conversions.

Q: What kind of things can be blocked?
Anything, really. Crystal, one of the most popular ad-blocking apps on iOS right now, only blocks ads. Peace, the one pulled by its developer shortly after its release, could block web fonts as well. There’s even a rather snarky app called Discontent that, for 99¢, will block all the content on the page.

That said, the bigger files on your site are often the ones associated with branding and differentiation, like fonts, style sheets, images and videos. These are elements that make your website look like it’s your property rather than something generic, so having them stripped away without your knowledge could be bad for your brand.

The text content of an HTML page is actually quite small compared to the design assets on most sites—if you visited our site and saw the first part of this series, the actual text content of that page is only 1.4% of the total size you need to download to view the page. And that blog page is tiny by current standards, weighing in at 790KB. For comparison, the landing page of the New York Times Technology Section, at 2MB, is 2.5 times the size of our page if you block their ads, and almost 7 times that at 5.5MB with ads. Their HTML, the content you’re actually there for, however, makes up only 0.6% of that 5.5MB.

Q: How does this change how marketers need to think about their sites?
Marketers can no longer take for granted that their carefully crafted websites, on which they’ve spent time, attention and money perfecting, are going to appear the same way to all visitors. Going forward, content and functionality are going to be more and more important to the experience.

Site owners now have to think beyond how their sites look, and think about branding as an experience of how their sites function and the types of content their sites provide. As advocates for accessibility, this might turn out to be a really good thing. How usable is your site to someone who is vision impaired and using a screen reader? That’s a problem that existed before content blocking hit the mainstream. Hopefully, the conversation will shift to improving the experience for everyone.

Even if you’ve embraced responsive design, ads are still an issue because they are not responsive. Because of their price-per-pixel requirements, they don’t resize fluidly. Part of the attractiveness of ad blockers on mobile is because of the screen real estate that some of the fixed ads take up. People like ad blockers because ads are degrading the mobile user experience.

Whatever the motivations, content blockers are here to stay. As adoption rates increase, marketers will need to find other avenues to get their messages across. Sponsored content, native app advertising and video pre-rolls will likely gain in popularity. Are you using content blocking on your phone or desktop? Let us know in the comments.