The conventional wisdom on ad blocking is missing one key statistic
There’s one stat that could connect the cause to the problem, but it’s missing in action.
The conventional wisdom about ad blockers goes like this: Users would stop using ad blockers if they got more value, or less annoyance, or less privacy invasion, or less malware from online ads.
But that’s missing a key statistic that ties feelings about ads to action about ad blockers.
Two weeks ago, for instance, the Reuters Digital News report found two of the leading reasons in the US for ad blocking were “volume of ads” and “ads that follow people.”
In December, Digital Content Next released its Consumer Ad Block Report, which found that:
- more than 70 percent dislike ads that expand over content or play with sound;
- 68 percent are concerned when ads track their behavior; and
- 57 percent notes their webpages load too slowly with ads.
These are just a few of the findings documenting what users don’t like about digital ads. And major responses are based on this conventional wisdom. For instance, The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s LEAN initiative — Light, Encrypted, Ad choice-supported, Non-invasive ads — aims to give ads a more user-friendly profile in order to counter the ad-blocking movement. Google’s AMP effort wants mobile pages and ads to load faster.
But there’s a major missing stat.
Where is the data showing that, if ads were more relevant or less annoying or less privacy-invading or loaded quicker, most if not all users of ad blockers would stop using them, or would delete the one they have, or would not download one?
I haven’t seen that stat. Neither has mobile marketer Tune’s mobile economist, John Koetsier, who has studied whether there are enough users to support mobile content through payments instead of ads. (Spoiler alert: There aren’t.) Nor has Alanna Gombert, SVP of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and General Manager of its Tech Lab.
(If you know of such a stat — one that shows people will drop their ad blockers if ads are made better — please email the source to my attention at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
No clear threshold
Without that stat, it would seem, the conventional wisdom is based on an assumption that if you remove things people don’t like about ads or you add value to ads, they will drop their blockers.
But it’s an assumption that doesn’t necessarily connect the cause with the outcome.
It’s like saying that if non-voters say they hate long speeches by politicians, it follows (without evidence) that they will start voting once politicians give shorter speeches. It’s an unproven IF/THEN statement.
It could be, for instance, that a better user experience attracts a more appreciative non-blocking crowd, rather than changing the habits of ad-blocking users.
For example, I recently stopped visiting a well-known editorial site for several weeks because a takeover ad popped up every minute or two. Not only was that annoying, but the ad often froze, leaving me nowhere. Instead, I spent that time on other sites.
There’s also the little matter that you and I and everyone else are different. There is no clear threshold of user experience that will satisfy all of us, or possibly even most of us.
“They don’t like ads”
For instance, Matt Smith, chief evangelist at online video company Anvato, told me that he “can’t stand something taking over my screen.” In fact, he said he would stop using his ad blocker if all ad takeovers were abolished.
But that’s only one of many ad-related issues on users’ long list of complaints, and, at the moment, it only applies to Matt Smith.
And, in just one example of the impossibility of an all-satisfying user experience, the oft-cited value of relevancy depends heavily on the user.
Is an ad relevant or annoying if it recommends an ice cream parlor around the corner on a hot summer day when you’re trying to lose weight? What is the relevancy threshold?
Without the missing stat, and with great, across-the-board user experience an elusive goal, it’s possible the situation is as Block Adblock CEO James Roven told me:
“Even if you address all these [user experience] concerns, even if you solve privacy issues, a huge percentage will block ads because they don’t like ads.”
That leaves two other possible solutions.
One is technological. Many people argue that technology solutions are an arms race, with developers of blockers upping the ante every time another solution is offered.
But Anvato’s Smith believes that server-side ad stitching, which his company provides, “totally defeats all kinds of ad blockers” because the ad is served in the same encrypted stream as the video. Eliminating a separate ad server, and encrypting the delivery, certainly would seem to confound the ad blockers’ strategy.
Other providers, like Revive Ads, block the blocker and then serve substitute ads that aren’t blocked. It generates “a fresh ad zone,” CEO Mark Bauman told me.
The political remedy
While improving user experience is an unproven counter-blocker strategy with no clear threshold, and technological solutions can do end-runs around blockers’ strategy that may or may not be long-term, the final remedy may actually be political.
Block Adblock, for instance, is one of those solutions that first tries to convince the user through a nice message from the publisher, asking that the site be whitelisted. If the visitor continues without whitelisting, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy: the ad-blocking user is himself blocked.
Tune’s Koetsier notes that 50 percent of users say yes to whitelisting if asked nicely. Essentially, this is a campaign to convince, followed by a refusal of service. Like asking a guy entering a restaurant without a shirt to come back when he is minimally attired. If he tries again without a shirt, he could be permanently barred.
There’s also a new level of political response that may emerge: class action. In Sweden, for instance, major publishers are banding together to block ad blockers en masse, so they won’t be played off against one another.
If that happens, a new conventional wisdom might actually be backed by a clear stat showing that users, confronted by a massive loss of quality content, drop their blockers.