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Ad Blockers: Don’t Fight Them; Understand Them

By Alexis Ulrich

According to a study called Adblocking goes mainstream, published in September by PageFair, a provider of ad blocking solutions for publishers, and Adobe, there has been a “69% increase in number of Adblock users over the previous 12 months”, in 2014 Q2. Depending on the country, the online population using ad-blocking software can be as high as 28%.

Let us take a look at the issues raised from the three participants’ perspectives (publishers, advertisers, and users), and find ways to monetize the content differently from a publishers’ perspective.

Publishers vs. Advertisers vs. Users

The publishers, their users, and the advertisers are all living in the same ecosystem of information and monetary circulation. Nevertheless, each participant has its own goals and views on the ad-blocking concept.

The publishers provide content and want to reach as many users as possible, while monetizing their work to keep on producing content, paying their expenses, and making some profit on top of it.

That first goal (reaching users) is often obtained by providing free content to the users. Free content can be consumed without friction, but content is not produced for free. The monetizing part of the equation is often solved by adding advertising to the content to keep it free, as putting content behind paywalls tends not to work very well for most publishers.

When the users install ad-blocking software in their browser, the content they consume does not push advertising dollars to the publishers who have to find other ways to monetize it.

The advertisers want to promote a product and/or a brand through exposure to the potential consumers. By putting their ads alongside content interesting for the specific demographic segments they want to reach, they can gain targeted exposure. This is where publishers enter the game. An ad with no contextual content is like a billboard on the side of the road: the brand exposure is wide, but it is hard to tell if it works well in terms of ROI.

Besides, with an ad blocker in place on the visitor browser, the ads can still be served and counted as printed, even if they are not visible any more. This issue is close to the more general ads viewability problem: an ad is still paid for by the advertiser, even if no one actually sees it.

The users are consuming content and are used to doing it for free, especially the marketing segment of the millenials who were born between 1980 and 2000. By installing an ad blocker, these users express a strong message both publishers and advertisers need to understand. This message is segmented by the reason they use ad-blocking software.

According to the previously mentioned survey, almost half of these users do no want ads at all, while a third want to remove specific ads, whether they are found distracting (animations, sounds) or intrusive (pop-over, interstitial, non-skippable video). Performance in term of page speed and battery life, and privacy concerns about third party tracking are also cited as the primary reasons for users installing ad blockers.

How Do Ad Blockers work?

From a browser perspective, an ad is a string of text in the Document Object Model content it parses to render on the screen. It can include plain HTML, JavaScript, or any content delivered by a specific server.

Ars Technica used to drive ad blockers to their subscription page

By parsing the DOM before the browser does, the ad-blocker plugin detects the signature of the ad (a string of text from a huge list of possible offenders) and removes it from the DOM. When done well, it is fast enough for the user to never know there was an ad there, except when some eerie unbalanced blank space appears in the design.

To Bypass or Not to Bypass?

Knowing how they work, it is possible to completely evade ad blockers, for instance by re-encoding each ad on the fly. The signature of the ad goes polymorphic, a bit how adapting computer viruses defeat anti-virus programs. It is then not possible to list the signatures, since they are always different.

But as a publisher, do you want to stand out as one of only a few sites that force ads on their users?

The Jujitsu of Ad Blocking

An ad blocker presence can be detected via JavaScript on the publisher’s website. This way, it is possible to display a disclaimer about the site’s ad revenue needs, as shown in the example below.

Playonlinux.com educates the ad-blocking user

Other ways can be found by content publishers, though:

  • Ask your visitors to whitelist your site in their ad blocker’s parameters. If your visitors truly value the content you provide, they will do it, as a few ads here and there are a very small price to help you publish the content they keep coming to consume on your site.
  • Display premium offers to invite your users to pay a minimum fee to navigate without ads.
  • Ask them via a non-obtrusive survey form why they use an ad blocker, which can give you insight and help you better use advertising in the future.
  • Display some affiliate content directly hosted on your site (hence not real ads but another way to monetize your site’s real estate).

What Do Big Players Think About It?

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an advertising business organization made up of more than 650 leading media and technology companies, is strongly against ad blockers as they are viewed as economic suicide for free content on the web. In a CNET interview, Mike Zaneis, its Executive Vice President, says that ad blocking is fundamentally wrong and creates an unsustainable economic situation leading to blockers having to be denied access to publishers’ content.

The controversy is even stronger regarding Eyeo GmbH, the company behind AdBlock Plus, the leader of the plugin market, as they block all adds by default, while asking advertisers to pay an undislosed amount to be whitelisted under the guise of an acceptable ads manifesto. Since this company is funded by advertising, it is at the same time judge and party, which “might not seem palatable” for a publisher like The Guardian.

Ghostery, another ad blocker is likewise playing on both sides, helping the users hide from the ad industry while providing data to this same industry, as explained by Mashable.

Whatever you may think about ad-blocking software, these plugins are used a lot and will probably keep being used for quite some time. Thus, to alleviate their effect on your revenue stream, you should not depend on ads alone for your revenue but instead find other ways to monetize your content.

Be Creative with Your Revenue Sources

The New Yorker Paywall

If a visitor blocks your ads, it may be a sign you should get more creative with your revenue sources. There are many ways to monetize your content, and aggressive advertising that bypasses an ad blocker and potentially antagonizing your users, may not be the best way to do so.

Affiliate marketing

By displaying and linking to specific products related to either your content, your demographics, or both, you can provide a service to your users that is not as intrusive as regular ads. You can completely customize its design and integrate it naturally into your content.

Pay-per-view

In the Pay-per-view model, a user can consume a bit of your content, say the first part of an article, and be asked to pay a small amount to be able to read the rest of it.

Paywall

The paywall model is a generalization of pay-per-view. Instead of paying for one piece of content, the user is asked to pay for a bundle subscription, usually time-based (e.g. full access to all content for one month).

In The New Yorker’s graduate paywall implementation, users can read 6 articles per month for free, then they are asked to subscribe for $1 a week for three months.

Premium access

In a premium access model, the deal is to stop displaying ads for a fee. YouTube, one of the leading participants in ad-supported content, is considering paid subscriptions.

Native advertising

Native advertising – for example, advertorial or branded content – is advertisement in the form of editorial content. As it blurs the frontier between content and advertising, it bypasses any ad filtering system. But it should be used carefully because if a publisher provides too many native ads with no real value for its visitors, they will stop coming back.

The New York Times is one of the leaders in this area, as you can see in this example or this one.

Sending content pieces through other channels

Blendle, the “iTunes for the press”, sells articles to its users by the unit. The Economist and many Dutch newspapers already sell content this way through this service launched in April 2014. The New York Times Co. and Axel Springer SE (Die Welt, Bild…) entered its capital on October 27. In their model, 70% of the article revenue goes to the publishers, and 20% of their free users convert to paying subscribers.

Repackaging old content

If you sit on a trove of evergreen content in your archives, another way to monetize it is to repackage it. Bring some context to it, add an introduction, and voila, you can now sell it as an e-book (see The New Yorker’s After 9/11 )or as an app (like The New Yorker’s Digital revolution).

Donation

The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization behind Wikipedia, regularly asks for donations on its flagship website. As they say, “We are not against the world of online advertising, nor are we against other organizations that host ads. We just know ads are not an appropriate thing to find in a project devoted to education and knowledge – and especially one that strives for balance and neutrality.”

This is definitively the way to go if you are a not-for-profit organization, especially if your donators can use their donations towards income tax breaks.

But asking for donations is not reserved for not-for-profit websites. We often see developers and designers asking for a cup of coffee or a free beer via a PayPal button. But there are other solutions emerging, such as Patreon which provides a crowdsourcing platform with a similar goal. Recurrent payment is the only choice, credit/debit cards and PayPal are accepted, and as in classic crowdsourcing sites, milestone goals can be set for specific levels of funding.

Watch the Big Publishers

As we have seen in this article, there are many ways to monetize your content, especially in this age of ad blocking software becoming more and more prevalent.

The New York Times, one of the most inventive content publishers of these days in term of monetization, experiments with different levels of this list: Native ads created by T Brand Studio, its in-house content studio, subscription apps (NYT Now, NYTimes app), (graduate) paywall and regular digital subscriptions, content sold (and consumed) through third-party channels. Keeping an eye on their experiments, which are commented a lot and hence easy to find out, is a good way to monitor the different content monetization models.

Comments
steve_web

I think there also needs to be a certain level of ethics when it comes to serving up advertizements if you want your readers to not block your ads.

  1. Do not show any ads that attempt to "fake true UI elements". E.g. ads that look like message box windows or iOS/Android alerts
  2. Keep animations to an absolute minimum. If I fear an epilepsy attack due to strobe-light like ads I will block the ads or never return
  3. We know you want ad impressions but be reasonable... a "top 20 ways to _____" article should not paginate the content over 10 pages (2 at a time) in order to try and push dozens of ads at readers
  4. Unless you are running a Pr0n site do not serve up the "There are ${randomCount} hot single ${genderPlural} in ${cityByGeoLocation} waiting to chat" type ads - they only serve to make your site look like it is happily spreading sleezy-ness
  5. If you insist on serving up the ads to "help" offset your hosting costs (do not use this as a business model!) that's fine but make sure your ad host can serve up quickly and DO NOT disable action links/buttons until the ads have all loaded - This drives users nuts
bluedreamer

That was a good read!

I use an ad blocker in my main browser and the difference in page load times is often staggering. When you take into consideration how much data ads use on some sites an ad blocker can shave many seconds off loading time by cutting out images, remote CSS and often a ton of Javascript, not least adding several extra http requests to 3rd party sites.

One area where ads are often very noticable is on small screens (aka mobile), having to download an extra chunk of data on an already slow connection can be very painful at the best of times.

I think the whole ad situation has got out of hand. We all know the sites that show 6, even a dozen ads on a page. Because of ever dwindling ad clicks what the ad men seem to be doing is firefighting by shoving more and more ads on a page in the vain hope that one will get a click - they're not really tacking the underlying issue.

Perhaps it's time that the ad men need to rethink outside the box - old style ads don't work, instead they need to be using "value added content" approach. Give me an interesting text ad that's related to the article I'm reading instead of flashing images and I may consider unblocking my ad-blocker smile

zackw

I block ads for many of the same reasons.

1) I've been online for a very long time, ads used to be one of the number one ways to get on spam lists, or be infected with something. We blocked ads to protect ourselves from crapware, spammers, viruses, and malware. This mindset has never left me. I still avoid clicking ads for fear the marketer is a bad guy. Unless I already know the company/website in the ad, I never ever ever ever click on ads. And if I'm curious about the company/thing in the ad, I Google them independently rather than click on the ad.

2) In step with #1, we know how ad networks work, if I'm remotely curious about an ad and click on it, I will be bombarded with ads for the same darn thing for the next year of my life. Tracking, demographics collecting, "relevance", are all biting us in the butt. I know ad publishers want to be "relevant" but the tracking is creepy. Make your ads relevant to the actual current page, not your perceived idea of what I'm interested in. If I'm reading an article on exercise, and I see an ad for Cisco routers, I know they are playing tricks with me. If I'm reading about exercise, show ads about exercise and stop tracking me!

3) As mentioned in an earlier comment, ads use sleezy tactics that are more to trick people than garner valid clicks. Mimicking the look of "Download" buttons, UI elements, message boxes, or downright lying to people. Animations, heavy graphics, and even playing sound, are incredibly annoying and do more to make me despise your company (in the ad) than be interested in it. You know somewhere in a board room, a bunch of people sat around figuring out how best to trick people into clicking ads. This is not a company I want to ever do business with.

4) Almost in opposition to my #2, ads are mostly irrelevant. I don't care about singles in my area, I don't care that you have "tricks" in my state to get lower car insurance. I don't care a flying flipper about anything related to Hollywood, social gossip or the like. I don't care about dating, or "weird tricks" or coupons to stores I've never shopped at, or video games, or buying useless trinkets I'm not even searching for. Almost nothing in ads are relevant to me unless it is a) a Newegg coupon, b) an Amazon coupon, c) discount I can use at any current hosting I have. Basically, I've never benefited, ever, from content in an ad.

I would mention that I don't hate ads just for being ads. I would have no problem with them if they weren't sleazy, trying to trick me, follow and track me all over the web, showing me crap I don't care about, using bad techniques for click bait, potentially being sources for spammers and malware, etc etc.

I understand the business model to make a few bucks, but ads are currently 1% benefit to 99% pain. Maybe when it's closer to 40% benefit will I stop bothering to block them. And just because I "like" a website and unblock ads there, doesn't mean the ads magically don't have these problems. I still avoid them.

bluedreamer

Have you checked out the Lightbeam Firefox extension, it tells you which 3rd party sites the current site interacts with, its quite scary as some of the big well know sites connect you to dozens on every page, this includes ads, behaviour tracking, profile collection, and the rest of the marketing crap.

TomB

I totally agree with zackw. The fundamental problem with ads is that they have traditionally been annoying. Advertisement on the web was essentially popups, absolutely positioned windows that had to be closed and got in the way, flashing images, fake UI elements, noisy or poorly built flash elements that often crashed the browser.

Now, they're less annoying (mostly) but have creepy tracking which nobody wants.

The advertising industry is 100% at fault for all of this so it's no surprise that people choose to block ads. Couple the fact that advertising is annoying/invasive with it providing zero benefit and it's unsurprising people choose to block ads. In fact, I'd wager that the 75% of people not blocking ads simply don't know there is a choice.

Advertising as a revenue model on the web is dead. Quality content will bring in quality users who will financially reward the site in other ways.

A better revenue is offering consultation/expertise based on the content. Have a site that teaches web development? Let people pay for your expertise first hand after they see you know what you're doing based on your content. The biggest issue is that the quality of most web content is lacking or available elsewhere. None of which is the fault of the user who may be blocking ads.

rvinay88

My biggest problem with ad blockers is once they hit critical mass, we are all going to be served with ads IN our content instead of OUT of it. I think publishers and websites should be allowed to make an honest living off of ads. It's the ones with a million ads and unnecessary pagination that are ruining all the fun. But more often than not, it is best to avoid such sites.

Ophelie

As someone who runs a content site for a living, I have to point out that using content as lead generation for a paid product or service, and monetising the content itself, are two different things.

Not all of your visitors will convert to a paid product, and, likewise, not all visitors will view ads. Entirely choosing one over the other is a missed opportunity — they can peacefully cohabit!

Making money from content is also damned hard, especially for anyone doing it on their own. Judicious use of ads is a good way to make a bit of money until other revenue opportunities take off.

zackw

I wouldn't disagree with this. It's not the content providers to blame, it's the ad providers.

If I could somehow "join" an ad network, select preferences based on what I like, set minimal basic demographics, and all participating companies who buy ads are curated and guaranteed not to be sleazy companies, I'd allow those ads.
If said curated ads were also vetted for good content without tricks and bad code, with landing pages checked as well, that would ease my mind.

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