Sunday 23 October 2016

Adblocking and the shaky future of online adverts

Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30

Apple's move reflects an adblocking epidemic that is now starting to seriously affect digital publishing and advertising
Apple's move reflects an adblocking epidemic that is now starting to seriously affect digital publishing and advertising

Next month, Apple is introducing a thing that promises to change the way ordinary companies advertise online. It looks set to hit publishers really hard.

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It's not the iPhone 6S or a new music service. It's the incorporation of a feature that will allow adblocking by default on iOS9, the interface of the iPhone and iPad. By the end of this year, many more people will now not see ads that your company wants to place online as part of a marketing strategy.

For publishers and advertisers, this is a really big deal. Apple's Safari constitutes 42pc of the mobile browser world and around a quarter of the overall market.

What's more, iPhone users are arguably the single most important segment of the booming mobile demographic. If a company can't reach iPhone users, it can kiss an effective online marketing strategy goodbye.

Apple's move reflects an adblocking epidemic that is now starting to seriously affect digital publishing and advertising.

As much as a fifth of all online ads are now blocked in Europe, according to an upcoming report by Comscore, which keeps track of internet trends. Around 200 million people now use adblocking software such as Adblock or Adblock Plus, according to a presentation of the report made at an Internet Advertising Bureau event last week. Mostly, this is done by downloading free 'extensions' from browsers such as Chrome and Firefox.

It's quick and easy. But for publishers, it's a real headache.

Most traditional media rely heavily on display ads or pre-roll video ads to make money. These publishers are taking the immediate commercial brunt of ad-blocking, with most analysts calculating missed revenue in the billions.

Rubbing salt in our media's wounds is Comscore's finding that people who use adblocking software typically interact a lot more (up to 21pc) with content they see online. And adblocking is most common among so-called 'millennials', with 23pc of all 18-24 year olds and 14pc of all 25-34 year olds now using adblocking software. Typically, this is the age group that many advertisers - and publishers - want to reach most.

Any honest discussion of how to address adblocking has to acknowledge that there are some pretty valid reasons as to why people use adblockers.

One is the low quality of many ads themselves. Pop-ups, takeovers and clickbait all contribute to a growing irritation among internet users. Overloaded ads also clutter up web pages and make the site's actual content harder to find. This is one reason that Microsoft's heralded new Edge web browser, released as part of Windows 10, is now pushing a 'reading mode', which strips out all non-article paraphernalia immediately. Other browsers offer the same feature. And these are adblockers by another name.

Then there is page-loading speeds. While many things slow pages from loading, ads are a principal component.

One recent experiment by software developer Dean Murphy is illustrative. Murphy wrote a program that blocked ads and tracking scripts from a site he regularly visits, the Apple-related news service iMore.

It cut the page-loading time from 11 seconds to two seconds.

(To be fair, there are heated debates about what slows web pages down, with some ad-tech firms arguing that publishers themselves load too much onto their pages.)

There are other performance issues attached to adblocking, particularly for the majority of us who now mostly use our phones for browsing. Battery life sometimes drains faster with ads on a page because of all of the stuff that has to load.

Privacy is also an issue cited by some who use adblockers. Many are simply weary thinking about companies building big files on them base on ad-related cookies moshing around on their phones.

Lastly, it can come down to cost. Some website pages now take over 10MB of your data allowance when they load. That's a lot for those confined to a 1GB monthly data cap on their mobile plan.

If there is an upside, it is that the rush to adblocking could herald new, better kinds of ads. Ones that don't flash or obscure or annoy.

But advertisers and publishers need to get on top of this problem. Because display ads as we know them look a little doomed right now.

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