Now that ad blocking is popular and on multiple screens, it’s time to take a good, hard look at why people are using ad blockers and what publishers can do about it.
Ad blocking is popular
The global growth of ad blocking on desktop browsers, as reported in this joint report by Adobe and PageFair, is shockingly high. In January 2013, publishers were dealing with a small contingent of about 54 million global monthly ad blocking software users on desktop. That’s just 2.8% of Morgan Stanley’s 1.9 billion estimate of global desktop internet users. Two years later, in January 2015, publishers were dealing with 181 million global monthly ad blocking users, which is over three times more than January 2013 levels and approximately 9.5% of global desktop internet users. So, publishers as a whole have lost almost 10% of desktop audiences that can be monetized through advertising. At the current rate of ad blocking adoption, this loss could grow to 30% of desktop audiences by January 2017. That’s tough for ad supported publishers to deal with and it gets worse.
Ad blocking is expanding from desktop to mobile
As of Q2 2015, smartphones and tablets made up only 2% of all ad blocking according to the Adobe and PageFair report. However, on September 16, 2015, Apple launched iOS 9 and dramatically changed the future trajectory of the mobile ad blocking landscape. The new Safari on iOS 9 supports “content blocking extensions” that block ads, cookies, images, widgets, stylesheets, fonts, pop-ups and really any code that can be rendered in the mobile web browser. As Apple customers upgrade to iOS 9 devices and install content blocking extensions, Apple is setting a new bar for a clutter-free mobile browsing experience. To compete, other mobile browsers will ramp up their ad blocking allowances. In no time at all, ad blocking on mobile devices could meet or exceed ad blocking on desktops.
The popularity of new content blocking apps for iOS 9 is the first major indicator that mobile ad blocking could rise rapidly. Purify Blocker was a top 10 App Store download from the day that iOS 9 launched and all throughout September. Crystal by Dean Murphy was in the top 10 from September 17-24. Peace by Marco Arment was also a number one app in the App Store. After just 36 hours in this top position, Arment pulled Peace from the store and issued a letter of apology to his fans and customers. Arment wrote, “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”
While Arment bowed out, Purify Blocker, Crystal and a plethora of other options continue to give consumers plenty of ways to block ads. All of this raises the question of why. Why do people use ad blockers?
Four reasons people use ad blockers
The short answer is because ad blocking provides a better user experience. Many people aren’t shy about why they use ad blockers. Go to any forum, comment thread, or article about the topic and you’ll find passionate supporters of ad blocking. Here’s a sampling of why people use ad blockers.
- To combat disruptive ad experiences
Users are willing to accept ads in return for free content. However, some ad experiences have become so obnoxious that it’s no longer a fair trade for the free content. Some of the most annoying ad experiences autoplay audio or video, obstruct the content the user is trying to access, or show too many ads for the amount of free content being provided. Consider these direct quotes from users:
“For a while, when the ad-block notice showed up, I tried it. I turned adblock off, and every single time, without fail, was barraged with flash adds, music playing, and giant ads in the middle of an article. I am done playing.” — mcgrood_38
“NOT until ads on the web work like ads in a newspaper or magazine — TOTALLY PASSIVE and UNINTRUSIVE will I turn off the blocker.” — Douglas D. Fox
“I use adblocker but at the same time i whitelist sites I am regular to because i wanna support them. But if the site owner decides to bombard user with ads, popups and forces us to install their app, what choices do we have?” — Pomba Magar
“If you really want to be annoyed, try to read an article associated with the clickbait headline [“Ad Blocking – This Time It’s Serious”] you just tapped on your phone. It will be so laden with irrelevant “content” you will not actually know where to click to get to the next few sentences. The experience (even on the best mobile optimized sites) is painful in the extreme.” — Shelly Palmer
- To avoid security risks
It only takes one encounter with a bad ad that leads to a computer virus for users to want to avoid experiencing the pain of cleaning that up again. In a comment on TechCrunch, Andrew Heinlein says, “I got a virus from an ad network. Ad blocking is the new anti-virus software.”
- To speed up the browsing experience
Ads take time to load, and if the ad load is too large or ads are not optimized for speed, users will step in and make things faster with ad blocking. The New York Times recently featured a study on the amount of time it takes to load advertising content versus editorial content among 50 mobile web homepages. 19 of 50 sites took 5 seconds or more to load advertising content. That’s a visible slowdown that users would like to avoid. One user in a How-To Geek discussion said, “Blocking out ads, I find webpages load noticeably faster. I would give up almost any other extension before I give up Adblock.”
- To use less computing resources
IAB’s research on why people use ad blocker
A broad survey of consumer opinion by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Vision Critical backs up these findings. The survey identified the top two reasons for ad blocking as virus protection and improving computer performance.
Why use ad blocking (aided)
260 adults 18+ that have used ad blocking technology answer the question, “Which of the following describes why you use ad blocking technologies or applications?”
Source: “IAB Ad Blocking Study – Online Consumers Views and Usage of Ad Blocking Technologies,” IAB and Vision Critical, September 2014
In this Advertising Age op-ed, Randall Rothenberg, the president and CEO of the IAB says, “These findings should be an alarm to everyone in media and marketing: We are mistreating our most valuable asset — our consumers.”
Ad blocking is a form of user feedback
Users are fed up with bad advertising experiences. Every install of an ad blocker is a statement against annoying ads, security risks, slow browsing, and ads’ consumption of computing resources. With ad blockers, users have taken back control of their browsing experience. Now, it’s up to publishers to adjust.
How publishers can adjust
If bad ad experiences are causing users to flee to ad blocking, good ad experiences can help decelerate this trend. Here are nine ways to ensure a good ad experience:
- Make sure the ad load to content load is fair to the user.
- Match audio and video ad experiences to user expectations. In-stream ads can automatically play video since the users expects this. In contrast, in-banner ads shouldn’t automatically play audio or video because it interrupts an otherwise quiet browsing experience.
- Prevent ads from obstructing content.
- Screen ads for security risks.
- Optimize ads for speed.
- Optimize ads to consume the least amount of computing resources possible.
- Seek out deals with advertisers or intermediaries that have a vision for well-designed, useful ads.
- Ask users for feedback on your ad experiences. Look for insights in the feedback that can make the ad experience better.
- Apply the “does this work for me” test. Give your audience the experience that you would enjoy yourself.
If you do these nine things, it’s easy to ask ad blocking users to opt-in to your ad experiences. Your experiences are fair to the user. They don’t interrupt with autoplay audio or video. They don’t obstruct content. Your ads load fast and don’t consume inordinate amounts of computing resources. Plus, your advertisers will be sharing relevant, beautiful, and useful ads with your users. That’s easy for audiences to say yes to.