How ad blocking played out in 2016

The threat of disappearing ad revenues from ad blocking continued to cause a lot of anxiety for publishers and advertisers this year, some doomsday researchers suggesting it could cost the industry between $16 billion and $35 billion by 2020.

At the very least, what the ad-blocking furor has succeeded in doing is make publishers, agencies and brands all scrutinize the quality and quantity of ads.

Here’s a look back at some of the key turning points in ad blocking this year.

Publishers play hardball
Encouraged by success stories from early trials by publishers like City AM, Bild and The Inquirer at the end of 2015, a number of publishers including GQ, Wired, Forbes, Trinity Mirror and The Telegraph experimented with more muscular approaches to the growing threat by denying content to those with blockers installed.

Others used polite messages, tugged on some heartstrings or laid on a little guilt to get people to whitelist their site. Despite this, experiments in France showed that the tougher the approach yielded better results.

Rates of ad blocking in Europe stall
The IAB U.K. finds there’s no growth in ad blocking: 21.2 percent of users were using ad blockers in July, compared to 21.7 percent back in February. German digital media trade body Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft found ads were blocked on 19.1 percent of desktop pageviews, down from 21.2 percent in 2015.

“There seems to be this phenomenon of stagnation and small drops in different markets,” said Townsend Freehan, CEO of IAB Europe, at Digiday’s Publishing Summit in October. “But I wouldn’t presume to know the reasons for that or be complacent.”

The reasons are up for debate: Readers could be getting the message that content costs money and is paid for by ads. Or advertisers, publishers and vendors are all trying to improve the ad experience.

No one knows what to do about mobile
Levels of ad blocking on mobile remain low, publishers like Trinity Mirror and City AM cite mobile ad-blocked inventory as low as 2 percent. Deloitte Global predicted 0.3 percent of all mobile devices will use an ad blocker by the end of 2016, estimated to put less than $100 million (0.1 percent) of the $70 billion mobile advertising market at risk.

It will grow, but it’s unlikely to ever be as big a threat as on desktop. In general, some of the mistakes about overloading desktops with ads has been heeded, and the experience isn’t as bad. “There’s a move away from customers asking for interstitials,” said Paul Thompson, vp of EMEA at mobile ad platform Blis. Equally, a lot of mobile browsing happens in app, so not at risk from ad blockers.

Even so, faced with uncertainty, publishers are getting worried about the added threats to squeezed margins. “Publishers should take a look at ads running, load time, the overall consumer experience of Web and apps,” said Thompson. “It’s a grown-up conversation; it’s not the end of advertising.”

Facebook plays whack-a-mole with AdBlock Plus
Facebook threw its weight behind the ad-block problem in August, punching through blocking software AdBlock Plus, created by Eyeo. This turned into an arms race with the ad-blocking community creating software to again block the ads. After much back and forth, Facebook’s army of developers is no match for the ad blockers.

While some think Facebook has a right to counter what someone is doing to disrupt its business, there’s no doubt ignoring someone’s choice to block ads is controversial. GroupM has distanced itself from ad reinsertion, while others are using it because ad-block users have made themselves the most attractive demographic. More examples are emerging, like the Netflix campaign for dystopian show “Black Mirror” targeted at ad-block users. While the creative execution can be pretty neat, the measurement and tracking capabilities are slim, and publishers that regularly reinsert ads to ad-block users are wary of making sure they load fast and aren’t at risk of malware, key concerns for readers installing ad blockers in the first place.

Everyone is at the table
The duopoly is doing its part in making ads less annoying and more relevant: Google is delisting sites running interstitials, and Facebook is giving people more control over the criteria of ads they see. Along with global coalitions and tidy four-letter acronyms from trade bodies, everyone in the supply chain has a vested interest in cleaning up the ad ecosystem.

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