4 ad industry standards taking aim at ad blocking

On a recent edition of the Digiday podcast, Forbes Media CRO Mark Howard referred to ad blocking as an “existential threat” with industry-wide implications. With such a shadow looming, a number of industry leaders have come forward to propose new ad standards.

The IAB, The Media Trust and even Adblock Plus have each suggested measures with the same goal in mind: to improve display advertising and stem the tide of ad blocker adoption.

Check out this round-up of the biggest player’s proposals and learn what’s at stake in each.

VAST

Who proposed it: The IAB

What it is: Consider Sir Joseph Whitworth, a 19th-century engineer who pioneered the notion that all screws should have the same thread-width. His suggestion to standardize that small detail allowed for the mass production of interchangeable machine parts, catalyzing the industrial revolution itself. Not to put too grandiose a spin on it (too late) but VAST does kind of the same thing.

VAST, or Video Ad Serving Template is a bible for designers and developers covering all the technical specifics (today’s version of thread-width) for serving up video ads. Less about UX than making the big machine of video ad tech run smoothly, it allows video advertising’s disparate pieces–ad servers, programmatic exchanges, local video players, etc.– to work together seamlessly regardless of their source.

What does it cover: Everything from player size to video quality. The latest version of VAST also outlined standards for server-side stitching, a controversial practice that allows ads to be inserted directly into content making them undetectable to ad-blockers.

The industry says: The industry has largely gotten behind VAST, though ad blocking advocates have taken issue with new VAST standards that allow for server-side ad stitching. GroupM also dissents, saying ad re-insertion forcibly override a consumer’s decision to use ad blockers. “These consumers have chosen not to view ads, We may not like it, but if we’re serious about UX we have to respect it.”

LEAN

Who proposed it: The IAB

What it is: LEAN, an acronym for the not-at-all-clunky “Light, Encrypted, ad choice supported, non-invasive” ads, is the IAB’s most direct response to ad blocking. Unlike VAST, which hopes to standardize the work of developers on the back end, LEAN is all about the front end user. The program advises advertisers and publishers on how to create an ad-light experience for users in the hope that doing so will curb the rapid adoption of ad blocking tech.

What it covers: LEAN advises advertisers to prioritize non-intrusive ad formats like straight display and native and to keep interruptive ads to a minimum. For publishers it encourages lower fill rates to keep site weight and load times down.

What the industry says: “We’re very comfortable with the lighter ad experience. We’re fortunate that display revenue isn’t our only [revenue] stream. As Rogers implies, LEAN standards may be harder for mid-tier publishers, those for whom display ads make up a higher percentage of revenue.

SMART

Who proposed it: The Media Trust

What it is: Scan, Measure, Analyze, Resolve and Track, or SMART, widens the focus and provides tactical guidance for delivering acceptable ads. Developed by The Media Trust, the sponsor of this article, SMART calls for aggressive monitoring and reporting to address digital “quality of life” issues like disruptive and annoying ad formats that negatively impact the user experience. It also addresses the security and privacy concerns caused by exploitive malvertising formats—Flash, HTML5, video, etc.—which have driven users to adopt ad blockers for their own protection.

What it covers: SMART evaluates creative compliance with established industry best practices, such as unauthorized site-redirections, data leakage, auto-play audio, fraudulent or black-listed ads. It calls for continuous monitoring of tags to identify violations and directly remediate the ad with the serving upstream partner. This ability to single out a poorly-performing partner and prevent malicious ads from being served allows publishers to provide an optimal user experience to their audiences and stave off the spread of ad blockers.

What the industry says: Exploitive ads are on everyone’s mind and it’s generally easier for the industry to take a hard line on this element of UX. Montgomery summed it up, “If ads can’t be made safe, if they [audiences] can’t count on having their privacy protected, then they’ll turn to blocking. I wouldn’t blame them.”

Acceptable Ads

Who proposed it: Adblock Plus

What it is: The ad blocker’s guide to ads. Ads are what make the digital world go around. While ad block developers have been adamant about allowing users to snuff out all ads, at least one has acknowledged that ads are a necessary part of the landscape while simultaneously making them a part of their own revenue model. Adblock Plus provides its users the option to unblock a class of whitelisted ads, allowing publishers to serve them– as long as they play by Adblock Plus’ rules. Adblock Plus also makes money off the program, grabbing 30% of the revenue raised by participating publishers with more than 10 million monthly impressions.

What it covers: Acceptable ads was composed with feedback from Adblock Plus users, so it focuses on the experience. Acceptable ads are generally small, unobtrusive, placed in page margins and carry strong disclosures so there’s no ambiguity in native content. They rule out animation, pop-ups or pop-unders, and any form of disruptive ad that comes between the user and the page.

What the industry says: When talking about Acceptable Ads, expect to hear publishers throw around words like “blackmail” and “extortionate” pretty readily. The program has been knocked as more revenue grab than UX play, although a number of publishers have signed on. While Forbes has a combative history with ad blockers  Rogers is more measured. “They found something we weren’t doing well and they found a way to monetize it.”

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