Ad blocking has far-reaching effects for digital advertising

By Josephine Buys, CEO of IAB SA

One of the trends that could change the face of the Internet is the increasing use of ad blocking software. Whilst this technology is not new, the web seems to have reached a tipping point where frustrated users are jumping the technical hurdles in larger numbers to filter out online ads.

User frustration stems from ever-more invasive strategies from many publishers to capture their attention: pop-ups, pre-roll ads on online videos, and geo and demographic targeted ads. To say nothing of just loading pages with more and more ad units.

Despite advertisers using technology to reach the right target audience, many users are bombarded with ads they have no interest in. Moreover, ads often require considerably more bandwidth to load than the content that the user is trying to access.

This means that consumers are effectively paying for the privilege of viewing these ads, while potentially slowing down their connection. The rise in interest in ad blocking software therefore comes as no surprise.

Apple, always trying to position itself at the forefront of user behaviour, recently released its iOS9 operating system with ad-blocking possible in Safari for the first time – a clear indication of where the tech giant sees the trend going.

However, the trend is potentially damaging for the viability of websites and the livelihood of the advertisers that have ensured that the Internet remains free. This in turn harms the choice available to users.

The IAB has recognised that online advertisers and publishers have themselves to blame for the rise in the use of ad blocking, but that this status quo cannot be the way of the future.

Ad Blocking hurts publishers, prevents businesses from communicating and competing, reduces the diversity of voices in digital media and hinders consumers from obtaining important information about products, services, even politics and culture.

For this reason, the IAB Tech Lab has launched the L.E.A.N. Ads programme globally. L.E.A.N. stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive ads, and aims to establish principles to guide the next phases of technical advertising standards for global digital advertising.

The programme will address issues such as ad frequency capping, targeting users before but not after a purchase, and the volume of ads per page. This will initiate a conversation between publishers, advertisers, and users, to allow for the simultaneous generation of revenue and the creation of user value.

One of the fundamental characteristics of the Internet that has made it so phenomenally successful is that it is essentially free. The reason for this is that brands are willing to pay to gain wide exposure to their target audiences.

The ethics of ad blocking will come under scrutiny in the months to come, as ad blocking may well threaten the viability of websites that consumers love to visit, but whose revenues are being threatened through ad-blocking software.

Through our global initiatives, publishers will have the choice between rich advertising experiences, L.E.A.N. advertising experiences, subscription services, or simply blocking users who use ad-blocking software. Consumer tolerance and choice will form part of the conversation to determine which choice is best for which publisher.

The space will remain as dynamic as ever and we are likely to see more branded content, ads built into the page content, and other strategies that can escape ad-blocking.

However, digital advertisers should not see current trends as an assault on their revenue, but rather the signs of an industry in flux – one of the typifying characteristics of the digital space.

Since the advent of digital advertising, customers have accepted some forms and rejected others. The universal rejection of old-style pop-up ads for instance has killed off this strategy – with pop-up blocking a standard feature of all web browsers.

Consumer feedback in the digital space is immediate and often brutal. Advertisers who take this feedback and adapt accordingly can create effective campaigns that create a significant advantage over the opposition. As is always the case in technology, opportunities often present themselves as threats.

Mobile phones are also presenting new opportunities and threats in this space and are quickly becoming the consumption platform of choice.

Browsing is moving to in-app searches and away from search engines. At least half of mobile time is spent on messaging or entertainment, which is where ad strategy focus is now shifting. This presents new opportunities for new approaches.

However, consumers have spoken and there is a responsibility on the digital advertising industry to listen and take note. We as advertisers have invited ourselves into the browsing experience of users and this access was almost gained too easily.

Advertisers now need to ask themselves whether they have earned the right to come into the homes of consumers. If they show them respect with non-intrusive ads that are relevant to them and excite them, online advertising can regain its credibility.