According to New York Times President and CEO, Mark Thompson, the biggest players in the ad blocking industry represent “the most cynical, most money-grasping end of the old unreformed digital ad business”. His comments were made at the recent IAB Blocking Summit where he voiced his opinion on why publishers shouldn’t pay to have their websites whitelisted.
The New York Times is the latest to join the fight against ad blocking – which is expected to cost media companies over $35 billion by 2020 – with Thompson indicating the publisher is now considering preventing ad blocker users who refuse to whitelist its site from accessing digital content.
The issue of ad blocking encompasses all digital formats, but the impact may well be greater for some types of advertising than others. Ad blocking has grown out of user frustration with slow loading, intrusive and irrelevant advertising, and these factors are amplified with video. An annoying display ad can potentially be ignored, but an irritating video ad that prevents the user from accessing the content they require until it has played cannot. When you add in other considerations such as data use and auto play with sound switched on as default, it’s not hard to see why users are easily persuaded to block video ads when they have the option to do so for free.
So how are publishers responding to the rise of video ad blocking and what options do they have for preventing the loss of revenue it causes?
Pay the price
Paying providers of ad blockers to whitelist advertising on their sites is exactly the practice Thompson condemns so emphatically, and he is far from the first to do so, with the IAB’s CEO Randall Rothenberg describing it as “an extortion-based business”. But for some large organizations that have millions of dollars on the line, paying up is seen as the simplest option. Video is widely acknowledged as the future of online content, and is the fastest growing digital advertising category, so the likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon are handing over a significant chunk of ad revenues to ensure ad blocker users still see video advertising on their sites.
One of the key factors in the ad blocking debate is the lack of understanding from users about the role of advertising in funding the content they consume. Online content is viewed as ‘free’ and consumers – especially younger users who have grown up with the internet – fail to realize it is actually paid for by ads. In preventing ad blocker users from viewing content, publishers are attempting to educate their audiences about this value exchange by explaining to the user that they need to pay for content in some way, whether that’s by viewing ads, or paying a subscription.
There are various ways publishers can implement this option. Some have begun with a softer approach, displaying a dismissible message suggesting the user could consider either subscribing to their site or turning off their ad blocker so they see advertising. Other publishers are taking a far more aggressive stance, serving non-dismissible messages stating that content can only be accessed by turning off ad blocking software. The New York Times has already trialed both options, finding non-dismissible messages far more effective, with 40% of users agreeing to whitelist the site.
Give the user what they want
The third option, which is improving the ad experience, is a long-term approach that should be adopted by all publishers either as a standalone strategy or in conjunction with other tactics. It means entering into a conversation with its users about what they want and don’t want from video advertising, exploring the reasons why they resort to ad blockers and how the experience could be improved.
For video advertising this could mean ensuring ads are an appropriate length for the content they are served alongside, providing advertisers with in-depth audience insight to make sure videos ads are relevant and engaging, and switching off the sound on auto play ads, particularly when they are out-stream and therefore unexpected.
Ad block usage continues to increase, but there’s hope. Two-thirds of US consumers would be willing to disable ad blocking software in the right circumstances. Publishers need to take action now to protect the revenues that allow them to produce quality video content. While paying the ad blockers may seem the simplest option in the short term, it does not solve the underlying issues that have led to this situation. A long-term approach should combine educating users with improving the overall video advertising experience – ultimately building a stronger base for the video-led internet of the future.
Alex Bornyakov is the CEO of VertaMedia.