Suddenly, everyone is talking about ad blocking. Some sites report that over a third of desktop visitors have ad blockers in place. But publishers haven’t been too worried, because regardless of how fast ad blockers were growing, mobile visitors were growing faster — and up until now it’s been impossible to block ads on mobile devices.
All this has changed with the introduction of Apple’s iOS 9. With one simple plug-in, the new version of Safari will let people block mobile ads as they see fit.
On one hand, people have the right to control their own experience, and if that means blocking ads, then that’s how it is. On the other hand, advertisers have always paid publishers so people can consume their content. Some think ad blocking is unfair, but I disagree. Why? Because publishers have another option: to block the blockers from seeing their content. If it’s that easy, then why doesn’t everyone just do that?
Google and Facebook are to blame
Digital content is shared and ranked by Google and Facebook. (Sorry, Bing/Microsoft.) If you prevent ad blockers from visiting your site, there will be repercussions: Fewer people will share your content, Google will lower your page rank, and you’ll show up in fewer searches. This will most likely lead to less traffic and a downward spiral in which your claimed audience (for advertisers) will diminish and you will make less money. You are damned if you do block the ad blockers, and damned if you don’t. So far, publishers have taken the path of least resistance: Do nothing. But that will change.
Enter the Washington Post and Hulu
The Washington Post is the first publisher to say, "To hell with this" and start refusing access to ad blockers. I wonder whether its notoriously obsessive owner (Jeff Bezos) had anything to do with this decision? Hulu has done much the same thing: You can pay an extra $4 a month for an ad-free service. (Pro tip: Install a free ad blocker and save yourself the $4, unless Hulu starts blocking it.) If you build a quality product, people will pay to consume it.
Can advertisers and brands help?
Oh yes, we can. I’m on the selling side of advertising, and I am the first to say that many ads disrupt the consumer experience — some are "noisy," clutter the page and simply just get in the way. Broadcast TV is no better — do you think people will continue to sit through 7 to 8 minutes of advertising for only 20 minutes of content? All of this "bad advertising" gives marketing a bad name. I hope that ad blockers push everyone to improve the user experience and deliver quality ads that are engaging and relevant. But as they say, hope is not a strategy.
Tolerate, block or get creative
Regardless of where you stand on ad blocking, all content creators will need to consider their course of action. And some publishers will decide that it’s not worth doing anything. Increasingly, these will be publishers desperate for revenue and traffic, which will equate to a low-quality place to advertise. Some may push it a bit further and take a passive approach to try to recoup lost dollars. For example, the Guardian tried asking for donations from site visitors with ad blockers installed.
These methods will be tried, but in the end, the best sites will find a way to charge and not beg. The most desirable publishers will present visitors with a choice: You can pay me, or you can see my ads — all others go away. This will be the route that the high-quality publishers take, because people will want to see their content — ads or not.
Another option is to turn content into advertising. This isn’t the same as "native advertising," which can be targeted. It has more in common with old-fashioned soap operas where the content and ads are so tightly intertwined that ad blockers can’t tell which is which — and can’t block the ad.
And while some ad blockers have started to let ads through if they’re "good enough," I have a suspicion this is tied to money as much as it’s tied to the quality of the advertising.
In the end, this situation isn’t going anywhere, and marketers can’t afford to be blindsided. Many might consider it to be a hindrance, but this transition is a call to action to the entire industry to improve the consumer experience. The best advertising is just as compelling as the best content.
Think of the Super Bowl ads, or my personal favorite: Dos Equis, "The Most Interesting Man in the World." Let’s take a page from his book and adopt a new slogan: "I don’t always show ads, but when I do, all of the ad blockers want to see them."