The ad blocking phenomenon: It’s all about human nature.

noadThe rapid rise in consumer adoption of ad blocking software is threatening the traditional advertising model for publishers. For some, it seems like a topsy-turvy world where none of the old assumptions or the old rules apply.

But author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss reminds us that the consumer behaviors we are witnesses are as old as the hills.

In a recent MediaPost column titled “Why Our Brains Are Blocking Ads,” Hotchkiss points out that the environment for online ads is vastly different from the environment where traditional advertising flourished for decades – primarily in magazines, newspapers and television.

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

He notes that in the past, the majority of people’s interaction with advertising was done while our brains were in “idling” mode – meaning that they had no specific task at hand. Instead, people were looking for something to capture their attention within a TV program, a newspaper or magazine article.

Hotchkiss contends that in such an environment, the brain is in an “accepting” state and thus is more open to advertising messages:

“We were looking for something interesting, we were primed to be in a positive frame of mind, and our brains could easily handle the contextual switches required to consider an ad and its message.”

Contrast this to the delivery of most digital advertising in today’s world, which is happening when people are in more of a “foraging” mode – involved in a task to find information and answers with our attention focused on that task.

In such an environment, advertising isn’t only a distraction; often, it’s a source of frustration. As Hotchkiss notes:

“The reason we’re blocking [digital] ads is that in the context those ads are being delivered, irrelevant ads are – quite literally – painful. Even relevant ads have a very high threshold to get over.”

Hotchkiss concludes that the rapid rise of ad blocking adoption isn’t about the technology per se.  It has to do with the hardwiring of our brains.  New technologies haven’t caused fundamental changes in human behavior – they’ve simply enabled new behaviors that weren’t an option before.

adbAs is becoming increasingly obvious, the implications for the advertising business are huge:  Ad blocking software is projected to lower digital ad revenues by more than $40 billion in 2016 alone, according to estimates by digital data research firm eMarketer.

Looking back on it, actually it seems like it was all so inevitable.

Online ad blocking grows ever-more popular.

abThe ad blocking phenomenon on the Internet shows no signs of abating.

Underscoring this, marketing research and forecasting firm eMarketer has just published its most recent ad blocking stats and forecasts for the United States. It projects that ad blocking adoption will continue to rise by a double digit rate in 2016 to reach nearly 70 million users.

If those projections turn out to be accurate, it will mean that ad blocking will now be used by more than 26% of all Internet users in the United States, up from ~20% just a year earlier.

And for 2017? Those forecasts are looking a whole lot like this year, too; eMarketer forecasts that ad blocker adoption will grow to more than 86 million users by the end of 2017.

[For the record, eMarketer defines a user as an Internet user of any age who accesses the ‘net at least once per month via a desktop or laptop computer, tablet, smartphone or other mobile device that has an ad blocker enabled.]

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According to the eMarketer analysis, the incidence of ad blocking is substantially more common on desktops and laptops; ~63 million people will use an ad blocker on these types of devices this year compared to ~21 million who will do so on a smartphone.

One reason for this is that ad blockers typically don’t work on apps, which is where mobile users spend much of their time. Moreover, some of the most irritating aspects of desktop/laptops advertising, such as ads with video and sound, are the kinds of advertising less likely to be served on mobile devices.

eMarketer expects many more people to begin installing ad blockers on their smartphones, however — to the tune of an increase of over 60% this year.

These projections must be alarming to publishers and advertisers. Paul Verna, a senior analyst at eMarketer, notes this:

“They’re seeing immediate revenue losses and [they] would be remiss to downplay what amounts to a large-scale rejection of their main monetization model.”

Separately, an analysis by Juniper Research sees more than $27 billion in advertising revenues lost over the next five years as a result of ad blockers.

Of course, that’s a far cry from the estimated ~$160 billion that digital advertising represents today.  But significant nonetheless.

As if on cue, The New York Times has just announced that it will introduce an ad-free subscription option. Reportedly, the publication will begin to offer subscriptions that cost more than a regular digital subscription, along with giving subscribers the option of opting out of seeing advertising if they wish to do so.

At present, NYT subscribers who use ad blockers are technically violating the publisher’s Terms of Use agreement — although I seriously doubt many people have had their knuckles rapped for doing so.

For now, all the Times does is kindly request that users “white-list” the NYT site so that the ads will appear even though an ad blocker has been installed.  According to news reports, about 40% of the people notified have actually done so.

Presumably, the new subscription option is targeted at people who really do wish to avoid seeing online advertising — and are willing to pay a premium for the benefit.

One wonders how much of a dollar premium subscribers will be asked to shell out for the privilege of keeping their screens from being inundated with advertising. (At present, annual NYT digital subscriptions range from ~$140 to ~$200.)  Will users balk at the higher rates?

Clearly, we’re in the middle of this movie … and it’ll be some time before we see how things shake out in the online media advertising game.  What are your thoughts about spending more for an ad-free subscription … and do you even have any online pay subscriptions at all?  (Many of my friends and business colleagues don’t.)

Ad blocking goes big-time.

Adblock-PlusA new milestone of sorts has been reached in the ad blocking realm. Adblock Plus, the leading ad blocking tool, has just announced that it’s just passed the 100 million marker in active installations.

An earlier milestone – 500 million downloads – was reached at the beginning of this year. That means the active user base has now doubled in less than half a year.

If these figures are accurate – and there’s little reason to think that they aren’t – it’s a pretty big deal. No longer is ad blocking an exotic functionality that’s the exclusive preserve of techies or other geeky subgroups.  It’s gone majorly mainstream.

What’s driving the ad blocking business is the ubiquity of online advertising. For many viewers, it’s nothing short of intolerable:  obtrusive, irritating, and sometimes creepy (hello, retargeting).

So once a well-functioning and reputable tool like Adblock came along, it was only a matter of time before it would take on “snowball-rolling-down-a-mountainside” proportions.

AdBlock Plus promises “annoyance-free web surfing.”  But as with most any innovation, there are one or two hitches. For Adblock Plus, it’s something called “Acceptable Ads.”

untitled“What’s that?” you might ask. It’s a white-list program that allows certain advertisers through Adblock’s screen.  The company receives a cut of publishers’ revenues through that program.

Fundamentally, it’s how Adblock Plus makes money. But it’s also how advertisers can do an end-run around the very service Adblock provides.

AdBlock goes to great pains to “explain” its rationale and why the Acceptable Ads program makes sense for everyone.

But it isn’t difficult to see where this might end up.  Larger advertisers will see fit to exempt themselves from ad blocking by paying for the privilege of their ads being served.

Which gets us right back to where we were with advertising in the first place, doesn’t it? Pay to play.

What’s old is new again, I guess. And meanwhile, the online ads just keep coming …

Bing Plays the Bouncer Role in a Big Way

untitledMicrosoft Bing has just released stats chronicling its efforts to do its part to keep the Internet a safe space. Its 2015 statistics are nothing short of breathtaking.

Bing did its part by rejecting a total of 250 million ad impressions … banning ~150,000 advertisements … and blocking around 50,000 websites outright.

It didn’t stop there. Bing also reports that it blocked more than 3 million pages and 30 million ads due to spam and misleading content.

What were some of the reasons behind the blocking? Here are a few clues as to where Bing’s efforts were strongest (although I don’t doubt that there are some others that Bing is keeping closer to its vest so as not to raise any alarms):

  • Healthcare/pharma phishing attacks: ~2,000 advertisers and ~800,000 ads blocked in 2015
  • Selling of counterfeit goods: 7,000 advertisers and 700,000+ ads blocked
  • Tech support scams: ~25,000 websites and ~15 million ads blocked
  • Trademark infringement factors: ~50 million ad placements rejected

Bing doesn’t say exactly how it identifies such a ginormous amount of fraudulent or otherwise nefarious advertising, except to report that the company has improved its handling of many aspects based on clues ranging from toll-free numbers analysis to dead links analysis.

According to Neha Garg, a program manager of ad quality at Bing:

“There have even been times our machine learning algorithms have flagged accounts that look innocent at first glance … but on close examination we find malicious intent. The back-end machinery runs 24/7 and used hundreds of attributes to look for patterns which help spot suspicious ads among billions of genuine ones.”

We’re thankful to Bing and Google for all that they do to control the incidence of advertising that carries malicious malware that could potentially cause many other problems above and beyond the mere “irritation factor.”

Of course, there’s always room for improvement, isn’t there?

On the march: Ad blocking tools continue their rise in popularity.

What Adblock PromisesI’ve blogged before about the rise of online ad blocking tools and their growing popularity with consumers.

One example:  AdTrap – a device that intercepts online ads before they reach any devices that access a person’s Internet connection.

AdTrap’s motto is simple and powerful:  “The Internet is yours again.”

In the months and years since I first blogged about it, ad blocking has only become more popular – so much so that it’s no longer just a mild irritant to advertisers and publishers, but rather a commercial threat that has a significant impact on publishers’ financial bottom lines.

It’s hardly surprising.  Most people want to run as far away from advertising as they can.  For years, we’ve taken trips to the kitchen or bathroom during TV commercial breaks.  We’ve TiVo’d ads out of existence.

And the participation levels in online ad blocking bear this out now as well.  According to data from PageFair, a company that measures publishers’ ad blocking rates and provides alternative non-intrusive advertising options, the number of ad blocker tool users reached nearly 145 million people in 2014.

That’s more than five times the 21 million users of ad blocker tools we had in 2010.

Growth continues apace:  Adblock Plus, which is the biggest of the ad blocking tools, reports more than 2.3 million downloads each week, on average.

Where are people blocking online ads?  In all sorts of areas.  But the most frequent incidence of ad blocking is on gaming sites, where blocking rates are in excess of 50%.

But blocking is happening on other online sites, too, including entertainment, fashion and lifestyle sites – albeit at about half the degree as on gaming sites.

[Tellingly, ad blocking is happening on technology sites, too, where about a quarter of the ads are being blocked.]

One of the more interesting nuggets of information reported by PageFair is the difference in ad blocking rates by country.  What we see is that Americans lag well-behind a number of other countries:

  • Argentina: ~34 of online ads are blocked
  • Poland: ~34% are blocked
  • Sweden: ~33%
  • Finland: ~32%
  • Germany: ~30%
  • United States: ~15%

Germany, in particular, has been the scene of several fervent legal skirmishes in recent years.  There, the publisher of the news magazine Die Zeit sued the parent company of AdBlock, claiming that the ad blocking tool is “illegal and anti-competitive.”  (The suit went nowhere, incidentally.)

Some observers speculate that the higher incidence of ad blocking in certain countries may be tied to those nations’ sociological profiles.  “I personally suspect that in some of these countries, citizens are more concerned about their personal privacy – perhaps for historical reasons,” Sean Blanchfield, PageFair’s CEO, has remarked.

One might wonder if, in the age of Edward Snowden and the Patriot Act (now superseded by new legislation ironically called the “USA Freedom Act”), Americans’ ad blocking practices might now be poised to align more closely with Europeans’.

I imagine we’ll know more about that degree of convergence within a year or two.

Is AdTrap the answer to our prayers when it comes to blocking online advertising?

ad blocking deviceYou may have heard of AdTrap … or maybe you haven’t.

AdTrap is a newly developed device that intercepts online ads before they reach any devices that access a person’s Internet connection.

That basic action means that people are able to surf the web – including viewing videos – without the onslaught of online advertisements that seem to become more and more pervasive with every passing month.

The fundamental promise that the developers of AdTrap are making is a return to the “good ol’ days” of web surfing.

You know, back when most web pages you downloaded contained text and pictures – and virtually no advertising.

AdTrap’s motto is a simple and powerful one:  The Internet is yours again.”

Not surprisingly, there’s a good deal of excitement surrounding this new product.  In fact, interest has been so great that the invention attracted more than $200,000 in funding — raised in a 30-day Kickstarter campaign in early 2013.

Those funds are now being used to manufacture the first AdTrap units for shipment to “early adopter” consumers across the country.

How New an Idea Is This?

advertisingIn actuality, there have been a plethora of (often-free) software and browser plug-ins offered to consumers that can block online advertisements. 

But most of them have significant limitations because they’ve been designed to work only with specific browsers or on specific devices.

Free is good, of course.  But the developers of AdTrap are banking on the willingness of consumers to shell out $139 for their product – a rectangular box that looks a lot like a wireless router and that intercepts advertisements before they reach a laptop, tablet or mobile device.

The beauty of AdTrap is that it will work on every device connected to a person’s network.  Situated between the modem and router, it takes just a few minutes to set up.  

CNN technology correspondent Dan Simon reports that AdTrap does an effective job blocking advertising content.  But not perfectly; ads still appear on Hulu content, for example. 

But the developers of AdTrap report that they’re working on ways to block even more content going forward, including ads on Hulu.

Is this Bigger than Merely Blocking Ads?

Beyond the collective sigh of relief you’re likely hearing from those reading this blog post … what are the larger implications if AdTrap and similar devices are adopted by consumers on a large scale?

One not-so-positive implication may be that websites will no longer offer be able to offer content without charge, since so many publishers’ business models rely on advertising content to help pay most of the bills.

If advertising isn’t appearing thanks to AdTrap, people aren’t getting paid.

So let’s think about this for a minute:  It’s true that the Internet was blissfully free of wall-to-wall advertising 15 years ago compared to today. 

But cyberspace was also far less robust in terms of the quantity and quality of the informational and entertainment content available to us.

So yes … having a device to block 80% or more of the ads served to us is a very attractive proposition.  But if it means that some of our favorite sites move to pay-walls as a result, it might be that making a $139 investment in an AdTrap device isn’t such a “no-brainer” choice in the final analysis.

What do you think of this development — pro or con?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.