The threat of mobile ad blocking: is there anything publishers can do to save themselves?

We’ve written a fair bit about it in the past and the amount of ink (mostly digital) that’s been spilled about ad blocking has only increased with the launch of Apple’s iOS9 yesterday. It doesn’t sound like good news for publishers or advertisers, particularly with the amount of time we spend on our phones these days. So, should they be changing their approach? And is there any way to get around an ad blocker? We spoke to the IAB Mobile Council’s Sarah Kavanagh and Postr chief executive Milan Reinartz for their opinions.

I’ve got to admit, despite the fact that I write about advertising and go out of my way to watch ads or be in front of ads so I can write about them, even I felt a little pang of power and relief when I heard about Apple’s new operating system. And that’s because mobile ads are quite annoying. Browsing on your phone is naturally a bit more finicky and less user friendly than browsing on a desktop, particularly when your phone is a bit of a dinosaur like mine.

The ads pop up, you accidentally click on them, you have to wait for the page to load as you say “No, no, no!” with frustration before you can go back to your original page. 

Apple has introduced its ad-blocking feature to its Safari mobile browser for iOS9, automatically giving users control of whether or not want ads fed onto their phones.  

Blocking ads on desktop browsers isn’t a particularly new thing. Users can easily download them for free. AdBlock and Adblock Plus are two of the most popular and Google’s Chrome Adblock is the most popular extension of all time, with 40 million users as of July 2014.

However, Breitbart reports Google is already losing 10 percent of annual revenue due to other ad blockers, according to PageFair analysts.

But ad blocking for mobile is quite recent and considering we spend hours on our mobiles per week, inevitably publishers will be a bit hurt by this. Especially considering Safari holds a 25 percent share of all mobile web browsing.

Apple hasn’t yet said whether its ad blocker will prevent its in-house adverts from running on iPhones and iPads, but we imagine not.

As mentioned earlier, Adblock Plus is also making waves, with it announcing its extended service to mobile devices in May and Eyeo (parent company of Adblock Plus) spokesperson Ben Williams said earlier the company already has 200,000 active users in New Zealand.

Naturally, ad blockers have pissed off a number of publishers which has led to them taking action against AdBlock Plus, but the courts’ verdicts fell in favour of the company.

So, what can publishers do?

IAB NZ Mobile Council acting chair Sarah Kavanagh has a few ideas, one of which includes advertisers being a bit more thoughtful with their ads.

“Creativity on mobile is hugely important and so far under-played, and with Apple’s latest release potentially bringing ad blocking on mobile web to the masses, brand advertisers need to ensure they are adhering to industry best practice to provide best customer experience,” she says. “This includes fast page loading, high quality creative and contextually relevant ad placement. This has always been at the heart of Mobile Embrace’s business and this strategy holds true now more than ever.”

She says gone are the days when a scattergun approach to mobile advertising cuts through. “Brand advertisers and publishers alike need to respect the customer experience on what is their most personal device … Content marketing and true native integration with premium publishers are about more than just placing ‘advertorials’ within traditional editorial placements,” she says.

“There is a huge opportunity for brands to invest heavily in this area, and if done correctly allows the brand to have a more personal conversation with the consumer, adding value to their experience.”

She says ad blocking is without question a threat, however, it’s as much a threat to the consumer’s experience of the internet (be it mobile or desktop). “ … consumers also need to be educated about the ad-funded ecosystem that allows them to consume high quality, free content, in return for receiving ads. If consumers start to use ad blocking en-masse, the way they consume free content will no doubt change. What Mobile Embrace, and indeed the IAB hopes will play out is that this will clean up the low end of the market and ensure best practice is adhered to.”

Good quality free content is only available due to the ad-funded model, she says. “If there is no/little ad revenue, the quality of content along with how it is consumed will have to evolve. This will be at the expense of the user and the way they consume their content.”

She says ultimately it could be a massive opportunity for brands to ensure best practice “ … which should weed out poor quality ads. This has the potential to lead to a better experience for consumers who have, to date, been exposed to advertising in return for good quality, free content across the internet, regardless of the platform.”

One company that continues to benefit from ads despite mobile ad blockers is Postr. Previously, founder and director Milan Reinartz told StopPress that Postr is a publisher in the sense that advertisers pay it to distribute a message to its user-base. The difference, however, is that a portion of the revenue is also shared with the users, who download the app, fill in their details and agree to have ads on their lock screens.

After downloading the app, personalised advertising appears on a user’s lock screen, and the user can either swipe left to engage with the advert or swipe right to enter the phone. By allowing advertisers to take over their home screens, users can make up to $30 per month, which will then either be transferred into a selected bank account or donated to charity.

So, why won’t Postr be affected?

“Our ads aren’t classified as ads, so-to-speak, they are just images which we can use,” Reinartz says. “We have a bespoke solution that serves the advertiser through our own technology rather than through a standard ad serving system, like you would on a mobile site or a native ad app.”

He says it falls in line with its strategy of creating opt-in advertising. “Part of the reason we do what we do is we believe it’s more effective and relevant and embraced by people if they actually opt into receiving the advertising and are also rewarded for lending their eyeballs.”

It [mobile ad blocking]positions Postr really nicely, he says. “For me it was always about making advertising acceptable and personalised … I think this just shows and strengthens that we are on the right path.”

But, what other ways are there to get around ad blocking?

“Promotional stuff like GrabOne in a way [will be safe], that’s a promotional deal. That’s almost like an advertisement but it’s a deal. But because of the way they serve their deals they are in a similar space,” he says. “ … I don’t know enough about it yet but I’m guessing that native ads like Facebook ads for example on timelines are probably a bit trickier to block. Even though sophisticated ad blockers can pick many things up, I’m guessing native ads are harder to pick up than display ads.”

He says at the moment Postr is only available for Android but the company hopes to have an iOS solution soon. “It will be a different solution because Apple as a developer doesn’t give access to the lock screen … If they make the lock screen available, we will jump on that. But even if they don’t I think there are other ways of allowing people to opt in to see ads and earn cash for hosting them that don’t involve the lock screen necessarily.”

Postr has now reached 20,000 downloads and is growing at more than 2000 downloads per week after receiving more investment (from NZVIF, Angel HQ, ICE Angels as well as industry executives from Europe and APAC) recently. “Our engagement rates are up to twenty times industry standards or more because of exactly that reason. Even with a very small target audience, we have found that we’ve created a really high level of conversions.”

To date Reinartz says Postr has paid out over $65,000 to its users. “The biggest complaint we have is that people don’t see enough ads. We are very user focused and all our development and our timeline is influenced by user feedback and we take that very seriously because we live and die by the grace of our users.”

Since March, Postr also facilitates content from NZ Herald, GrabOne, and MetService on the lock-screen through a set up function that allows users to access personalised content up to three times faster than through conventional apps or mobile browsers, a Postr release says.

So, yes, ad blocking is on the rise but it would appear to be a rational response to the decline of advertising into intrusive gimmicks.

A study by Adobe Systems and Page Fair, shows the general use of ad blocking software has increased 41 percent in the past year alone, and cost publishers $22 billion in lost revenue.

Despite some saying iOS9 isn’t as much of a threat as we are being led to believe, the Page Fair study supports it will be, and it will no doubt keep the price of digital advertising low, making it harder for smaller publishers to make a living from mobile or desktop ads.

It’s only early days in terms of how mobile ad blocking will affect publishers and mobile users but it would seem brands should start being more considerate and creative with their ads now and start thinking outside the box, much like Postr, researching other ways to get them across to their target audience in a way where the user doesn’t act like I do with intrusive mobile ads.. “No, no, no!”

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