The ad blocker threat: what media owners are doing to stop ad avoidance

In the traditional media channels, advertising couldn’t be avoided. When viewers listened to a radio broadcast or watched a television show, ads were an inevitable part of the experience and often provided a momentary break to run to the bathroom or make a cup tea. But with the growing tendency of online viewing, this coerced ad-watching is no longer a given. Simple software downloads, such as AdBlock, now give viewers direct access to the content that they want to watch. 

When such apps are activated, the creativity of pre- or mid-roll advertising is rendered irrelevant because the viewer won’t even catch a glimpse of it. As a corollary, the online advertising solutions provided by media owners are at risk of being ineffective. And, as advertisers continue to throw more money at the online channel, it becomes increasingly important for media owners to find ways of protecting the advertising hosted on their websites.

The latest report from the IAB that showed 22 percent year-on-year jump in mobile an interactive ad spend, with the annual figure shifting from $99.2 million last year to $120.2 million this year. And while television continues to contribute the biggest portion to annual ad spend, ZenithOptimedia’s researchers recently predicted that the online channel would overtake TV within the next two years.

In an effort to protect its commercial interests and keep its online advertising in front of viewers, MediaWorks recently introduced measures that preclude ad-block-using browsers from accessing the content featured on its various web-based media properties.    

In order to watch any videos embedded in news articles or hosted within on-demand hubs, users must first deactivate any ad-blocking software before proceeding.

“We started looking into this two years ago, and have progressively been rolling out notices across our websites since then,” says Graeme Underwood, the general manager of interactive sales for MediaWorks Interactive. “We’ve been successful in stopping a number of the most popular ad blockers. [But], as with everything in this area, technology is always advancing.  The availability of new streaming technologies is likely to make ad blockers (as they currently are) obsolete and potentially unusable within the next three to five years.”

Interestingly, Underwood says that since “most popular ad blockers appear to be working similarly,” MediaWorks has successfully been able to employ a blanket approach to stop users who have the the software activated. He did however play down the significance of the threat of ad-blocking software, saying that “both global and regional statistics suggest fewer than ten percent of impressions are ad blocked”.

These sentiments are also shared across the TV divide at TVNZ, where there have been no measures taken against ad-blocking software at this stage.

“The amount of ad-blocking we’re seeing is very low across TVNZ’s online offering,” says Yael Milbank, TVNZ’s general manager of online sales. “[So], we aren’t actively preventing ad blockers from working. We’re keeping a close watch on it to learn more about what’s ticking over in our viewers’ minds.”

Milbank also says that TVNZ’s “advertisers do not pay for any blocked impressions” and that viewers accept advertising “as part of the package when it comes to watching great content for free”. The problem, however, is that many ad blockers also remove banner ads and pop ups, meaning that the advertiser’s online brand visibility is markedly reduced. In fact, ad blockers were first developed to protect internet surfers against the annoying pop-up ads that would often inundate browsers on certain websites.

And for this reason, Milbank argues that it is important for online advertising to be of a high quality, so that viewers aren’t encouraged to take preventative measures. 

“We know that digital ads that are relevant and highly creative enjoy greater levels of viewer acceptance and interaction. The more we see of good advertising the less we see ad avoidance. I think that’s what will slow the uptake of ad blockers in the future.”

Nick Boulstridge, the head of digital at Vivaki, also admits that the use of ad-blocking software is still relatively limited in New Zealand, but believes it shouldn’t be ignored.   

“Ad blockers are still largely used by the early adopters/tech savvy due to [the requirement of]having to download a browser plug-in or programme onto your computer,” he says. “With that in mind, the threat is still relatively low. Advertisers are already concerned about their ads being watched, which is why it’s important that campaigns are tracked and data collected on viewablity/exposure of these placements.”

However, relying on the tech phobia of the majority of online viewers isn’t a strategy that Boulstridge recommends for the future.    

“The real threat to advertisers/media owners is if/when browsers come with the technology pre-installed, for example on  Mozilla/Firefox,” he says. “Mozilla’s focus is on their consumers having no advertising service, unlike competitor browsers. Therefore, it is quite conceivable in the future for them to update the browser with the functionality already enabled for the less tech savvy consumer.” 

And while he says that the problem is not yet pervasive in New Zealand, he admits that developments in the field of digital advertising have had an impact on the way his business is run.    

“Ad verification tools are now an integral part of the planning/buying process at Vivaki … If the brand’s content is not being seen, then the impact has a direct financial implication on the media owners as no one wants to pay for something that they are not receiving. Therefore, media owners are having to become more transparent about their inventory, especially in advertising networks to ensure that the ads are being viewed by a consumer and not a bot.”

Boulstridge does however warn against taking a knee-jerk reaction that could effectively alienate the consumer.  

“Media owners need to adapt as opposed to trying to overcome the blocking ability,” he says. “Ultimately, the brand is looking to engage with a consumer and, if that individual has chosen not be reached through an online advert, then it would be detrimental to the brand to cross this line. Conversely a media owner who pushes adverts to an audience that is blocking them, without alerting the brand/agency, is unlikely to make future RFPs due to the possible consumer back lash which is likely to aimed at the brand.”

He says that consumers are gaining more control of what they watch, and that this is effectively changing the rules of the game.   

“Digital is not the only media to encounter this. Traditional media is also being impacted by the consumer trend of having the right to choose if they want to see adverts or not. With the growth of Sky and the ability to pause live TV/record shows, more consumers are choosing to skip through the adverts through fast-forwarding.” 

Boulstridge sees native advertising playing a bigger role in the future as brands look for ways to introduce commercial messages that circumvent ad-blocking software without annoying viewers. 

“Content is going to be the key for advertisers moving forward … The smart way for brands/agencies to now engage with the consumer is by investing in storytelling to deliver cutting edge content that is relevant to the consumer but also fits the brand. Brands that are not investing in a content strategy are: a) running the risk of losing the right to converse with the consumer on the same level and  b) not investing in a future strategy.”

Given that as much as ten percent of online impressions are already ad blocked, the future doesn’t seem too far away. And as technological developments continue to place more control in the hands of consumers, media owners can no longer rely on simply plonking an ad in the middle of a piece of content. The modern media landscape seems to demand something a little more palatable than that.  



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