It's official: ad blocking software has entered the mainstream. According to Adobe and PageFair, ad blocking has grown by 41% globally in the last 12 months, making the leap from a niche practice to a widespread phenomenon that's expected to cost publishers $22bn in 2015. And with the latest edition of Apple's Safari browser – due to be released in autumn with the iOS 9 update – to support ad blocking extensions on mobile, it's now more important than ever for publishers and advertisers to focus on winning back jaded audiences.
The challenge for advertisers and publishers
In a blog post on the ethics of ad blocking, Marco Arment, co-founder of Tumblr and creator of Instapaper, writes that the old implied contract between reader and publisher (free content for the user in exchange for being served ads) is dead.
This is because the parameters of the agreement have fundamentally changed: online ads are now essentially sophisticated pieces of software that track and collect data on those who view them. Users rarely know what data will be harvested by advertisers’ code when they visit a site, or how this data will be used. This lack of transparency creates understandable trust barriers and privacy concerns.
There are also considerable challenges for publishers, many of which rely on ad revenue to stay afloat. In an increasingly content-saturated environment, some publishers may feel the pressure to compromise on editorial standards in favour of traffic and revenue-driving 'clickbait' content – a practice that can erode brand reputation over time.
Finding a solution
Arment argues that publishers who wish to retain their audiences should look to other methods of monetisation, such as subscription models, taking advantage of technology that facilitates fast, small direct payments. However, recent research from video advertising platform Teads suggests that an ad-free internet would cost users at least £140 a year: and 98% of UK web users say they would never pay that.
The solution may therefore lie in improving the quality and delivery of branded or 'advertising' content. When done correctly, native advertising and content marketing efforts (for example, sponsored posts and promoted content) create a user experience that is simultaneously relevant to a brand’s business and useful or entertaining for their audience. And here, the implied contract still stands: users benefit from high-quality content, brands benefit from qualified traffic and engagement, and publishers maintain integrity without renouncing ad revenue.
This content-driven approach to publishing and advertising – in which greater value is placed on length of time spent engaged with content and return visits (perceived loyalty) rather than on traffic volume – is being dubbed the Attention Web, and could be the antidote to the imminent ad blocking revolution.
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