Every week, ad blockers are generating ripple across the mobile advertising ecosystem. Against a backdrop of a series of court cases in which publishers have lost their actions against ad blockers, even Apple has now waded in recently with news that iOS9 will enable consumers to block ads in its Safari browser by downloading a Safari extension - just as in the online version of the browser. There’s now talk that some carriers are considering implementing ad blockers at source.
A new company called Sourcepoint has just announced $10 million in funding to block the ad blockers. They are focused on online publishers, but nonetheless, highlights a growing issue across digital media.
The arguments for and against ad blocking do not stack up. The philosophy of a free web, plus the economics of content delivery, together blow the specious arguments around battery life, bandwidth and privacy out of the water.
But whether the purveyors of such software really want to defend the rights of consumers, or improve the quality of advertising, or just want to push their own technology, there’s one thing we can agree on: consumers should be able to see better ads delivered in better ways, and that should benefit everyone.
Strong arguments against
Make no mistake, there are really big issues at stake here. The biggest is simply that the digital ecosystem should be decentralised and free, and this does not sit well with ad blocking at source.
The hardware architecture (the Internet) is, by definition, a decentralised system, created so that it would be robust against attack. The software architecture (the web) is free, released as such by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Free and decentralised systems do not block content, and this is a principle enshrined by the net neutrality principle. Put plainly, this says that, if you think all traffic has equal right to be carried, then you cannot prejudice against specific types, such as ads.
But broad philosophical points aside, let’s look at hard-nosed economics. A vast amount of the content you see, whether via a browser on a desktop, or a browser or app on a mobile device, is supported by ads. Of course, there are other models – pay for an app and the ads disappear, or subscribe to get through the paywall – but on the whole, developers and publishers really do need access to the ad-supported model to make their way. Take that away, and you remove their livelihood and puts at risk the magnitude of free apps and mobile sites in the ecosystem.
So the scales are weighed heavily against ad blocking. Do the arguments for ad blocking rebalance this at all? I don’t believe so. Let’s take three outlined by Roi Carthy, CMO of Shine, producer of Adblock: battery life, data usage and privacy.
All apps of whatever description take up battery life, but not all the ads will consume the same amount of energy. However, let’s assume you spend all your time exclusively in an app that is particularly heavy on battery usage. How much does that really cost you? According to Christopher Helman at Forbes, a complete daily drain and recharge of your iPhone would come in at around 25 cents’ worth of electricity per year. This is not this is not a sufficient reason to block ads.
Secondly, data usage. A Citrix study claimed that 2% of a smartphone subscriber’s daily mobile data volume is generated by ads. As with the energy argument, I believe that if ads are blocked, what consumers would lose – pretty much the entire app ecosystem – is much more impactful than two percent of their bandwidth. Plus, this is one aspect consumers do have control over, as they can set which apps work via wifi, and which via mobile data.
But realistically, how much will this impact consumers using free Wi-Fi services, for example at work or even during the commute? If they also have unlimited Wi-Fi bandwidth at home, then this becomes a null argument.
Finally, privacy. This is one area consumers really can control. Most smart devices today enable them to control Do Not Track, and reset device IDs – and this will cover almost all instances of privacy concerns.
Raising the bar
But there is one area where I tend to agree with Carthy, and that’s around his claim that Shine wants to “improve standards and force companies to be more innovative.”
Arguably the worst thing to happen to digital advertising was the ubiquitous banner ad. It’s a lazy format, one which doesn’t even attempt to engage with consumers. Having failed to learn the lesson first time around, mobile advertising merely compounded the problem, believing that banner ads could simply be ported to mobile devices. They couldn’t, and this gave mobile advertising a hard time, especially in its early years.
Same with the means of targeting ads. The networks that used to match publishers to advertisers simply could not cope with the skyrocketing growth of the mobile web, and so programmatic trading is assisting with matching literally billions of ad spaces to advertisers every day globally. This is where artificial intelligence and data combine to show the most relevant ads to consumers.
So I agree with Shine that the higher we can collectively raise the bar, the better, both in terms of the formats we use, and the means we employ of delivering those formats.
Study after study shows that when the advertisers really think about how best to engage their audiences, they get great returns. Formats such as video are provably more compelling to consumers and yield significantly higher clickthrough rates. So are native formats. This isn’t just me saying this: big players such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Yahoo are expanding on their native video offerings and brands are queuing up with advertising dollars.
So how about a compromise? Let’s agree that yes, consumers should have the power to block ads that they don’t like – other advertising platforms like Facebook already support this approach. This would enable consumers to block advertisers or types of ads. Poor quality ads deserve not to be seen. If we did this then, rather than a blanket block on all ads, we would deliver a far better ad funded mobile internet ecosystem and end user experience. Everyone wins – and that’s a much better scenario than pulling the web apart or destroying the app ecosystem.