Imagine walking through a Times Square in New York City where all the flashing neon billboards have been removed. Or watching a Law & Order marathon on television with no commercial interruptions. Such scenarios sound unfamiliar, jarring even, given the over-saturated world we’ve come to know. But this is the state of the digital landscape for 198 million active users worldwide who have downloaded ad blockers on their laptops and mobile devices. When these people visit a website, any instances of display ads or even sponsored content are simply erased, so the visitor only sees the content they went there to see.
Most people who are using ad blockers do so through browser extensions or apps on their mobile devices. These tools look at content being displayed on a given webpage, and match the source of that content against a database of known advertising networks. Any items on the page matching that list will be omitted from the display. Of course, some ad blockers also allow advertisers to pay a fee to be “whitelisted” and slip through the filters cracks, so the methodology is anything but foolproof.
But despite its flaws, users are flocking to adopt ad-blocking technology. In the United States alone, the number of users downloading and using ad blockers grew 31 percent in 2015, and 34 percent in 2016. By the end of 2017, eMarketer predicts that 32 percent of Internet users in the U.S. — 86.6 million people — will be using ad blockers. The sheer volume of this audience is enough to cause advertisers significant stress as they adapt to the rapidly changing landscape.
But it’s not just advertisers who are having to adjust to this technology. International courts are starting to weigh in on a host of new legal issues that have arisen due to ad blockers, as well as publishers’ anti-ad-blocking campaigns. Courts in Germany and the European Union have already adjudicated on the legality of issues surrounding ad blocking, with additional cases expected to appear in the upcoming years. Adblock Plus, one of the market’s biggest players, has survived five legal challenges in Germany. In the most recent case, Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, tried to make the argument that newspaper readers have entered into an understood contract to accept advertisements, and that Adblock Plus interferes with this contract.
So what’s an advertiser to do in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds? This guide will explore the motivations of ad blocker users, the unique ways mobile devices are affected, and the opportunities for marketers to overcome ad blockers.
Understanding An Evolving Audience
To successfully overcome ad blocking, marketers have to understand who the ad-blocking audience is, and why they choose to block ads in the first place. The 2016 Reuters Digital News report surveyed 50,000 online news consumers in 26 countries, revealing that 24 percent of consumers in the United States utilize ad blockers. The report findings also showed that these users skewed quite young, with 35 percent of ad-blocker users under the age of 35. But ad blocking is neither exclusive to the United States nor at its peak there. Germany had a reported 25 percent of people using ad blockers, which still pales in comparison with Poland, where a whopping 38 percent of people are following this practice.
Beyond just sticking it to advertisers and taking back control, what’s actually in it for people downloading ad blockers? People typically cite one (or all) of the following three reasons why they made the switch online:
- Performance: Each advertisement that appears on a webpage takes time and bandwidth to load. The average internet user will easily visit more than 100 webpages per day, the majority of which will contain ads, tracking scripts, or potentially rogue code. By one estimate, Internet users in the United States spend a total of 60 hours per year waiting for webpages to load. Installing an ad blocker helps to reclaim this idle time, saving web surfers up to 24 hours of time annually.
- Privacy: The current age of digital advertising has enabled brands to collect, log, and trade data about users across vast ad exchanges. Every online search, page visit, and click of the mouse can be tracked and used as leverage in marketing campaigns. For some people, giving away the nuances of their online footstep is simply too high a price to pay for tailored advertisements and targeted messaging. Employing an ad blocker gives these users a bit of confidence that they have at least taken steps to protect their personal information.
- Security: As the digital advertising industry expands more quickly than most technologists can keep up, there are inevitable holes left for hackers and people of malicious intent to fill. Even big industry players like BBC, The New York Times, AOL, MSN, and Newsweek have been hit by malicious ads placed on their websites. Hackers took over otherwise innocuous ad networks and used them as an opportunity to inject harmful code directly into the ads that viewers saw on the publisher websites. While reputable ad networks generally pose no threat to average consumers, disabling ads altogether places yet another barrier in front of would-be hackers.
Ad Blocking On the Go
Some people would argue that the Apple iOS 9 launch was the catalyst that turned ad blocking from a niche practice to a near default. That 2015 launch introduced Apple users to “content blockers” for the native Safari app, which block everything from ads to tracking data. Almost immediately, content-blocking apps jumped to the top of the App Store charts as users clamored to take advantage of this new technology.
But the mobile ad blocking revolution wasn’t unilateral. In the Google Play Store, ad-blocking apps were removed from listings completely. Google (which also happens to run the world’s largest ad network) cited Google Play Developer Program Policies — which prohibit apps from interfering with other apps on the user’s device — as their rationale for removing the apps. All of this points to a highly politicized and opaque relationship between mobile-device makers, app networks, ad blockers, and the users who employ all three.
It’s fairly easy to understand how browser extensions and mobile apps can interpret and adjust the user’s experience in a desktop or mobile web browser. However, this also reveals a large loophole in the ad-blocking game. Native mobile (and desktop) apps are still walled gardens which largely can’t be impacted by outside programs. This means that while mobile users can eliminate ads as they surf the web in a Chrome, Firefox, or Safari app, as soon as they open Facebook and Snapchat they’re fair game for advertisers again.
Opportunities For Overcoming Ad Blocking
The future of ad-blocking ubiquity may seem inevitable to marketers, and to some degree they’re right. It’s unlikely that ad-blocking growth will slow anytime soon, but this doesn’t mean marketers should slow their efforts in return. In fact, there are quite a few strategies that enable marketers to hack the ad–blocking system, or bypass it completely. By taking into account the kind of advertising that users are trying to avoid (namely, display ads and retargeting messages), marketers can craft campaigns that will actually reach their audience.
It’s clear that the advertisements in question have to be labeled as such for ad blockers to identify them, and busy display ads scream at users to notice them, making them easy for ad blockers to identify and filter. Native ads, however, are more subtle and take on the look and tone of the environment they appear in. This consistency allows native advertising to generate positive impressions with viewers, adding value to the user experience without being overly obtrusive. Successful native-advertising campaigns rely on a positive brand alignment between the advertiser and publisher, as well as quality content that genuinely provides something of value to readers. Yahoo’s In-Feed Perception Study of native ads showed that there were four key creative components that contributed to the creation of positive viewer impressions:
- People: Leverage photos of people rather than static objects.
- Logos: Make sure logos are sized large enough to be fully readable.
- Videos: Use short video formats (15 seconds or less) to account for short attention spans.
- Brand: Give brand names prominent placement within content.
Pay To Play
As previously mentioned, ad blockers selectively choose content to remove from a page based on a pre-determined filter list. Most common ad blockers have a set of whitelisted advertisers for whom they will still allow ads to display (assuming ad-blocker users stick with the default settings). In order to be whitelisted, advertisers must meet a set of “acceptable ad” guidelines, which help to ensure a better end-user experience. However, for top-tier advertisers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, opening a checkbook is all that’s necessary to restore the flow of ad impressions. Pay-to-play systems currently exist only at the larger end of the advertiser spectrum, but with the clamoring of wealthy (and desperate) advertisers increasing, it’s likely that ad blockers will succumb to the market demand eventually.
Partnering With Publishers
So far in the ad-blocking game, publishers have been the ones most willing to get scrappy and rapidly develop new ways to fight the system. Slate, The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, and Forbes have all launched campaigns directly aimed at overcoming ad blockers in order to sustain existing ad-revenue streams. These counterattacks have ranged from polite pleas to disable ad blockers, to fully unavailable content for users who have ad blockers enabled.
Because publishers are being so aggressive about combating ad blocking, partnering directly with the publishers can be a marketer’s best bet to make sure their campaign is actually seen. Working with premium publishers can also bring new opportunities like brand integration, the act of incorporating your product into a publisher’s content so that the product is completely critical to the narrative. This kind of product placement can result in content that is far more compelling for audiences than a standard ad ever would have been.
Rather than relying so completely on the quick and quippy tag lines of character-limited digital ads, marketers can invest their energies in producing branded content. Branded content comes in a variety of flavors, aiming to educate, entertain, or engage a user, whether on the brand’s own web property or on a third-party website. The key to unlocking the potential of branded content is honing in on content that provides added value for readers. Online viewers, especially those who have already put effort into blocking ad nuisances, can sniff out disingenuous marketing content in the time it takes to read a headline. Brands that take the time to really understand a user’s intent, identify their pain points, and create content to address those needs will reap the rewards of a loyal and educated consumer base.
In today’s market, there’s no reason that branded content should be limited to listicles and blog posts. Brands should be refocusing their marketing efforts on creating polished, helpful video content powered by pitch-perfect music tracks. With the help of stock services like Shutterstock, there’s no limit to what brands can create to better tell their stories for consumers.
But creating incredible branded content only goes as far as your own website domain can reach. Establishing brand partners enables ongoing native content placement. Savvy marketers will get creative when evaluating brand partners, and will look for partners who are able to reach their same target audience, but with a unique perspective.
When all else fails, the old tried-and-true digital marketing methods may come back in vogue once again. The core element of any marketing campaign, whether paid or organic, should be a well-crafted piece of content offering inherent value. When ad blockers or other technologies cast doubt onto a marketer’s ability to easily and reliably generate brand impressions, content marketing becomes all the more important. Unlike advertising where click-through rates and quick wins provide an instant adrenaline rush, content marketing is a long game that has to be backed up by a rock solid strategy.
Developing and executing on a marketing-focused editorial calendar is no small feat, but it may just be the most critical thing marketers can do to ensure business success. Building distribution strategies around existing channels such as social media and email will supplement paid efforts while working to build long-term brand equity with readers.
The Shutterstock Premier Solution
The task of creating all this content can feel particularly overwhelming to marketers who already operate in saturated markets. Trying to stand out on Facebook takes way more than a snappy headline these days, not to mention competing in the latest apps from Snapchat to Instagram Stories. If marketers want to build a strategy that focuses in on these areas where ad blockers can’t interfere, they’ll need to be armed with top quality visual content that stands out in a crowded news feed.
Shutterstock has a library of more than 100 million images available at your fingertips for a 24/7 marketing cycle. Shutterstock offers industry-leading photography, vectors, and illustrations trusted by the world’s biggest brands, creative agencies, and media companies. With a Premier subscription, marketers can also access an extensive collection of editorial images, including up-to-the-minute shots from news, fashion, the red carpet, and sports, while also enjoying clips optimized for the web in stunning HD and 4K. Ready to take your marketing work to the Premier level? Learn more about what Shutterstock Premier can bring to your campaigns today.