If you’ve been following the world of digital advertising at all over the last decade, you know that there’s never a shortage of discourse surrounding the rise of ad blocking software. Driving a wedge between publishers and ad revenue, ad blockers have long been a sore spot for both advertisers and online outlets whose primary source of income is digital advertising.
New reports show some degree of flatlining in the installation of ad blocking software on desktop, ad blocking isn’t really slowing down and it seems to be on the precipice of major proliferation in mobile. Where do advertisers and ad blockers stand now, and what does that mean for the future?
A recent report from PageFair found that while desktop usage is declining as people consume more and more content on mobile, ad blocking usage on desktop still shows signs of growth. It’s not showing the astronomical growth we might’ve expected from it a year or two again, but growth hasn’t entirely ceased.
For publishers, slowing growth is good news, but any degree of growth is harmful to the industry. It means that by and large, ad blockers are still a fixture of web usage and that they’re not going away. Which means, of course, that the threat posed to ad revenue by ad blockers is also not going away. PageFair’s report shows that between December 2015 and December 2016, the number of devices using ad blockers grew by 142 million globally, reaching a total number of 615 million devices.
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There is some degree of stagnation in ad blocking growth on desktop, but it’s by no means a steep drop-off and it certainly doesn’t spell the end of the ad blocking threat that resulted in lost ad revenue to the tune of around $22 billion in 2015. In fact, what it really shows is an incredible threat looming on the horizon. While desktop ad blocking is huge in the United States, mobile ad blocking in the U.S. has yet to really catch on. That’s not the case everywhere. In Asia, mobile ad blocking is huge. And many see it as simply a matter of time before a single solution catches on in the United States and manages to capture a huge portion of internet users who are already using ad blocking software on desktop browsers.
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The growth numbers shake out like this:
Because mobile ad blocking hasn’t yet caught on en masse in the US, this deceleration may seem like a reprieve, but it may well be temporary. Ad blocking seems to have reached some kind of saturation point on desktop, but the fight hasn’t yet begun on mobile. That said, perhaps the lessons that publishers have learned during the early acts of the Desktop Ad Blocking Drama might inform the way in which combatting ad blockers on mobile devices unfolds in the North America and Europe.
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Publications like Forbes and GQ have run aggressive anti-ad blocker campaigns, using methods like pop-ups encouraging ad block users to “whitelist” (that is, enable ads on a certain page or domain) their sites or even blocking certain types of content for those using ad blocking software, much like a pay wall.
The Los Angeles Times’ ad blocker pop-up
It’s worth noting, though, that a major variable in the fight against ad blocking in North America and Europe wasn’t a factor in the similar fight for desktop browsing:
A lot of mobile activity takes place in apps rather than mobile browsers, and ad blockers don’t work in apps. With applications like Apple News, Newsstand, and native apps from individual publishers like the New York Times and The Washington Post, the ad and content consumption experience changes. Major publishers are typically very mindful of the balance between user experience and the necessity of ads on their sites. By taking complete control of the on-site ad experience through apps, publishers may be able to further alter the relationship between readers, advertisers, and themselves.
Another factor is the current rise in subscription revenue. Particularly as the media combats rising allegations of “fake news” courtesy of an administration that’s proven itself antagonistic toward a free and critical press, subscriptions for major publications are up. Subscriptions to The New York Times doubled in 2016, and the newspaper reported that Q4 of 2016 was its best since 2011. If subscription revenue continues to rise and rival ad revenue, and if advertisers continue to find alternatives to traditional ads, ad blocking may quickly find itself pushed to the bottom of the priority list where publishers are concerned.
Digital advertising is a constantly evolving landscape, and the seemingly inevitable rise of mobile ad blocking is poised to change and challenge it further. But it’s not all doom and gloom — there’s certainly some hope that while recent efforts by sites to outsmart ad blockers and vice versa, there may be some kind of achievable middle ground. If readers continue to accept advertising as a necessary exchange in return for free news and content and if advertisers put publishers in the driver’s seat when it comes to designing a site experience around compelling ads, ad blocking’s future may not be as detrimental as once feared.