Is AdBlock Plus the saviour of online advertising?

Having controversially made a move to start selling ads, AdBlock Plus is now out to silence the critics.

When AdBlock Plus, the world’s largest ad blocking app, announced in September it would start selling ads as part of its Acceptable Ads programme, many users reacted with both anger and confusion. Was this a transparent attempt at making money? Or even a sign ad blockers were on the way out?

The move was highly controversial because AdBlock Plus would decide what ‘acceptable ads’ looked like and charge publishers to get their ads on its network. Subsequently, ads that passed would be shown to people who have downloaded AdBlock Plus’ ad blocking software.

Google and AppNexus were highly critical. And, unsurprisingly, there was a similar sentiment from the advertising industry itself. “We see this cynical move from Adblock Plus as a new string in their racket,” was the damning assessment of former IAB CEO Guy Phillipson.

Two months on and AdBlock Plus’ operations and comms manager Ben Williams is in good spirits. And he’d very much like marketers to play ball.

Has your user base lost faith in AdBlock Plus now it sells ads?

Maybe to an extent, but that is more because we didn’t tell them in the right way. It is not about the actual change. When we started Acceptable Ads in 2011 there were always users who didn’t like it but the majority were cool on the direction we were headed. At the moment, the opt-out rate on Acceptable Ads is just under 10%. We recently did a survey and asked would you rather block ads or filter them? And 77% said they would prefer to filter, with 83% stating that they’d like to block obnoxious ads but not everything. It is clear that sustainably blocking ads is a better choice than just blocking everything.

“If they want to say we have lost our original way then they are right but that’s only because we’ve found a better way”

Ben Williams, operations and comms manager, AdBlock Plus

That is something we want to stress; partial ad blocking is a lot better than complete ad blocking.

What is your response to critics calling AdBlock Plus desperate because user growth is slowing?

They could be right or it could just be a Summer slump that happens every year. Generally there is a peak and I think once 30% of a country has an ad blocker installed, it tends to hit a ceiling. We got up to 100 million users in May and we haven’t seen that go up significantly since. But the reality is there is still a lot of room for growth in the US market. Yes maybe in the UK we are topping out but we have very few users in India and China so I’m confident there’s lots of growth on the horizon.

An ad blocker, a publisher or a regulator… What are you?

At a certain point you label it whatever but it is hard to give a label to what we are or what we have become. You can call it AdBlock Plus but it is an unfortunate name and a shame that for branding reasons we can’t rename ourselves. It would be impossible at this point. It is like Nike calling themselves something different. But a better name would be Web Customiser.

My role is also about introducing the brand of Eyeo. There’s a company behind AdBlock Plus that’s been around since 2011 and people don’t realise or understand it represents a bigger vision of giving users power and making the internet more sustainable and free.

Are publishers who stop their content being available to ad blockers a nuisance?

Ultimately it is their site and if they want to put up a blockade then it is fine. We just don’t think it is sustainable. Actual evidence shows Forbes and Wired have all seen their readerships drop off. Why? Well, because users had three choices – pay for an ad light experience, turn off the ad blocker and come in, or buzz off. It is too confusing.

ad_blocking_marketoonist_21_10_15
AdBlock Plus is not concerned about publishers limiting their content to ad blockers

The key is discourage not to force and it is best to work through ad blockers like ourselves. Maybe they will be proven right, but I am very confident we are right.

So you think the answer is for brands and publishers to work with AdBlock Plus?

We need to tell publishers it is better if you reach these users through us because they trust us. We will make you a lot of money. That is the big sell and the reality is whoever joins our white list has made higher profits. First we started talking to publishers then we started to work back through the chain. We are getting publishers on our white list and we want to get brands on there too.

Soon we are going to make Acceptable Ads completely independent so we cleave away our money making part from the acceptability standards part of the business. When we do that we want to get brands on board. Brands should look at AdBlock Plus as the best way to ensure their advertising isn’t annoying.

But is it a struggle when you have such vocal critics?

When Randall Rothenberg hyperventilates over ad blockers it can get frustrating but I think once people sit down and talk to us they realise what we are doing. When John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary, called us [modern day protection rackets], we then asked for an audience with his office. Once he heard us speak he understood what we were going for.

Where will AdBlock Plus be in 10 years time? Will it still exist?

I really hope we will have a sturdy acceptable ads committee able to determine what partial ad blocking rates are and to update it. I hope that partial ad blocking is also the norm.

I also hope Flattr Plus is a huge success. It is something that will go into beta this December and allows users to fund the content they engage with the most. If we can have 20% of the internet population signed up to Flattr it will mean money goes back to everyone from the New York Times to someone writing a music blog in their basement. We are here to stay.

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