‘Mobile ad blocking technology forces advertisers to raise their game’

Ad blocking technology that has proved popular on desktop is coming to mobile. However, brands and advertisers should see this as an opportunity to improve advertising and make it more relevant to customers rather than a threat.

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Adblock Plus is one of the most popular ad blocking tools on the internet, claiming to have more than 50 million active users. Its desktop browser extension blocks ads – including native ads that appear in the Facebook newsfeed or on publishers’ website – and has been downloaded more than 400 million times, according to the company.

It is now releasing a browser for Android that will automatically block ads but wont impact those in other apps – such as Facebook or Twitter. It is currently in beta mode to allow users to provide feedback on the experience.

The launch follows reports last week that an Israeli tech startup called Shine has developed ad-blocking software that is about to be installed by a number of European mobile networks. A Financial Times report claims the tool would stop most types of advertising from appearing in browsers and on apps – although it wouldn’t interfere with native ads.

The threat to publishers

Mobile operators are keen to wrestle back share of mobile ad revenues from the likes of Google. US mobile operator Verizon just bought AOL to give it access to its mobile ad technology.

Google – the biggest online ad company in the world – has made its views clear. The company told the FT that it would be “unreasonable” for mobile operators to block ads, suggesting that they pay for mobile internet packages so they can access content for free – supported by ads and that companies such as Google spend a lot of money on the infrastructure to provide this.

Stephanie Emmanouel, the general manager of connected customer marketing at mobile marketing agency Somo, says the impact on Google and other publishers “could be huge”.

“We could get to the stage where unless [users] enable ads they won’t be able to access content.”

Stephanie Emmanouel, GM of connected customer marketing, Somo

“The thing to consider is how expensive it is for publishers to produce high quality content. Take the Economist for example. You can’t expect to access content for free. There is a subscription model but that is in part funded by advertising. We could get to the stage where unless you enable ads you won’t be able to access content.”

She said some US publishers are already testing this – detecting the presence of an ad blocker and either blocking their content from people using them or giving them the option to pay.

White-listing ads

Adblock Plus’ offering doesn’t quite block all ads. It has a whitelisting programme, with companies such as Google paying millions of dollars to ensure their ads get through its ‘acceptable ads criteria’. Users can flag up ads they don’t like such as pop-ups or content that isn’t clearly identified as advertising which won’t make it through the test.

There is an option to get rid of all advertising, but Adblock claims just a small percentage actually do this.

Emmanouel said while ad blockers claim they are representing the wishes of end users, the fact they allow some publishers to apply and in some cases pay to get on the whitelist suggests they aren’t.

Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising at ad industry body ISBA, says: “Troubling for advertisers is how some of the big players are promising a crafty way through ad blocking to leverage their market share. We seem to be heading in the direction of leveraging via walled gardens rather than putting the customer first or delighting the customer if you would.”

Making mobile advertising sustainable

Mobile advertising is one of the biggest growth areas – with spend up almost 60% last year according to the annual report from AA/Warc. However, a study last year by digital creative agency Razorfish revealed that more than three-quarters (77%) of UK smartphone users think mobile ads are “too invasive”.

Wootton believes the rise of ad blocking tech is “of considerable concern” but says it points to the fact that the whole ad industry, from publishers to intermediaries and big advertisers, need to rethink how they use digital channels so it is less clumsy and intrusive.

Pete Markey, CMO at the Post Office, believes brands should be using this as a sign they need to improve their advertising and make it more appealing to consumers.

“What will always succeed is great advertising that connects with customers. Ad blockers force us to raise our game.”

Pete Markey, Post Office CMO

He says: “Growth in digital has allowed us to see the best and the worst of online advertising.  What will always succeed is great advertising that connects with customers.  Ad blockers force us to raise our game”.

Ian Barber, communications director at the Advertising Association adds: “Common sense, experience and Credos research all point to the same thing – if ads bombard, patronise or aren’t relevant, people change the channel, flip the page or these days, install an ad-blocker.

“The problem isn’t new, but technology is heightening the risk that unless the ads people see are welcome, or at least tolerable, the content and services they support will become less sustainable.”