Why the mobile operators are getting involved in ad blocking

Both EE and O2 have said they are exploring options to give consumers more control over the type and quantity of ads they receive as they look to ensure they are part of the ad blocking debate and try to enforce good behaviour among advertisers.

That ad blocking is happening is not in doubt. According to the latest IAB figures, 18% of UK adults are actively using ad blocking technology. This is mostly through third-party technology such as AdBlock Plus, which offer apps that consumers have to download.

The mobile operators, however, are now looking at taking matters into their own hands. EE confirmed earlier this week that it is looking into the options for offering technology that would block some ads.

Meanwhile O2 told Business Insider it is also exploring options, which could include introducing ad blocking at the network level, so before they are served to consumers. However the company told Marketing Week it is “not commited” to implementing ad blocking.

Three, meanwhile, has said it has “no current plans”, a view mirrored by Vodafone which says it is “not clear there is a business case for Vodafone to deliver these type of services”.

Why are the mobile operators getting involved?

O2 told Marketing Week that its decision to explore this area came about as a result of the wider conversation around ad blocking and its use.

“Ad blocking is happening, regardless of our involvement, so we are exploring the space to try and understand the effect on our customers and their mobile experience.”

EE says much the same thing. Its CEO Olaf Swantee told the Sunday Telegraph: “We think its important that, over time, customers start to be offered more choice and control over the level and intensity of ads on mobile.

“This is an important debate that needs to happen soon. That’s why we’ve kicked off a strategic review internally to start considering our plans.”

Vodafone has also said that downloads of iOS ad blocker apps show there is “some demand from customers to manage their browsing experience, privacy and data usage”.

Given that ad blocking apps already exist it might seem strange that the mobile operators are getting involved. However given that they are responsible for infrastructure and connectivity of the mobile web it makes sense that they would want to claim a stake.

Rafe Blandford, mobile strategist at DigitasLBI, explains: “Mobile operators are held responsible for network performance by consumers so it is absolutely right that they loudly talk about the importance of the consumer.

“Plus if they can reduce data over their networks there will be cost efficiencies. Mobile operators have been talking about how the people that provide services over their network – such as Google and Facebook – get a free ride. They are questioning whether they should be paying a fee to access [their networks] because on mobile it has an even bigger impact on the consumer experience than on desktop.”

ad block dooene

How should the industry respond?

Blandford thinks that given the mobile operators are one of the stakeholders in the mobile advertising industry it is fair that they play a role. However he says the operators must work with the industry rather than “unilaterally deciding to block ads”.

“Everyone in the industry, including the operators, needs to talk to everyone else to find a consensus approach. The advertisers, ad tech stack, publishers and mobile operators need to work together with industry bodies to solve this not get into an arms race. The industry fighting among itself is only bad news for the consumer,” he says.

What the mobile networks actually appear to be doing is looking to ensure they are included in that debate and convince brands to create better marketing.

O2 says the debate around ad blocking is a “call to the ad industry to raise the bar in terms of quality of the advertising that it delivers and who it delivers to”. The spokesman says the brand is still focused on working with the IAB on its ‘LEAN ads’ programme which recommends the industry ensure marketing is data-light, relevant, engaging and non-intrusive.

EE’s Swantee agrees, saying that the review is “not about ad blocking, but about starting an important debate around customer choice, controls and the level of ads customers receive”.

“Advertising, when done well, can be a valued part of the experience. Not all ads are bad. When a business gets it right, it’s appreciated and sparks a connection. But when it’s intrusive or crass it can drive people crazy.”

Olaf Swantee, CEO, EE

There is also a job to do on educating consumers. While ad blocking is on the rise, most consumers don’t appreciate the impact it could have on publishers’ ability to provide content for free. When questioned, most would rather have free content with ads than paid subscriptions.

Alex Kozloff, IAB’s marketing and communications director, says: “Giving people greater control is generally to be applauded. However, when it comes to ad blocking, its in the industry’s best interests to focus more on promoting the ‘value exchange’ to consumers – that is, advertising means they get content for free. “People can then make a more educated decision about whether to block ads, knowing it could mean they have to pay to access content in the future.”

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How to diffuse the threat of ad blocking

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Online ad blocking is portrayed as the marketing industry’s nemesis, but even though technology exists to circumvent it marketers have a responsibility to improve their targeting and creative executions to dissuade people from using it.

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