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Ad blocking as a phenomenon is gaining traction—20.5% of UK internet users will use ad blocking software in 2016, eMarketer estimates, and that will rise to 27.0% next year. eMarketer’s senior analyst in the UK, Bill Fisher, looks at the assumptions underpinning eMarketer's forecast and outlines what the numbers mean for marketers, publishers and advertisers.
Consumers Rail Against an Industry Unchecked
Ad blocking is entering the mainstream and the reason is rooted in deep consumer dissatisfaction with the way digital advertising has been allowed to impinge upon their digital media days. They’re annoyed, plain and simple. The value exchange—free content supported by advertising—currently seems weighted against the consumer, and ad blocking technology, long relegated to a niche of the savviest users, has risen as these concerns spread.
And It's Not Just the Youth You Need to Be Worried About
Perceived wisdom is that ad blocking users are young, tech-savvy consumers, likely from the millennial and teenage groups. This isn't necessarily the case. Although the phenomenon remains most pronounced among these younger demographic groupings , current evidence suggests that the ad blocking audience now spans a much broader swath of the UK population. After all, the nation's youth doesn't hold a monopoly on ad fatigue, and as ad blocking software becomes easier to attain, the wider disenfranchised digital user population is adding its weight to the discord.
Ad Blocking Isn't Yet a Mobile Epidemic
The ad blocking debate reached a crescendo last year when Apple's iOS 9 release allowed content blocking extensions for the Safari browser for the first time. However, while any Apple news tends to be big news, the mobile element of ad blocking still lags well behind the practice on desktops and laptops—according to eMarketer's forecast, only 28.2% of ad blocking users will use such software on their smartphones this year vs. 90.2% that will use such software on their desktops and laptops. In-app ad blocking remains largely out of the picture, and with so much smartphone time spent in an app environment—around 80% according to some measures—the mobile ad blocking part of the debate continues to be a marginal consideration. That said, the technology is available to block ads in such an environment, so the potential for disruption remains.
Short-Term Solutions: Confrontation Could Mean Even More Consumer Annoyance
Ad blocking generates a lot of emotion, and some of the reactions have bordered on the hysterical. The UK's culture secretary, John Whittingdale, recently slammed ad blocking as "a modern day protection racket," for example. Various publishers, meanwhile, have taken a somewhat abrasive tone with consumers attempting to access their content with ad blockers enabled. Such "solutions" range from asking users politely to turn off their ad blocking software to straight-out telling them they aren't getting in while such software is being employed. Such responses resemble something of a tug of war, a battle between ad-supported publishers and consumers. What ground consumers seem to have gained, publishers want to take back. Whatever the ethical grounds for debate here—after all publishers shouldn't have to lose revenue because of ad blocking—such combative responses fail to take into account the underlying problem. Consumers are annoyed with digital advertising, and fighting fire with fire by blocking them if they block you might even make the situation worse.
Long-Term Solutions: Putting Consumers Front and Center
It remains to be seen whether short-term solutions will be sustainable for the longer term. Rather than waiting to find out, steps are already being put in place by some influential players in the industry to put things right. As we've already mentioned, the majority of consumers in the UK are willing to live with advertising on digital platforms. They've happily put up with it on traditional media for years, but the digital experience is currently broken, with too much bad advertising too much of the time. With this in mind, the IAB UK launched its "LEAN" principles in October 2015. The acronym stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad-choice supported, Non-invasive ads and, as the IAB UK put it, are the principles that will help guide the next phases of advertising technical standards for the global digital advertising supply chain. It will be interesting to see how these "next phases" play out, but encouraging the industry to concentrate on producing more relevant and engaging ads, with better ad targeting and less invasive formats is certainly a step in the right direction.
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