Johnny Ryan, PhD
Head of Ecosystem
The ad blocking debate rumbles on, with the spotlight shining more and more on mobile platforms. Dr. Johnny Ryan, the head of ecosystem at counter-ad-blocking technology firm PageFair, spoke with eMarketer’s Bill Fisher about its new research in global mobile ad blocking habits.
eMarketer: Your latest report looks at mobile ad blocking habits worldwide. Can you give us the very top-level findings?
Johnny Ryan: This is a large report, but I can summarize its findings in one line: The blocked web is going mobile, in a surprising way.
Both in-app and mobile web ads are no longer invulnerable to ad blocking. Ads on [app] platforms such as Spotify, Facebook, Instagram and Apple News can now be blocked. Meanwhile, 21% of the world’s smartphone users are using mobile ad blocking browsers, which are mobile browsers that block ads by default. This is an order of magnitude greater than many had believed.
While most of these users are in Asia-Pacific, the prospect that this behavior is accelerating in Europe and the US is a chilling one for Western publishers and advertisers attempting to reach Western consumers.
“Twenty-one percent of the world’s smartphone users are using mobile ad blocking browsers, which are mobile browsers that block ads by default.”
eMarketer: Looking a little more closely at what exactly these numbers represent, would you share your methodology and how you arrived at these numbers?
Ryan: To build a picture of all ad blocking apps and their features, PageFair parsed the description data of thousands of apps and conducted user testing of several hundred to determine their functionality. PageFair explored the numbers of app downloads from over 100 Google and Apple app stores across the globe in partnership with Priori Data, which calculates download figures by correlating the known download figures of apps in its network with the public rankings released by the app stores. The report also uses StatCounter’s analysis of web browser use, which is based on StatCounter’s network of over 3 million websites.
eMarketer: It’s very interesting to hear about in-app ad blocking. This has largely remained outside of mobile ad blocking considerations, but you believe it’s about to get much bigger. How widespread is this practice now, and how big might it become?
Ryan: Ad blocking has driven some publishers to seek refuge by working with walled garden platforms. As this report shows, these closed platforms offer only temporary respite.
Until now it has been widely believed that ads and so-called “sponsored/suggested” content on Facebook and Instagram were invulnerable to ad blocking. This is no longer the case. For example, 9.6 million people have downloaded a particular app that has the capability of blocking suggested content and ads in [apps such as] Facebook and Instagram.
eMarketer: The research indicated that the “Apple effect” hasn’t really happened, with uptake of content blocking extensions for iOS being relatively small. What numbers have you seen, and why has the impact been so insignificant?
Ryan: Apple launched “content blocking” in September 2015. Despite the hype that surrounded this new functionality, only 4.5 million of these apps have been downloaded so far.
“Higher rates of mobile ad blocking in Asia-Pacific is a sign of things to come in Europe and the US.”
Apple’s approach was to facilitate the sale of blocking apps by developers on its app store, which could then be installed by users. In contrast, the device manufacturer Asus is starting to equip all of its mobile devices with ad blocking as a feature of the preinstalled browser. This more robust implementation is likely to have a far greater impact.
eMarketer: Our own UK research indicated that mobile ad blocking was much less common than blocking ads on desktops and laptops. While your research only concentrates on mobile, do you believe this general trend to be true? And if so, do you think it will remain so for much longer?
Ryan: In the West, ad blocking is currently higher on desktop than mobile. However, far higher rates of mobile ad blocking in Asia-Pacific is a sign of things to come in Europe and the US. The new trend in which browsers and device manufacturers include or otherwise facilitate ad blocking features will accelerate mobile ad blocking adoption in the West.
eMarketer: You have been involved in cross-industry talks aimed at resolving some of the major issues at play in the ad-blocking debate. How far along are those discussions, and what kinds of solutions have been mooted?
Ryan: PageFair has drawn together global consumer groups, advertisers, agencies, publishers and browsers for senior-level roundtable discussions on ad blocking. The discussions have produced tentative agreement on the following:
First, advertising has prompted a consumer rebellion, and there is a real consumer problem to be fixed. Blame for this is accepted by all industry stakeholders. Second, the technological means exist to serve ads in a manner that cannot be circumvented by ad blockers. Third, all stakeholders agree that the existence of this technology should not mean that all ads should simply be shown again. Instead, we should take the opportunity to correct the underlying problems of the advertising ecosystem and use the blocked web in a more sustainable way. Part of this involves limiting the quantity of ads that are served, respecting user privacy and feedback, and guaranteeing security and speed.