How To Think About Ad Blockers

The release of iOS 9 has prompted an increased focus on ad blockers. Google search trends in the US tell the first part of the story. Search trends for ad blockers rose this month but have been present, and growing, for quite some time. And while the thing we’re talking about is technically “content blocking” (the tiny red line below—on the far right) that’s not the way app providers are marketing them, or the way we’re finding them. Everyone’s calling them simply “adblockers.”


According to PageFair, ad blocking tools are now used by 45 million users in the US. On average, 5 percent of global users have ad blockers but in certain parts of Europe that figure reaches 30 percent. Importantly for many readers of this blog, the northwest had among the highest percentage of blocked ads in the US during Q2 2015:

Oregon (probably driven by Portland): 16%

Washington (probably driven by Seattle): 15%

Idaho (probably driven by Boise): 14%

It’s important to note that ad blocking has been here for a while and is used across all web browsers. The recent news flurry is regarding how iOS 9 has now enabled “content blocking” on all Apple mobile and tablet devices.

And they’re popular; Adblocker apps have risen to the top of the App store in September. And when you look at the compelling way these app companies are marketing them, it’s easy to see why:


Adoption of ad blockers will grow but it will be hampered slightly because it isn’t done by one click (and it *sounds* complicated). Installing a blocker on a traditional desktop does take a few steps and if something’s not amazingly easy the majority of web users won’t allot the time. This changes in mobile where it’s easier–just like most app downloads, with a few additional steps inside the device settings after download.

Interest will also grow because installing ad blockers speed up web browsing. (This is where an ad blocker could also be a “content blocker.”) A content blocker stops ads, but it also can stop cookies and other things from loading which do, in general, speed up browsing. The amount of load time this saves varies–like everything, it’s not black or white. In general, most sites load faster but not every site loads faster.

Users cite that “privacy” is the primary reason to install a blocker, but previous behavior hasn’t backed this up.

Consider the privacy paradox. Colorado State University’s Dr. Kelly Martin, a leading authority on consumer privacy in the US, reports that while 1 in 4 people have had their email account hacked, 62 percent of us still don’t change our password regularly. That’s a simple thing to do, but people are busy, so how much do we really care? In my view “privacy” alone isn’t a strong enough reason to prompt mass adoption.


For their part, publishers are requesting that consumers be thoughtful and not use ad blockers. There’s a philosophy attached to this issue. The web largely runs on advertising. If ad blocking grows to a devastating size the large sites, with varying revenue models and dedicated readers (like the New York Times), will probably adjust and survive.  It’s the mid-sized and small sites to watch: The Awl’s revenue, for example, is nearly 80% advertising.

The plea by publishers to encourage consumers not to use content blockers may effect some but probably not many and it would take an all out front by the publishing industry to achieve any real scale in this area. A better idea would be how to refine the structure of pricing and content to account for a world with ad blockers.

In general, the industry hasn’t done a very good job serving up mobile ads, which is why this has risen to such an important topic. They do get in the way, they often aren’t relevant, and too many are designed poorly. So the combination of saving load time and removing things that have traditionally been irritating is a compelling proposition to install a blocker—particularly on a mobile device.

Mass adoption does take time: devices and software need to be upgraded, people need to be comfortable with the steps to run blockers and word of mouth needs to do its thing. But ad blocking will grow to notable levels over the next several years.

While many agencies are reportedly saying ‘it’s not on my radar’, it should be. Here are some ways to properly consider ad blocking in marketing planning.

1. First, an ad not served is an ad not paid for. As the always wise Russell Davies has said, don’t mistake something that’s growing for something that’s big. There will still be a large amount of web users who don’t use ad blockers and brands will only pay money when one of their ads is served. If an ad is blocked, the brand doesn’t pay. With extremely low CPMs and creative targeting possibilities, online advertising will continue to be an important part of a campaign plan.

2. Online campaigns need to think about native at increasing levels. Native ads and branded content can’t really be blocked. So the degree to which brands can find ways to integrate good content within publishing environments beyond just paid digital ads has now elevated in importance.

3. Online campaign planning should put an increased focus around owned channels. Brands should take this opportunity to put more attention around their owned channels. Consider email, where a recent emarketer report found that one in four marketers said that email marketing drove at least 25% of their overall revenue.

4. Brands should rethink how they advertise on mobile devices. Ad blockers can’t block ads that are inside of a channel’s own app. So Facebook, Twitter and more who largely rely on the their own apps to serve content on mobile devices will be a safe harbor for paid online ads. The rise of better paid advertising here will be notable. As ads do continue to be served across the mobile web outside of these channels marketers should evaluate metrics that switch from short-term performance to long-term brand measurement.

5. Brands should create better online ads. Crappy, irrelevant ads are irritating. The more ads can be targeted, designed well, and be accurately targeted to each user, the better. This is where programmatic advertising, done well, can add value.

A final thing to note is that many publishers have the software and ability to block users who are using ad blocking technology from their site. And it’s also possible for ad blockers to whitelist some sites, as designated by the user, and block all others. So while usage may rise in quantifiable terms, it many not mean that an ad blocking user is applying it universally.

Ad blocking certainly isn’t the end of the web. The takeaway: just being thoughtful about its existence, growing penetration and the reason for its creation will help brands, publishers and ad designers be better at serving online ads.



The Cost Of Ad Blocking

Welcome To The Block Party

Why Ad-Blocking Is Good News For Almost Everyone

Yes, There Is A War On Advertising, Now What?

What’s New In iOS 9

How To Install Adblock for Google Chrome

Enabling Ad Blocking In Apple’s iOS 9 Prompts Backlash

How To Install An Ad Blocker In Safari For iOS 9

Medium’s Evan Williams To Publishers: Your Website Is Toast

Seth Godin: Ad Blocking

In Bringing Ad-Blocking To Mobiles, Apple Gives Itself A Boost

Ad Blocking At ‘Inflection Point’

Please Don’t Block Our Ads. Here’s How To Block Ads in iOS 9

Ad Blocking: Four Myths And One Opportunity

Agencies And Brands Shrug Off Ad Blocking: ‘This Is Not On My Radar’

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