‘The end of the free internet’, ‘could put small publishers out of business’, ‘anxiety across the advertising industry’ – if you believe the headlines, the sky is falling thanks to a force that has furrowed brows across the online content business. It’s called ad blocking, and it is seriously worrying a lot of people.
Sure, ad blocking has existed for years. Driven by extensions to Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox desktop web browser that can identify and parse out ads, PageFair estimated 144 million people were actively blocking web ads last year.
And the practice is growing – PageFair reckons there are now 198 million blockers worldwide, up 41%, depriving publishers of nearly $22 billion in 2015 alone. If the ads can’t be seen, publishers can’t very well charge for them.
If that wasn’t bad enough, consider the effect that may be wielded by Apple’s new iOS 9 framework, which allows third-party developers to write content-blocking plugins that also hide ads.
Mobile devices are where people now consume a majority of their content – so it’s easy to assume that the ability to block ads, inside an operating system that is so popular and which was previously so locked down, will have a big effect.
So why, when the headlines and predictions are so dire, is the industry not batting eyelids as hard as expected?
Just 8% of publishers polled by ad tech vendor Operative cited ad blocking as their biggest concern, running far behind other considerations like decreasing ad impression costs. And in a study by Strata, only 9% of US ad agency professionals, the people who should be fretting on advertisers’ behalf, said it was a major concern.
They are right not to be so worried. Because, for all the worry playing out in the media, when it comes to online advertising, publishers are not entering the end of days. Ad blocking will have a minimal impact on mobile content.
Quite simply, when people talk about mobile ad blocking, they are really talking about mobile web ad blocking. iOS 9’s new extensions work inside its Safari web browser only. Plugins for apps would mean a severe privacy issue for users and are banned from Apple.
This significantly blunts the force that ad blocking will have on the small screen because, unlike on the desktop, it is apps – and not the web – which rule the roost.
According to mobile analytics firm Flurry, apps accounted for 86% of mobile users’ device time. And that was back in March 2014 – since then, this propensity has increased, as apps become more appealing and as iOS, which depends less on the web than does Google’s Android, gains a bigger foothold.
Safari, which Apple’s content blockers apply to, commands only 6% of overall mobile device usage, Flurry says.
In fact, apps are not just the most-consumed kinds channel on mobile itself – US consumers also spend more time in mobile apps than watching TV, according to the company.
For these reasons, mobile web ad blocking won’t bring about the advertising apocalypse, as expected by some industry commentators. In fact, mobile ad spend is widely forecast to grow very strongly in coming years.
Because they are protected executable code, apps have always offered an excellent brand exposure to companies that want to reach users. And they continue to offer advertisers guaranteed visibility, even while mobile web browsers leave them vulnerable to wipe-out.
Of course, this does not diminish the threat that ad blockers per se will pose on the desktop. Nor does it mean that all in-app ads are guaranteed success when served. In the years ahead, advertisers should best arm themselves by moving over to mobile and by endeavouring to build the most engaging, creative ads they can.