Ad Blocking and Tackling: What 2015’s Ad Blocking Means for 2016’s Marketing

2015 was the year when an unprecedented number of users took action against the ads that slowed web pages and turned the online content experience into a frustrating game of close-that-ad. According to a PageFair and Adobe report, U.S. ad blocking grew 48% in the twelve months leading up to June 2015. That’s 45 million users—16% of the population—who just said no to digital and, in particular, mobile web advertising by downloading ad blocking applications.
With eyeballs and revenue on the line, thought leaders debated whether the ad blocking trend would destroy or save advertising. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) blamed the digital ecosystem. The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) blamed themselves for having “lost track of the user experience.” (They also notably took ad blockers to task for disingenuous practices, most specifically paid “whitelists” for publishers.)
The cost of ad blocking is significant, with an estimated $781 million dollar loss for the industry. But another resonating impact of the Great Ad Rebellion of 2015 will be found in its influence on marketing investments. What will marketers do differently to navigate the digital/mobile landscape in 2016?
Revisiting advertising
Lest there is any question, ad blocking will not prompt an all-out surrender by the ad ecosystem. Some publishers, like GQ, Forbes and more recently Wired, are fighting fire with fire, by blocking users with ad blockers. But the longer term strategy is to address the issues with ad experience. Some of this responsibility falls on publishers, who determine the degree of disruption that must be tolerated to access content, as well as the ad tech landscape, where fierce competition can inspire extreme approaches to ad engagement. (To steer publishers and platforms to a more user-friendly approach, and as part of its mea culpa, the IAB introduced new guidelines that emphasize ‘light, encrypted, ad choice supported, non-invasive ads’.)
But no change can succeed unless marketers direct ad dollars to those that are innovating in favor of an improved experience. This isn’t a simple task, given that site-by-site scrutiny can work against the efficiency gains of programmatic buying, a practice that has itself been blamed for the surge in ad blocking. As such, there will also be other moves to optimize ad impact, including increased investment in emotionally-aware ads, where data is used to extrapolate insights about a user’s psychological state in a given moment. Incorporating a measure of receptivity into ad delivery could prove to be the much-needed difference between engaging a consumer and ticking them off.
Thinking beyond advertising
Ongoing concerns about ad ROI will prompt more marketers to deepen investments in other approaches. Native advertising, the modern day equivalent of the advertorial, offers a worthy complement to traditional ads. Content marketing and branded content will help brands meet the need to feed social channels. Influencer marketing will gain practitioners as marketers struggle to connect with elusive millennial audiences. We’ll also see more brands practicing corporate social responsibility and, of course, promoting those good deeds via social channels.
Each of these tactics offer a subtler alternative to the traditional advertising message. And while this can be a strength in an oversaturated landscape, there is a fine line between subtle marketing and the calculated manipulation of audiences. The FTC tuned into this, releasing guidelines to ensure consumers can distinguish native advertising from content. But marketing’s most powerful critics are the consumers themselves, which leads to the next point…
Embracing feedback—in all forms
In a world of 24/7 marketing, brands are constantly challenged to creatively and authentically engage consumers in “conversation”.  The always-on dialogue represents tremendous opportunity, but it doesn’t come without risk. Today consumers are quick to call brands out when they’ve missed the mark, even when it’s as seemingly innocuous as Red Lobster’s slow response to a shout out from Beyoncé. Success doesn’t grant immunity either, as is evidenced by the less than warm welcome REI received on Reddit following its widely-celebrated #optoutside campaign.
This vulnerability could make one want to crawl back into the safe confines of traditional marketing, but of course that’s not an option. In 2016, more marketers will have strategies in place that allow them to creatively participate in the two-way dialogue while also managing the inherent risk. This means more than having an ear to the ground; brands need a plan that allows them to quickly gauge when and how—or if—it makes sense to engage or respond. (Arby’s farewell to their consistent critic Jon Stewart is a stellar example of a brand creatively and effectively steering into negative feedback.)
It may be that consumer ad blocking is really only part of this feedback cycle— less a mass exodus from advertising than it is an aggressive critique of its current form. Either way, it is a milestone in the ongoing transition from one-way marketing, perhaps one of the last nails in the coffin. Today, consumers have more than just a voice—they control the levers on which messages they receive and when. Marketers will need to keep in mind throughout the execution of every strategy and tactic to have an edge in 2016 and beyond.

With Peace’s removal, Ghostery leaves some unanswered questions

Peace had a good run — in the rock ‘n’ roll “live fast die young” sense, anyway.
The ad-blocking app received a lot of press coverage, thanks partly to its creator’s other projects; it climbed to the top of Apple’s App Store’s list of paid apps; and it seemed to make mobile web browsing just a little bit more private. Then it was unceremoniously pulled from the App Store just two days after its debut. Still, there are some unanswered questions about Peace and how the company that provided the list of scripts it should block, Ghostery, will move forward.
The app’s creator, Marco Arment, said in a blog post that Peace “doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough” and that a “more nuanced, complex approach is required” for the app to effect the positive change he wanted it to bring about. (Arment has said he is declining press interviews about nixing Peace; I chose to respect that choice instead of badgering him with unwanted emails or tweets.) So far as pulling something from the App Store goes, Arment has been more than fair. He’s offered to refund people who bought the app, and it seems that more than 10,000 people have taken him up on the offer. Peace will also keep working for anyone who downloaded it; it simply won’t receive any updates. It’s hard to fault Arment for how he’s decided to — pardon the pun — find his peace.
Ghostery chief executive Scott Meyer said in his own blog post that Peace was an “eye opening experiment” and his company will “continue to work on these issues with our other Ghostery products to the good of the entire ecosystem” after Peace’s fall.
Meyer said that he and Arment decided at the same time that “the way Peace was being used compromised the neutrality that Ghostery is built on.” At issue was the fact that Peace, unlike the Ghostery extensions available for desktop browsers, made ad-blocking an all-or-nothing proposition. That was too black-and-white for a company that wants its users to find their favorite shade of grey.
But if that was the main issue, why did Peace need to be pulled from the App Store? Arment himself said in a previous blog post that the ability to control what advertising services (among other things) are blocked by Peace was cut from the first release just so it would be ready when iOS 9 debuted. He added that he would “likely add [this level of granularity] in the first update” to Peace.
Combine this with the ability to whitelist certain websites — thus removing the perceived threat to small-to-medium-sized publishers — and it seems that Peace could have offered a shred of privacy while addressing its creators’ concerns. That begs another question: Did (or would) Ghostery oppose Peace not because of its indiscriminate ad-blocking, but because it imperiled Ghostery’s business?
Ghostery makes its money by telling website owners what trackers are run on their sites. To do this, it asks everyone who installs its desktop extension to opt-in to a service that collects information while they browse the web. People have their privacy, website owners learn something, and Ghostery gets paid. It’s a win for everyone except the people whose advertisements are being blocked.
That isn’t an option with Safari’s content blockers. Apple doesn’t allow them to collect information about what’s blocked. They set the parameters, Safari uses them to improve consumers’ browsing experiences, and that’s the end of it. While that’s good for privacy — what’s the point of blocking trackers only to have someone else gather similar data? — it’s bad for Ghostery’s business.
Arment has said that there are “many juicy theories out there of people pressuring me or buying me off. They’re entertaining, but untrue. It’s what I wrote, nothing more.” That explains his motivations, but that still left the question of Ghostery’s. Why support the pulling of an app that many people obviously wanted when its next update was supposed to fix its biggest issue?
Ghostery isn’t saying anything beyond its first blog post. A public relations contact pointed to that post when I requested comment this morning, and has yet to respond to an email containing further questions about whether or not it’s also refunding money or if it’s just Arment; whether or not my theory is remotely correct; and what it has planned for iOS now that Peace is no more.
Maybe I’m just reading too much into things. Perhaps Ghostery’s blog post is just as transparent as Arment’s. But when a top-selling application is pulled for reasons that were supposed to be addressed within its first update, and it posed a threat to one of its creator’s business models, it’s hard not to feel that there’s something else going on. Only with answers to those questions will Peace rest.

Top iOS ad blocker ‘Peace’ gets yanked from the App Store

While the debate over the ethics of ad blocking tools rages on, the developer of Apple’s top mobile ad blocker app has decided to take a big step back by removing it from the App Store today.
Peace, the ad blocker app that is the subject of all this attention, debuted in the App Store just days ago with a $3 price tag, and quickly rose in popularity. Despite this, Peace’s developer Marco Arment elected to stop support for it and end further sales, which may seem a bit odd considering that he’s still in favor of ad blocking for a variety of reasons.
“Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit,” Arment wrote in a blog post about his decision. “Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white.
“This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app,” he added.
There are numerous reason for blocking advertising via a web browser — better privacy, faster page load times, more pleasurable web browsing experience — but, there are also some consequences. One of the biggest is that smaller web publishers (news and media sites in particular) are likely to take a financial hit, as Gigaom’s Nathaniel Mott pointed out previously.
Arment is confident that those who already purchased Peace will be able to use it without problems for the foreseeable future, even without developer support. He’s also offering to refund the purchase, and lists instructions for doing so on his website.
There is no shortage of ad blocking tools available, and with Apple coming out in support of the practice, there’s likely to be plenty of activity in this space going forward. That said, Peace will probably still be missed but web users shouldn’t have any trouble finding a replacement. The bigger issue will be in getting web publishers and advertisers to change how they operate, with greater considerations for privacy, ad obtrusiveness, and the like.

Safari’s content blockers: Good for privacy, bad for publishers

You’ve probably heard that Apple’s new content blocking tools will lead to the slaughter of countless publications, to Tim Cook walking through the desiccated remains of the countless writers who will starve as ad revenues dry up while laughing at all those too foolish to work with Apple News.
All right, so the claims aren’t that hyperbolic. But there is a lot of hand-wringing about how the content blocking tools, which became available with yesterday’s release of iOS 9, pose a threat to small-and medium-sized publishers. How will these companies survive on dwindling ad dollars?
This isn’t a theoretical issue. It’s clear that at least some people are interested in content blockers. One, the Peace app made by Overcast developer Marco Arment, already reached the top of the App Store’s list of paid software. Others (Crystal, Freedom, Blockr) have also become popular.
Some have already pointed out the perceived irony of a developer asking consumers to pay for software that limits the amount of money publishers can make from advertisements. Others have wondered how crowded the App Store might be with these simple, easy-to-develop apps in the coming months. But, for the most part, it all comes back to fretting about publishers. And these developers have varying responses to complaints about how their software might affect small media companies, with it mostly boiling down to content blocking being the only way for people to enjoy browsing the Web.
One of the main draws is being able to visit a website without having to wait for unwanted assets — the ads — to load. Crystal developer Dean Murphy says web pages load 3.9 times quicker with his app enabled than they do when browsing the web with a fresh-off-the-homescreen version of Safari.
Reducing the number of things a site needs to (or can) load also eases some of the concerns about using wireless data. Many people can only use a few gigabytes of data each month, and the fees incurred by going over that limit can be high. An ad-free web isn’t just faster; it can also be cheaper.
There’s another benefit to using these tools: privacy.
Many websites use tools that track people across websites. Sometimes these tools are used to serve advertisements, other times they’re sending information back to Facebook and other social networks. The end result is the same — people are being followed without knowing, let alone consenting.
To get a feel for how often people are tracked, I installed Ghostery, a tool that identifies/blocks trackers and advertisements, and visited some popular news sites. Here’s what I found:

  • Venture Beat — 51 trackers
  • The New York Times — 39 trackers
  • The New Yorker — 37 trackers
  • The Verge — 37 trackers
  • Gigaom — 34 trackers
  • TechCrunch — 28 trackers
  • The Washington Post — 27 trackers
  • The Wall Street Journal — 27 trackers
  • The Awl — 26 trackers
  • The Guardian — 10 trackers

Most of these sites are using the same trackers. There’s Google Analytics and Chartbeat to measure traffic; Typekit to offer nicer typography; and various services devoted to serving advertisements, such as DoubleClick and Quantcast. Other popular options come from social networks like Twitter or Facebook, let people watch embedded videos, and so on.
It’s worth noting that these figures are from desktop sites, and that another content blocking tool, uBlock Origin, gave slightly different counts for the number of trackers. I used Ghostery’s because it provided a detailed breakdown of the trackers it blocks along with what they’re supposed to do. (These figures collected with all ad-blocking turned off; the number of trackers shown when ad-blocking is on vary wildly in both number and scope.)
Which brings me to the funny thing about Ghostery — it’s in the business of telling website owners what trackers are on their sites. As Arment explains in a blog post about Peace:

Third-party ad networks and analytics are so common, and their standards for embedded ads are so unenforceable (since they’re letting third parties execute arbitrary code), that web publishers need someone else — Ghostery — to tell them what’s being served on their own sites and what problems it might be causing for their visitors or potential customers.

How are people supposed to trust websites if many of them don’t know what they’re doing themselves? Forget everything about making web browsing faster or less resource-intensive; I downloaded Peace (and use some combination of ad-blockers on my desktop browsers) to help get some of my privacy back.

Ad blocking is not enough: 3 challenges Apple will face in pushing iAd

Gilad is the founder and CEO of Moburst. 
Back in 2010 when Apple first launched its advertising platform, the company made the festive promise to capture 50 percent of the market. Today, Apple admits to a somewhat misguided vision and iAd’s position in the mobile advertising field can thus be summoned in two words: unfulfilled potential.
Apple’s recent decision to block ads from iOS 9 allows the company to force mobile marketers to place advertisements through its own network. This decision follows a series of moves made by the company in the past year that are all meant to promote iAd. Such steps include introducing programmatic iAd buys for iTunes Radio, a collaboration with Rubicon and AdRoll for ad automation and retargeting, launching iAd in over 100 countries and integrating Apple Pay to allow for direct purchasing.
These steps are beneficial if Apple’s goal is to make the most out of iPhone advertising, but they are no way near enough if the company is interested in taking over the mobile marketing field as a whole, and as we know, Apple is not one to settle for second place.
And so, before we announce Apple as the new dominant force in advertising, we must first consider the company’s corporate DNA and values, the inevitable clash between them, and what it takes in order to make it big in this arena. The following list presents three interesting challenges that Apple is expected to face on this new path, and how dealing with these challenges would affect app developers and marketers.

Keep your enemies closer

On Apple’s way to become a force to be reckoned with in the mobile advertising field, the company will have to go behind enemy lines. Android devices make up over 80 percent of the market and ignoring Android is more than just giving up a market share – it’s basically giving up. If Apple will decide to bring iAd to the competing OS, it will require more than a few adjustments for the company to succeed where we least expect it.

Battle of the giants

Apple is entering a field that is not only ultra-lucrative, but also extremely competitive, which happens to be dominated by Google – the queen of advertising. The competition between the two will now reach a new level and get very real and even more brutal. The two titans are joined by Facebook and the result is a gladiator’s match, with developers and marketers as the crowd.

Getting personal

For mobile marketers, the real goldmine in iAd is access to users’ personal data. The company could provide advertisers with a way to reach customers far more precisely, and get unique and sought-after value. The problem here is that Apple is known for being very protective of its users’ privacy, poking fun at Google for turning the users into the product. Before Apple can make such a drastic change, though, the company will first have to get off its high horse.
Apple will have to loosen up its tight grip on user data for this advantage to go from potentially great to great. Even if such a move will cause a certain level of antagonism on the users’ side, for marketers and developers this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The said challenges are never simple, and in this case Apple’s size could interfere with making drastic changes that require flexibility. It’s not easy for Apple to stop being… well, Apple. Despite the worries surrounding Apple’s latest move, mobile marketers can also feel the anticipation and excitement in the air. The mobile arena is never boring, but things are about to become more intense and interesting than ever.
Gilad Bechar is the Founder & CEO of Moburst, a global mobile marketing agency helping first tier startups and brands grow their mobile business.