The Sky is Not Falling

With the release yesterday of Apple’s latest iOS9 operating system, so arrived the much talked-about day when ad blocking went mainstream. The “adblockalypse” is potentially the most overhyped Internet event since the Y2K bug. And, similar to Y2K, the logic doesn’t quite match up to the hype.

Even before the iOS update a few things challenged the adblockalypse idea. Like iOS only having a market share of around 30-40% in most developed markets (and lower in others). Or the fact that ad blocking has been available on Android devices for years, and that hasn’t wiped out the internet yet. Or that ad blocking is very easy to install on every desktop browser since Netscape - and also hasn’t wiped out the internet.

The top apps in the iOS app store right now (in the Utilities category at least) are ad blocking apps. The developer of the most popular one claimed 13,000 downloads in the first 24hrs. Not exactly adblockalypse.

For advertisers, the recent focus on ad blocking is worth considering on a few levels. Firstly, there’s the user aspect. As the mobile internet becomes default, user experience issues such as load times and screen real estate become more important. There’s no doubt that a lot of online advertising is fundamentally broken, and advertisers should be looking at how make ads that are less annoying (new formats), less resource intensive (through HTML5), and potentially less interruptive (native content).

The second consideration for advertisers is the bigger picture of walled gardens, and the potential of becoming trapped in a world where Google, Facebook or Apple dictate every element of digital marketing. There’s a strong argument that Apple introduced iOS ad blocking in order to weaken Google’s stronghold on advertising revenue and technology. Ad blocking is not possible within Apple’s own News platform, nor is it possible with Facebook’s native app (or Snapchat and Twitter, for that matter). It’s unlikely that Apple’s move will be the final one in this battle, and for advertisers it’s worth understanding whose garden you’re in and what walls are being built around you.

The third area worth considering is how this affects publishers. If ad blocking does turn out to have a meaningful impact on the industry (still a very big if), it’s likely smaller publishers will be among those hit hardest. Some media brands are already experimenting by showing messages to users who block ads, while The Washington Post has experimented with not showing articles to ad block users at all. Given every ad blocker has a ‘white list’ option, it’s quite likely that large publishers will, over time, work out the right balance of carrot (better, less intrusive ads) and stick (disallowing content) to convince users to disable ad blocking on their sites.

Ad blocking has seen more press than any other topic in the marketing world over the past year. But I’m not sure that ad blocking is the single biggest issue the industry has experienced. I’m still unconvinced that it will have a meaningful impact on publishers or advertisers. The one impact I do hope we see is that advertisers, publishers, and users think a little bit harder about what good digital advertising actually looks like.

- September 2015