The rise of ad blocking over the last few years has been hard to ignore. Fuelled by overly-aggressive advertising, more users have turned to the “blunt instrument” of simply blocking every ad possible. Ad blocking has become a hot topic, and I am often asked what options are available to publishers feeling the squeeze of rising content costs and suppressed ad revenue.
This post is a work in progress; my notes on the options and strategies available to publishers affected by ad-blocking. It isn’t exhaustive and I plan to continue to update it as new counter moves come to mind or become available. Please do use the comments to add ideas of your own or to plug your solutions.
The options below are presented as options. I know that there are supporters of ad-blocking who will be disgusted by the inclusion of some. I am not suggesting any particular approach, just simply laying down the options available to publishers so that they can find the right solution (or combination of solutions) for their business.
I’ve broken the strategies for countering ad blocking into four categories:
- Passive ways to deal with ad blocking
- Ads that are less likely to be blocked
- Alternate models, and
- Aggressive anti ad-blocking strategies
Passive ways to deal with ad blocking
Who is to say you need to act at all? Ad blocker usage is on the rise, but there are plenty of people using the web without blocking ads. It might not sound like the best solution, but it is currently the most popular one.
Pros: Zero set-up cost
Cons: Will result in lowered revenues, potentially significantly so in some verticals
Less intrusive ad networks
Every ad network has its own rules as to what is acceptable and some pride themselves on only serving “well-behaving ads”. Only serving such ads on your website is likely to drive fewer people towards ad blockers.
Pros: Easy to implement, Little change to business model
Cons: Not as much advertiser demand, Most ad blockers block the ads anyway whether they are less intrusive or not
Don’t serve “annoying” ads
Pop-up ads, auto-play videos and slow loading ads are often cited as being amongst the most-annoying types that drive people to use ad blockers. Many proponents of ad blocking suggest publishers should avoid such ads if they don’t want users to block them.
Pros: Serving annoying ads is bad for a number of reason
Cons: Ad blockers are mostly used in an “opt-in” way. Sites are blocked by default unless the user chooses to unblock them so will have no idea whether you ads are annoying or not. In fact, most publishers affected by ad blocking don’t serve these ads anyway.
Ask for donations
Asking for donations was a common way to try to fund content before programmes like AdSense made monetisation easy. Asking for a donation through PayPal, or even asking users to buy you a beer or a book can turn goodwill into benefit. It certainly works for Wikipedia.
Pros: Easy to implement, Softly-softly approach
Cons: Only likely to work on sites with very loyal, engaged audiences
Educate the audience
Most people enjoy the free web and many have never considered the impact of ad blocking on the publishers of the content that they enjoy consuming. Educating users could reduce ad-blocking adoption.
Pros: Tackles part of the problem rather than just the symptoms.
Cons: A slow approach that would only work for large mainstream publishers or for those with loyal, repeat audiences. If cone badly it could increase ad blocker adoption.
Ask users to disable ad-blocking or whitelist your website
It’s not difficult to detect users who block ads, so you could politely ask those users to disable their ad blocker when viewing your site.
Pros: Onus is on users to fix the problem, which means lower success rates
Ads that are less likely to be blocked
Adding sponsor messages to a blog post or page of content can be an effective way to get a message seen. If the message is contained as part of the main content it is also very unlikely to get blocked.
Pros: Can command good rates. Is effective even when read on as RSS. Very difficult to block
Cons: Sponsored content deals are largely arranged manually, which can be difficult to scale. Can undermine the perceived neutrality of content. Limited demand
Get whitelisted for “acceptable” ads
Eyeo, the firm behind AdBlock Plus define ads that they see as acceptable and are pushing for this to become a standard for ad blockers. Publishers who meet the criteria can apply to have their ads added to the acceptable ads whitelist.
Pros: Approach is supported by some ad blocking companies
Cons: Not supported by all ad blockers. Not enabled by all users of software that does support it. Suggested formats are “acceptable” to ad blockers, but not to many advertisers and performance is likely to decrease. Larger publisher may have to pay to be included on the whitelist
Get a corporate sponsor
Rather than putting ads on a website you can turn the ad into a website using a main sponsor. Without any differentiation between website and advert this cannot then be blocked.
Pros: As close to unblockable as it comes
Cons: Can compromise independence. It can be hard to find a good sponsor. All of your revenue eggs would be in one basket
Directly sold ads, served through in-house systems are less likely to be blocked by default by ad blockers than those served through networks and recognised ad servers.
Pros: Potential to command higher rates
Cons: No guaranteed fill. Could still be added to block lists for all users. High administrative overhead
Many ad platforms enjoy being described as “native advertising”, but true Native ads those that are in the format of your content like magazine advertorials are in the print world. Native ads, served up by the CMS, are difficult to block and being adopted by many larger advertisers.
Pros: Hard to block. Command high rates. Can lead to good engagement
Cons: Seen as deceptive by some. High administrative overhead. Only practical at scale for larger publishers
It’s perfectly possible to serve “standard” ads to most users and fall back to “acceptable ads” (as defined by the ad blocking industry) for those who block ads. This can be done with script on your site, or through third party services.
Pros: Recoups some revenue lost to ad-blockers. Only serves “permissive” ads to users.
Cons: Only serves acceptable ads to those who have that enabled. More complex set-up.
Paywalls and subscription models allow publishers to earn for their content through a straight forward “pay to play” model.
Pros: Can command high rates
Cons: Only works well with regular, loyal audience. High administrative overhead
Google contributor (and other micropayments)
Micropayment systems, such as Google Contributor, aim to provide a pay to play solution that works for casual users who will never subscribe to a site. Payments are made to a central source and distributed to participating sites that subscribers visit.
Pros: Easy to administer
Aggressive anti ad-blocking strategies
Sue the ad blockers
A group of German publishers did this, and lost. The fact that the publishers who decided to take AdBlockPlus to court were employing super-aggressive ads probably didn’t help their case or garner much sympathy. The German courts ruled against the publishers and stated that users have the right to employ ad blockers.
Pros: Could establish a precedent that solved the issue long term
Cons: You’ll need to have deep pockets! Results in Germany have all been in favour of the ad blockers
Block users who block ads
Whilst user do have the right to block ads, publishers also have the right to block users who do so. Some blocks completely redirect users, others invite them to support the site in other ways. The key principal is the same: No ads, no content.
Pros: Restores the “content for ad display” model, Cheap and easy to implement
Cons: Will only work on sites with high value, otherwise users will just go elsewhere. This approach can lead to an “arms race” between publisher and blockers.
Run more aggressive ad placements
One approach that many publishers have used is to make ads more aggressive. By adding more, larger and more aggressive ads publishers attempt to earn more from users who don’t block ads to cover the loss of revenue from those that do (or, in many cases increase them further still).
Pros: Potential to increase earnings beyond the loss. Easy to implement
Cons: Poor users experience likely to harm repeat visits. Encourages more users to block ads, creating a downward spiral of user experience
Use an “unblockable” ads service
There are not commercial solutions that claim to serve ads to to users that employ all ad blocking software. Using various techniques they aim to have the ads bypass the blockers and served to the user anyway.
Pros: Claim to serve ads to all users on all devices.
Cons: Only available to top publishers. Cost. Users of ad blockers might not be happy with having their efforts bypassed.
What approach is right for you?
The truth is, there are a lot of strategies open to publishers who feeling the effect of ad blocking. None is perfect and none is right for every website. At OKO we help concerned publishers understand the right combination of solutions for them and their users, then deliver and maintain those solutions for them.
Mat has been supporting content creators on the web since 1996. As Co-founder of OKO Digital, Mat became the first person in the UK qualified to AdSense partner status and repeated this first with Google Certified Publishing Partner programme.