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Dec. 2, 2015, 10 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

The mobile adblocking apocalypse hasn’t arrived (at least not yet)

But it’s a real and growing factor on desktop browsers, which has gotten many news organizations thinking about how to respond to the adblocking threat. Here are some of the strategies they’re trying.

The German tabloid Bild, the highest-circulation paper in Europe, has considered just about every option when it comes to combatting adblockers. (One in four Germans uses one.)

It’s tried the courts. Its parent company Axel Springer has sued adblocker firm Eyeo, which produces Adblock Plus, and it’s sued the company behind iOS content blocker Blockr. That initial case against Eyeo didn’t work out; a German court ruled in September that the adblocker didn’t breach laws on competition, copyright, or market dominance.

So in October, Bild moved on to a different strategy: You block Bild’s ads, Bild will deny you its content — but give you a couple ways out.

“With the start of our adblocking initiative, we blocked our content for users with an active adblocker and offered them two options: to deactivate the adblocker for or to buy our (almost) ad-free subscription BILDsmart,” said Donata Hopfen, publishing director and head of the management board at Axel Springer. So turn off the adblocker, pay up, or move along.

Bild thinks it’s got a winning approach, even if the experiment is still in early days. “The first results a few weeks after showed a heavy decline in adblocker rate by almost two-thirds,” Hopfen said. That translates to 3 million views per week from newly de-adblocked users. “That’s inventory that we can now serve ads to, that were useless before.”

Adblockers aren’t new, of course; they’ve been available for desktop browsers for years. But their seemingly accelerating growth — and spread to our phones — made adblocking worries near universal in the news business this year.

A report by Adobe and PageFair found nearly 200 million people globally using blockers, a 41 percent increase from 2014. (Note that PageFair is not a disinterested party when it comes to adblocking; it sells publishers tools that aim to counteract adblockers.) For a mix of reasons — a desire to speed up webpage load times, worries about data usage, privacy concerns, annoying formats — more and more people are happy to be forever rid of ads with a few clicks.

The discussion took on greater urgency this summer and fall, after Apple announced that the new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 9, would let users download what it calls content blockers — bringing adblocking to the iPhone for the first time. Media outlets and industry observers — ourselves included — wondered what the impact would be on publishers already with struggling mobile ad businesses.


With some of the adblocking hubbub fading, we wanted to find out two things from publishers. How big a deal has mobile adblocking on iOS turned out to be? And what sort of success are they having responding to adblocking — whether that’s by begging, blocking, upselling, or some other strategy?

The good news from publishers’ perspective is that the mobile ad apocalypse does not seem to have arrived — yet, at least. While most publishers we spoke with were reluctant to share specific numbers on the record, most said that the share of their ads being blocked on mobile since iOS 9 launched in September was minuscule — “1 or 2 percent” was the range we heard most often. The big concern is still on the desktop.

Take The Guardian. “We’re seeing levels of adblocking via desktop consistent with theIAB’s industry wide figures published in October,” director of product Anthony Sullivan told us. On mobile, though — the majority of The Guardian’s traffic now — the numbers are much lower, despite iOS 9. “We’re seeing very low-single-digit adblocker usage amongst mobile Guardian readers,” he said.

While mobile hasn’t been a major factor, The Guardian has seen differences in how readers from different countries use adblockers. “Our in-house analytics tool reveals the variations that we see across geographies,” Sullivan said in an email. “So, in line with what we know about Germany, we see higher rates of blocking from there. We see slightly higher rates in the U.K. compared to the U.S.”

Adblocking is more prevalent in Europe than in the United States as 77 million Europeans block ads compared to 45 million Americans, the PageFair report said. Adblocking is growing at a quicker rate Stateside though. Between the second quarters of 2014 and 2015, the usage of adblockers in the U.S. increased by 48 percent, the report said. During the same time period, usage increased by 35 percent in Europe.

Even sites with unusually high desktop blocking rates — think German sites, or technology sites — aren’t seeing huge numbers on mobile. About a quarter of all Internet users in Germany use an adblocker, but the percentage is even higher for some sites like Golem, a German-language tech site that’s seen an outright majority of its users blocking.

“As far as I can remember, it’s always been an issue for us,” said the site’s editor-in-chief, Benjamin Sterbenz. “As soon as adblock software was available, our readers installed the software and experimented with it. I’m sure that a lot of our readers also contributed to the development of adblocking software.”

But compared to adblocking on desktop, Golem readers using adblocking technology on mobile is in the single digits. Though it saw a little bump in September with the release of iOS 9, it’s otherwise remained constant, which Sterbenz said surprised him.

At Ars Technica, the Condè Nast-owned tech site, about 6 percent of mobile users block ads, “which is just a bit higher than what it was previously,” Ken Fisher, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief said in an email. On desktop, about 30 percent of users block ads, he said. In 2010, 42 percent of Ars Technica users blocked ads. That year, the site initiated a campaign to ask users to whitelist the site, and ultimately the percentage fell to 25 percent before creeping up slightly more recently. Ars Technica also offers an ad-free version of the site for $50 annually, but Fisher said the site plans to unveil a new approach to adblocking in early 2016.

“What I keep hearing from people is that they have adblockers for other sites — sites that are too aggressive in their approach to ads or are using questionable services,” he said.

In Slovenia, the business daily Časnik Finance has about 13 percent of its desktop users blocking ads, but only 2 percent on mobile, according to digital development manager Jure Gotisa.

The low-uptake of mobile adblockers has surprised staffers at Salon, said Rachel Hagen, the site’s director of product. Fifty-five percent of the site’s traffic is now mobile, and like many publishers, Salon is finding it difficult to monetize mobile users. Mobile adblockers would certainly complicate that equation, but so far there has been little impact, she said, though she wouldn’t disclose exact figures.

“I know that once it was announced that iOS 9 was coming with full support of adblocking, I know it was certainly something that was discussed internally quite a bit,” she said. “But we said: OK, let’s see how it shakes out and if people are going to enable the adblockers or not. And thus far, it’s been pretty minor.”

One ad network you might expect to have faced a significant impact from Apple’s move is The Deck, which prides itself on its unobtrusive ads and avoidance of what’s evolved into the ad tech industry — a purposeful counterbalance to most web advertising. It collects no data on users, and its ads are just images. Its inventory appears on a lot of sites focused on design and technology, like John Gruber’s Daring Fireball or Jason Kottke’s, and those sites’ audiences are disproportionately Apple users.

From August through October, the period that included the introduction of adblockers on iOS, The Deck saw about a seven percent reduction in the number of pages viewed in its network, CEO Jim Coudal said. Part of that reduction was certainly due to adblockers, but Coudal also said that a few technical shifts in how some of the sites in the network load their pages asynchronously during that time also impacted the numbers. The number of ads The Deck served was back up in November, though.

“I don’t doubt there’s been some impact,” Coudal said. “I don’t think it’s been major, and it’s difficult to tell you exactly what the answer is. I’ve had people write me to say, ‘I’ve got this great software that we can put on the ad network and find out exactly who using adblockers.’ I’m thinking to myself: Isn’t that exactly what we’re not doing? Do we need to get in a war about who can make the most intelligent spy software? I don’t want any part of that.”

“If someone is using an adblocker, frankly, they’re not my user. I know how many ads I’m serving. That’s all I know, and the number of ads I’m serving in November has already surpassed what I served in July and is more than October, September, and August.”


A focus still on the desktop

Though mobile adblockers may well prove to be a significant issue for news organizations in months or years to come, the outlets we spoke with are still focused primarily on desktop. They’re examining their options to circumvent adblockers, discourage readers from using them, or even prevent users from seeing content with adblockers turned on.

Salon: An unsatisfying history with selling an ad-free site

Salon is taking a light-handed approach. The site has seen only a slight uptick in adblocker usage in the past few months, Hagen said, though she wouldn’t divulge exact percentages. She hypothesized that the recent focus on adblockers may have attracted some new users, and said “we do think about it and worry about it, and it is our intention to operate around it.”

The company is in talks with some content recommendation engines that are whitelisted by major adblockers like AdBlock Plus. “It’s a way for us to try and recover some of that lost revenue from the ad-blocked pageviews,” she said. “Instead of injecting the more unsightly banner ads, they inject content recommendations, which a lot of times are just sponsored content,” she said. “We are experimenting with those and hope to introduce those as a way to navigate around our readers’ wishes, which is not to see the banner ads…We’re trying to carefully navigate around that and be respectful of our readers wishes.”

Founded in 1995, Salon was one of the first web-only publishers, but by the dot-com collapse, it had realized that advertising alone would make supporting the site a struggle. So in 2001, it introduced a subscription product, Salon Premium. For $30 annually, users could support the site while also accessing an ad-free version of it. “The new wave of Web ads that are now being adopted by many sites, including Salon, will be bigger and more prominent than current banner ads,” then-editor David Talbot wrote while introducing the program.

Salon Premium peaked in 2004 with 89,100 subscribers. But by 2013, there were fewer than 8,000 remaining, and the company discontinued the program in 2014.

And while some outlets are turning to paid or membership programs to supplant lost advertising revenue, Hagen said that Salon took from its previous experience that the cost of setting up such a system isn’t worth it:

It was modestly successful for a number of years. It helped really carry Salon through some tough times, certainly during the bubble burst and all that. But it got to the point where there were a number of business reasons for doing it, but it all came down to what’s the amount work going into supporting this versus how much we’re taking in revenue wise. Once the ROI doesn’t balance out, it made sense to turn it off. It’s managing two different reader experiences, and it goes beyond taking in the money and keeping track of the cookies that you put for other option. It comes down to really there are two versions of the site, and once you attribute all the complexities around mobile and fragmentation, that becomes many, many more versions of the site that our technical team has to manage.

Slate: Betting on a gentle upsell to membership

Fellow 1990s-web veteran Slate, meanwhile, is using its membership program, Slate Plus, to try and convince readers to support the site in a way other than advertising. Users who visit with an adblocker get a friendly, but firm, popup prompt: “We noticed you’re using an adblocker. Support Slate’s journalism and help us reduce our dependence on advertising — join Slate Plus.” After beginning to study ad-blocking rates early in 2015, Slate first began nudging its adblocking denizens in late October, Slate’s director of product development, David Stern, said. (Slate decided it didn’t want to outright block users from reading content.)

The gentler ask is helping, Stern said: “The adblock membership signup prompt is responsible for about 10 percent of new memberships since we launched it.” For Slate, which launched Slate Plus in April 2014 and this summer signed up its 10,000th member, that’s a significant pickup rate.

Stern said the prompt — rather than something more nagging or outright blocking — better fits the tone they are trying to strike with Slate readers, namely: We’re a community here. Come join us. “We understand some folks in the industry are eager to go to war,” Stern said. “And at the same time, without condoning it, we understand the position of those installing adblockers. But for us at Slate, we’re asking, ‘Can we reduce the incentive to install?'”

Reducing the incentive to install means looking to provide better reader experience, and ultimately, serve fewer ads. “We’re improving page load time, removing intrusive ads, and working toward fewer ads, but for those that stay we want them to be more impactful,” Stern said. “We want the kinds of ads that people who read fashion magazines — that’s not me — but the kinds of ads that people say are part of the experience of reading the magazine.”

Stern declined to share the percent of visitors to Slate who have adblockers installed on desktop or mobile, but said they were “roughly in line with the rates in the industry.” Mobile adblocking did see a slight increase after the debut of adblockers in iOS 9, he said, but it’s not something he feels pressed about.

In June, editor-in-chief Julia Turner wrote to international readers to announce that Slate would be moving to a paywall model overseas. International readers would now receive only five articles for free per month before being asked to join Slate Unlimited at the same cost as Slate Plus — $5 per month or $50 per year. In her message, she expounded on the ad revenue-motivated reasons Slate was adopting this model:

Slate is an ad-supported business. The majority of our revenue comes from the ads you see around the site. The money advertisers give us to run these ads pays for the salaries of our writers, editors, designers, photo editors, and technologists. But there’s a problem: Our U.S.-based sales team sells primarily to domestic advertisers, many of whom only want to reach a domestic audience. This may sound provincial, but there are decent business reasons for it: Maybe the car company buying ads on our site doesn’t sell the model it’s advertising in your country. Or maybe the marketing strategy where you live is different. Whatever you think of the logic, the fact is inescapable: Many U.S. advertisers won’t pay us to reach readers outside of the United States.

Absent from this explanation is the fact that adblockers are more popular in many overseas markets than in the United States. So even if international ad impressions were of value to advertisers, there would still be a higher percentage who would still not be seeing them.

Currently, the anti-adblocking prompt only serves to Slate’s desktop users, which Stern said is keeping in Slate’s plans to further improve its mobile offerings.

“On mobile we have different options,” he said. “Even those running adblockers share our content. Some have multiple browsers, some with adblockers and some not. It’s not in our interest or theirs to harass them.” Instead, he said, they’ll end up investing more in mobile apps and distributed platforms, like Facebook’s Instant Articles.

City A.M.: Whitelist us or no content for you

While Slate users can still see content even if they’re using an adblocker,City A.M., the free business newspaper that is distributed in and around London, is one outlet that’s been experimenting with preventing readers from seeing content with adblockers turned on.

The paper’s entire business model — both in print and digitally — is built around ad sales. As people began paying more attention to adblocking earlier this year, the paper decided it wanted to see what percentage of its audience was blocking. Because it’s a business paper, City A.M.’s audience tends to be older and more affluent, Martin Ashplant, the paper’s digital and social media director said.

“[They] wouldn’t necessarily pass in the same category as your Vices, or your BuzzFeeds, or whoever has a very strong millennial audience,” Ashplant said. “We suspected that the adblocking side of things would be less than it would be on average elsewhere.”

City A.M. suspected about 10 percent of its audience was using adblockers. But when the paper started tracking the figures, they realized that about 20 percent of desktop page impressions had ads blocked on them.

“That’s 20 percent of revenue that we can’t be making on desktop,” Ashplant said. “From our perspective, and I’m sure it’s the same for a number of publishers, desktop is where most of the revenue comes from. That’s a big number. That’s something we can’t ignore, and it’s only going to get bigger.” According to the PageFair report, 20.3 percent of Internet users in the U.K. used an adblocker in the second quarter of 2015, an increase of 82 percent from a year earlier.

As a result, City A.M. decided to launch an experiment by preventing some readers who use adblockers from reading its stories. Starting in late October, desktop Firefox users with adblockers turned on were prevented from accessing City A.M. content — making it the first paper in the U.K. to make such a move. Users were presented with the first few paragraphs of the story and then a message asking them to turn off their adblocker (or whitelist the site).


“We are having trouble showing you adverts on this page, which may be a result of adblocker software being installed on your device,” the message reads. “As City A.M. relies on advertising to fund its journalism, please disable any adblockers from running on, then reload the page to see the rest of this content.”

The test started small with only Firefox users, who make up about 8 percent of City A.M.’s desktop audience. (In the coming months, City A.M. plans to roll out the adblocking messages to other desktop browsers including Chrome, Safari, and more. Mobile is less of a priority for the paper because most of its readership is still on desktop and very little of its revenue actually comes from mobile, Ashplant said.)

The results? In the first month or so since City A.M. began showing users the message, the percentage of readers using adblockers on Firefox has dropped by a third, Ashplant said. And about one-quarter of users who see the adblocking message actually turn it off or whitelist.

City A.M. also hasn’t seen a noticeable change in its bounce rate because of the new message, Ashplant said. He reads that to mean that people who decide not to turn off their adblockers likely wouldn’t have stayed on the site beyond reading that one article.

“It almost feels like the people who feel that it’s worth having that value exchange, and it’s worth turning the adblocker off — because they do want to see the content and they do perceive that City A.M. has got content that’s worth turning the adblocker off for — they’re inclined to spend longer on the site,” he explained. “It’s almost as if they’ve made a conscious decision that it’s worth doing it, and then they go on to explore the site and click on more than one page.”

Photos by id-iom and Rafael Edwards used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 2, 2015, 10 a.m.
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