Ad Blocking Is Solvable

“We’re all in this together, and we love to take a bath!” – Phish

Ad blocking is here, and while everyone in media is dealing with it, it sure seems like publishers and tech platforms are taking a bath when it comes to the impact of ad blocking on their revenue.

It’s the topic du jour in every media conversation, publisher board meeting, and ad tech conference across the globe right now. And right now, many of the smartest folks in advertising – many of whom I am blessed and honored to call my friends – are in California addressing this very issue.

Therefore, in honor of the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting occurring this week, I felt obligated to show some leadership by attempting to diagram a solution for solving the major issue plaguing the entire digital media community.

In order to solve a problem, you must first understand the problem. So let’s start by reviewing what is really happening here:

  • Years ago, ad agencies split creative, media planning, and media buying duties into three separate disciplines, when in fact digital media demands that all three work together and are optimized together.
  • Years ago, publishers determined that text-heavy ads were causing users to click on ads instead of their articles. So instead of focusing on creating platforms to surface more relevant content, they began using image-heavy ads which in turn used salacious, obnoxious creatives to entice users to click on the ad.
  • Years ago, when ad blockers first surfaced, the entire advertising industry didn’t band together and sue these folks into oblivion. P&G, Google, Facebook, Verizon/AOL, and others should have immediately gone to guns and sued these folks out of business. (Normally I would NEVER advocate this activity, but the fact is that there is a stated agreement in every T’s & C’s that users agree to upon visiting a site which allows the delivery of ads. Think about what broadcasters and cable service providers would do if people invented technology that didn’t just block ads from playing during a tv show, but then asked for money to allow their ads to be shown OR replaced ads with their own. The ad blockers would be facing a nearly unending supply of lawyers and lawsuits.)

I understand why ad blockers are being used by consumers: bad ads, bad creatives, slow sites, and most importantly – give someone option to opt of out something in which they don’t understand the value, and they will opt out every time. And so many people are doing precisely that. And so here we are, with consumer technology hated by publishers and ad tech firms, loved by users, and talked about by advertisers who have a lot of skin in the game but seemingly little ability to impact the outcome….with each side looking at the other waiting for a plan of action. And failing to plan is planning to fail.

And therefore in honor of one of the greatest leaders of our time, Sir Winston Churchill (to whom that quote is attributed) and in honor of the IAB Leadership Meeting, here is my plan for how we address ad blockers in a way that works for everyone:

IAB Responsibilities:

  1. The IAB should immediately ban all content recommendation widgets from accepting third party ads in their content feeds. I know what this does for firms like Outbrain & Taboola (and others), but click-bait ads which deliver high CTR’s and therefore high CPM’s to publishers devalue pages and drag down the value of the page more than page load time ever could. We rarely talk about these platforms in the advertising discussion, but it should be addressed immediately. Site search IS a valuable activity – but when a user looks at a page and sees untargeted, image-heavy, salaciously-titled links, it undermines everything we are trying to do.
  2. The IAB should mandate as part of its membership that anyone paying an ad blocking firm is posted on a public list so that the industry can track who is actually participating in the “back doors”.

Publisher Responsibilities:

  1. All publishers MUST block users from content when an ad blocker is being used. Nobody walks into a restaurant, eats all the food, and then says “I don’t think I should have to pay for my food” and is allowed to walk out. If the comScore top 100 publishers simply created a uniform policy, users would grow accustomed to this and opt in for content. Give them no choice.
  2. Publishers must mandate that on cookie targeted campaigns, dynamic creative optimization platforms are used (Advanse Media, PaperG, etc.), and for non-cookie-targeted campaigns, only intent /mindset targeting should be used (Yieldbot, Ntent, etc.).
  3. Publishers should run a 15 second pre-content commercial, frequency capped at 2 per user per day, on every visitor, and charge a minimum CPM of $20. I’m not arguing for price collusion, I’m arguing for smart management by premium publishers who set fair market rates.
  4. Publishers should reduce their ad load to two ads per page, and make one of those units a mobile interscroller unit to replace the mobile 300×250.
  5. Rather than running a normal interstitial, run 7.5 second video interstitials (longer than the 5 seconds which YouTube requires before skipping, not long enough to bother users) and frequency cap them at 2 per session.

The math works out really well for publishers in this model, with some assumptions around pageviews, customer drop-off, and price:

Publishers net nearly the same amount of money and an equal amount of revenue per session, and with ad blockers currently blocking 20-50% of ads for a publisher, in my model they actually come out ahead.

6. Develop a smart content strategy to deliver content across multiple platforms, but develop proprietary video content, deals, and promotions limited to only on-site users.

This model maximizes a number of opportunities:

  • Content recommendation widgets, used the right way – to drive up on-site traffic.
  • FB Instant Articles without losing on-site value
  • Leaning into video
  • Better creatives, better mobile formats, without losing targeting precision or dropping prices

Advertiser responsibility:

  1. When a publisher under-delivers due to a drop in traffic, be patient. The paradigm is shifting, so rewarding bad actors only serves publishers who will arbitrage traffic to overcome the loss in delivery from ad blocking.
  2. Start bringing dynamic creative optimization into every campaign, and start using intent/mindset targeting regularly for improved non-cookie targeted performance.
  3. P&G, J&J, Kraft, Walmart, Target, and other major advertisers own or operate ad-supported websites. These advertisers should begin a consumer-education campaign on their properties in support of publishers everywhere.

Advertisers, publishers, and technology platforms have all been complicit in driving users to this point – and it’s taken 21 years of digital media to get us to this point. Fixing the situation will take time, hard work, and a collectively-shared sense of effort that won’t be easy. But it’s time for action; collective action across the entire ecosystem from leaders of this industry to ensure that content remains free, consumers find value in the marketing that MAKES THEM CONSUMERS, and technology firms continue to provide both systems and revenue that drive the engine of the advertising economy.