We reap what we sow with adblockers

İBRAHIM ALTAY - İSMAIL SELIM EŞSIZ
ISTANBUL
Published 25.04.2016 00:58
Updated 25.04.2016 01:03
Illustration by Necmettin Asma - twitter.com/necmettinasma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma - twitter.com/necmettinasma

With the number of Internet users who use adblockers increasing, media companies should examine the root of the problem instead of banning users from accessing their sites

Back when we did not have the extensive knowledge of the Internet that we have now, even simple processes such as formatting a computer required specific knowledge. After formatting, you had to install drivers for video and sound as well as a router. You had to install everything that your computer had before by hand. The entire process took nearly a day. Now we have clouds, easy backups and simple formatting tools. There are things to do after formats change with time, and now we only install add-ons, and not even them with some browsers and other fine-tuning tools. And it appears for 6 percent of Internet users, adblock is among those tools.

Let's start with a brief explanation of ad block add-ons. As the name suggests, it is a browser add-on that enables users to block or filter different types of advertisements like banners, embedded audio and video clips, pop-up windows and text. Working as an extension on browsers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Opera, there are a couple of applications called AdBlock and Adblock Plus that offer similar services.

Of course, for such a service to be offered, there needs to be demand. The reason usage of adblockers grew fast and steady is simple, as advertisements on the Internet grew unchecked in its early years. The argument against those who complained was simple as well: It's a free market. After all, if a user did not like the ad policy of a website then they did not have to visit the site. But reality is never that simple. For a website to get away with intrusive and obscuring ads, it has to do one of two things. First, it has to provide a service unattainable anywhere else. Notice this contradicts the free choice argument. The second type is more common. Websites grew heavy with bloated ads only after they achieved a steady consumer base and believed they were too big to fail. In this case, they bet on the habits of their visitors. Ad blockers provided a way out for users who were sick of ads that made their daily browsing a challenge, and it worked for a long time. After all, it had a small user base relatively to the entirety of Internet users at the start. So ad block users had their safe haven, and websites did not care much about them.

As the numbers changed, this attitude also evolved from indifference to cajoling or fighting with users using adblockers. According to a comprehensive report prepared by PageFair and Adobe in 2015, there were 198 million monthly active users of adblockers as of June 2015. Considering that number was only 21 million in January 2010, we have seen quite a change. The number is also quite possibly higher as of 2016, considering it went from 121 million in January 2014 to 181 million in January 2015.

Before offering more data from the research, let us continue with how this affects media as a sector and why it is this week's subject. Indeed, we have discussed ad trends and native and aggressive advertisement techniques on this page before, so this, in a way, serves as a continuation of those articles. But there is another reason. Revenue from advertisements is the lifeblood of newspapers, far exceeding that from circulation. In the case of news websites, ads usually cover an even bigger percentage of annual income. We said before that according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) report: "During 2013 newspapers gained $163 billion in circulation and advertisement revenues. But this number was significantly higher a couple of years ago. In 2008 newspapers were getting $187 billion. Of course these numbers do not represent net profits. Since logistical expenses and prime costs increased in this period, profits are also affected by it. For every 100 euros in advertisement revenues in 2012, the number decreased to 82 euros in 2013."

So it appears that our sector is supposed to be greatly affected by adblockers. To find out whether the appearance is deceiving or not, bear with me for a moment. News websites were not blameless in this, either. Many of them were littered with intrusive ads, and some of them were even covering the whole screen, demanding a couple of seconds pass before offering the actual website. After the rise of adblockers, several news websites decided to block users who use adblockers, instructing them to pause to reach their sites, with Forbes among them. Many sites from France also joined Forbes, according to a Guardian report published on March 22 with the title "French news sites block the adblockers, telling readers to uninstall or lose access." These websites included Le Monde, L'Equipe and Le Parisien. Jerome Fenoglio, the editor-in-chief of Le Monde defended the action with a message that said: "For our 400 journalists to provide you each day with high-quality, reliable and varied news each day ... we must be able to rely on advertising revenue." Although it is important to note here that even though The Guardian report did not clarify, this was a temporary ban, a test run if you like. Germany's Bild also took a stance against adblockers as well as Sweden's media industry with 20 Swedish publicists and IAB spearheading the effort, and according to Lucinda Southern's report in Digiday, "Sweden's publishers are joining forces to simultaneously block ad-block users," which was published on March 14. For reference, according to a report by Mediavision, which was released in January 2016, nearly 40 percent of Swedes were using adblockers. A report prepared by Ipsos, which was published in March 2016, also showed that over 30 percent of French Internet users were also using software intended to block ads. Pagefair's earlier report said that 16 percent of the U.S. online population was using adblockers during the second quarter of 2015. So the numbers look pretty grim for some, not so much for others. So did our sector really take such a big hit when it comes to this software? To find out, let us turn to Pagefair's report once more.

Not the biggest target

According to the PageFair report, "The cost of adblocking," the biggest hit scored by the adblockers was to the gaming industry and websites about it with a solid 26.5 percent. It means, "Visitors to gaming websites are significantly more likely to block advertising." However, we do not see the biggest sites in the gaming industry, such as IGN, Gamespot, Kotaku, GameFAQs and PC Gamer, with the draconian approach of completely banning adblockers. They seem to realize shunning the most active user base on the Internet is a bad business practice. But more on that later.

This was followed by social networking sites with 19.1 percent. And similarly, there is no action against adblockers on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube or Goodreads. One may argue that social media sites' incomes cannot be compared to those of mainstream media, but considering the eMarketer forecast of $25.14 billion in global ad spending on social media sites, with Facebook in the lead, it is not pocket change. Also, the gaming sites we mentioned have very similar content and business plans to traditional media, so that argument holds little water.

In other words, even though the media's voice seems to be the loudest in the adblocker debate, we were not hit as hard as many others. So there might be even worse times to come. So what will we do when the percentage reaches half of users? Do we ban all of them from reading the news? Of course, that is a hypothetical question since we are not even sure we can ban them. After all, these efforts only gave rise to another type of software: Anti-adblock killers. So considering we cannot stop people from blocking ads, and we cannot stop them from entering a site without turning their adblockers off, what can we do? Probably alienate the most active portion of the Internet. That doesn't seem like a good business practice now, does it?

Many who opt for these methods believed otherwise though. According to an article by Jessica Davies in Digiday, La Figaro's chief operating officer said the trial was a success and 20 percent of adblockers whitelisted their website and 5 percent decided they would take the deal of a 9.90 euro premium experience. So they gained one out of every four adblocker users. I wonder how many of the last three went to other websites and how much secondary traffic they lost after this approach.

That being said, I believe offering a premium service is a valid method and can actually be a way out of this conflict, especially if there are added benefits other than an ad-free experience. However, coupling that with a ban is not the way to go.

There is a cost

Despite all this, saying that the industry is not suffering because of adblockers is just not true since it, indeed, does suffer. Lost revenue is undeniable. But we reap what we sow. Was it not us who paved the way for the almost fanatical no-ads-under-any-circumstance approach with our unchecked advertisements? Did we not make reading a single news article an obstacle with constant popups, obscuring ad pages and banners upon banners? It was us who alienated people with auto-played video ads blasting audio. By we, I mean the entire media and advertisement sector since we seemed quite happy in early 2000s with these untouched lands brimming with profit. So if we see the ever-increasing number of adblocker users today, it is because of the sector's early blunders and arrogance.

According to PageFair's research, this was not the main reason people started using adblockers. Fifty percent of users started to use them if they felt their personal data was being misused to personalize the ads, and 41 percent complained about the increase in the number of ads, although that percentage seems to be more relevant among millennials, as for those aged between 18 and 34, it sits comfortably at 57 percent. Only 11 percent said they would never use an adblocker. For those aged between 35 and 49, this was 23 percent. So in other words, fighting adblockers head-on seems to be a futile effort, as younger users are more in favor of an ad-free experience and will continue to be unless their reasons for using the software is eliminated.

Increasing usage

Where does Turkey stand in this debate? With adblock users below 10 percent, Turkey is still relatively safe from the conflict. But this month, the Sözcü daily decided to follow the example of Forbes and completely blocked users who use adblockers. On the only page displayed to adblocker users, they advertised their subscription methods by saying: "Browse 10 times faster." This seems to be an unfortunate statement because it seems to be admitting that bloated ads make browsing run slower than it should. This action was met with general outrage on various social media sites, but so far the newspaper stands firm in its decision. They will not be alone in the upcoming years, however, since with a growth rate of 41 percent annually, other websites in Turkey may choose to adopt similar methods to retain their ad revenue.

Here is the rub though. To reach outside the core reader base that checks the website daily, these news sites rely on their core base since with their shares in social media, they manage to attract one-time visitors, which represents a sizable bulk of unique visits. So by cutting off adblocker users, a website also sacrifices the potential traffic these active Internet users could bring, not to mention that those who are not in the habit of visiting the website will most likely close the page immediately if their attempts are thwarted by an adblock-killer. Therefore, merit in this approach seems nonexistent.

New frontier

The only way to solve this seems to be by meeting on some sort of middle ground. A subscription method seems valid, as it will also encourage user loyalty as long as websites do not dangle a carrot while showing the stick. Blocking users will not work in the long run. It might lead to short-time profit since it will enforce those who cannot live without the website to whitelist the site, but for every user gained, the site will lose many more to competitors, not to mention any indirect traffic they brought. Nonintrusive advertisements are also a must, since they not only provide positive feedback from your visitors who do not use adblockers, but also help adblock users to whitelist a site. An important thing to note here is that some adblock software demands money for the whitelisting, and this, for all intents and purposes, is akin to blackmail. Whitelist requirements should be easily accessible, and the sites that meet them should be included on the list without huge fees. In any event, since users can whitelist individual websites themselves, a banner informing them that the website uses only nonintrusive ads and requests they whitelist individually will also help if the site has credibility with the users.

The answer: Don't treat these users as pirates hijacking much-prized ad revenue. The burden of proof and a show of goodwill fall on the publishers in this case since the problem started with them.

Currently, Daily Sabah has a single ad format in the form of two sizable banners that would otherwise be occupied by blank space. There does not seem to be any ad that interferes with user experience on the site, so we can say that this is a good example of unobtrusive ads. I urge our related departments to continue this policy on ads.

Lastly, many advertisement companies and websites have turned to the mobile market since mobile browsing is nearing half of all web browsing. However, PageFair's research shows that as of the second quarter of 2015, only 2 percent of total adblocking was done on mobile devices whether it was a smartphone or a tablet. Despite this preferable environment we see the same mistakes of the early 2000s now with mobile browsing, with tricky placements, full-page ads, mandatory videos and so forth. Considering how it turned out for desktop browsing, I hope mobile takes the lesson to heart, but it seems that history will repeat itself in the very near future.

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