Apple’s Ad Blocking Support Creates Challenges

A prime topic at Advertising Week  — one that may not originally have gotten on the agenda or schedule of events — is ad blocking and the recent news from Apple: the release of iOS 9, which supports third-party browser extensions for ad blocking for the Safari mobile browser.

The recent news has significant implications for digital marketing. Currently, 15 percent of the U.S. population blocks online ads. As Apple makes it more available, this percentage is likely to grow as more and more iPhone users begin using ad blocking software. Ad blocking software use on mobile devices has quadrupled in recent years. And with more than half of internet time spent on a mobile device, the recent news from Apple adds another challenge for marketers and publishers alike — news that could (by some estimates) cost the industry $20 billion this year alone.

Ad Blocking. Is it new?

Ad blocking has been around for decades (albeit in different forms)… from switching stations during TV and radio commercials to fast forwarding through ads in VCRs and DVRs to opt out lists for email and direct mail…to today’s ad blocker software on desktop computers and mobile devices. Advertising has survived — marketers have more outlets than ever before to reach their audiences.

As it relates to ad blocker software on mobile devices, Google Play and the Apple App Store have allowed third party browsers with ad blocking capability for several years. As I understand it though, 2015 marks the first year Apple has enabled ad blocker extensions to the mobile Safari browser built into the iPhone (a good primer article on the issue is here). Third-party developers are already selling them. With Safari’s 42 percent market share for mobile/tablets, this new feature could continue to erode ad impact. (Of course, there will be iPhone users who won’t install the ad blocker extensions.)

War of Technology

Others are fighting back. As there are ad blockers, there are also anti-ad blockers. Reports I’ve read say that this new iPhone feature doesn’t impact downloaded apps, so there may be a renewed priority in securing app downloads for publishers (versus viewing their sites through a mobile browser.)

The shift has also caused some wrinkles with retailers, which have already experienced blocking of promotional images they show on their sites.

Impact is Growing

What other effects might this have?

Publishers selling ad space may deliver lower impression counts for the same media schedule, so their revenue streams may be slowed. Bloggers that depend on serving up ads on their sites for revenue may see a drop in impressions and will need more advertisers to make up the difference. Agencies may change their media mix to compensate.

Creativity will still be crucial, as those ads deemed “not annoying” may get through the blocking filters, depending on the technology used, ad blocker settings and other variables.

More irrelevant advertising may hit your screen. Most ad blockers do not allow tracking cookies, making it hard for advertisers to send over material readers are interested in. Remarketing is a tried and true technique that Amazon and so many other shopping sites — and those of us even using the remarketing feature in Google Adwords –depend on to show relevant content to those browsing their sites.

Native advertising and sponsored content may increase in importance since, to most browsers they appear as text, not as advertising. These forms may get a bigger piece of the ad pie.

An increased in earned media, to help get brands and industries “in the news”, might be another result. For my clients, I often use a mix of earned and paid media, along with social and owned media. Running ads to a message you have earned in media coverage amplifies the credibility while exposing your good coverage to those who may not have seen it. While this practice will certainly continue, getting your message as part of the earned story continues to be an important tactic.

Could this mean the end of the free Internet?

Some sites may introduce a subscription model. Some say that Apple wants to sell monthly content subscriptions to websites through the Apple Store — where the subscription cost is paid back to publishers. Other advertisers may pay a fee to get through the ad filters with some of the leading ad blocker apps. (It’s already happening, according to this report.)

On the other hand, some say the impact has been overstated and will instead result in a drop of about $1 billion.

As is with marketing and communications, it’s about getting the eyes and ears to your brand — whether at an event, on a big screen television, on a smartphone, in store, or on the road. As long as brands and industries create products and services that appeal to audiences, messages will still need to get out. As we have seen through experience, we live in a constantly-changing marketplace, and our strategies, approaches and tactics will need to change along with it.