December 8, 2015 Last Updated 11:00 am

Ad blocking: Why treating the symptoms doesn’t treat the disease

Guest column: Ben Barokas, founder and CEO of Sourcepoint, says publishers need to clearly communicate to their users about the correlation between viewing advertising and access to ‘free’ content

Yahoo! recently confirmed that it had tested a new approach to discourage ad blocking by denying users access to Yahoo Mail if they were using an ad blocker.

While this tactic is a great indication that large media companies are becoming increasingly aware of the issues associated with ad blocking, the heavy handed approach and subsequent uproar from its users demonstrates the challenges in crafting an appropriate strategy to address the core issues that drive ad block usage.


The rise of ad blocking

Awareness of ad blocking among publishers has increased significantly over the past six months. Based on early results of research currently underway at Sourcepoint, more than 80 percent of premium publishers have either deployed or are in the process of deploying tools to measure their own ad block rates.

As ad block rates continue to rise, it isn’t surprising to see companies like Yahoo – which, as a public company, faces revenue pressures and scrutiny from so many directions – take steps to recapture lost advertising dollars. It is highly likely that other large platform providers and media companies will follow along in due time.

However, Yahoo’s approach was a highly aggressive attempt at treating the symptoms of the problem – ad block usage – rather than effectively treating the root of many of the foundational challenges that are core to the issue.

Communication is needed

Over the course of the last 15 years, as digital advertising has become more prevalent, media companies have not clearly communicated to their users about the correlation between viewing advertising and access to “free” content.

As media companies have employed increasingly aggressive advertising to monetize their content, they have failed to explain to consumers that it is their eyeballs and attention that pays for the content they enjoy.  So when given the very blunt instrument of ad block, it is very easy to see why a consumer would give it a shot.  It is this implicit relationship between content and compensation and the lack of dialogue between publishers and users that has led to the predicament that digital media companies find themselves in today.

A quick check of Yahoo Mail highlights some of the underlying issues. In my admittedly informal test, when navigating to Yahoo Mail without ad block enabled, the first email in my inbox was an ad for a telecommunications company and my inbox was flanked by ads for myriad products and services.  Hardly the experience I am looking for when I check my email.

Recognizing preferences of users

Albeit a test, Yahoo’s efforts failed to recognize two major considerations in addressing their issues with ad block users – messaging and choice.

Yahoo presented users with an extremely curt message as to why their email was no longer going to be accessible.  There was no attempt to shine a light on the otherwise implicit relationship between ads and their free email service.

In addition, consumers were provided no choice as to how to move forward.  It was “uninstall or you don’t get access to your email”.   A better approach might have been to offer the ad block user optionality as to how to “pay” for the service, for example, enabling them to opt in to an alternate ad experience that is more to the user’s preference.

Ben240In some respects, Yahoo should be applauded for taking a step forward in better understanding various ways to solve for their current challenges.  But absent a more robust messaging strategy and the willingness to offer choice to its users, it is likely they will return to the drawing board as they develop solutions to address the underlying issues and treat the root cause rather than the symptoms.

Ben Barokas is founder and CEO of Sourcepoint, the content compensation platform designed to support a sustainable media ecosystem through a fair value exchange between publishers and consumers. Barokas is a digital publishing veteran who has spent the last 15 years building solutions that cater to the unique needs of premium publishers.

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