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Mobile Ad-Blocking and the Future of Digital Marketing

Zac Emery
Mobile Ad-Blocking and the Future of Digital Marketing

AdBlock Browser and iOS 9 Will Change the Face of Mobile Advertising—But Probably Not as Much as You Think

Okay class, show of hands—how many of you have ever used a content- or advertisement-blocking browser extension like AdBlock Plus? It’s okay, I won’t tell anyone. Now, if this was a real classroom and not a clever visual storytelling tool to open this blog with, then chances are, quite a few of you would have raised your hands, even if your workinvolves SEO and you understand that there could be an intrinsic link between blocked ads and low conversions. And now that ad-blocking is pushing into mobile platforms—which have just surpassed desktop as the primary means of surfing the web—you’re probably sweating bullets wondering if your PPC or digital marketing campaigns will be safe.

There’s a reason these extensions have become popular amongst the web-savvy: ads are annoying. A fact that Apple seems vaguely aware of, since now iOS 9 allows ad blocking apps to shut out mobile advertising—or at least, a small portion of it, but we’ll get back to that later. First, we’re going to rewind a bit and unpack my previous statement about how ads are annoying.

Ads Are Annoying

Now, much like, say, a pack of angry man-children on the internet who possibly wear fedoras and love to tweet “#notallmen,” a few of you are probably tripping over yourselves to point out that, no, not all ads are annoying. And like with that obnoxiously ham-fisted hashtag, you’d be completely correct—and completely missing the point.

No, of course, not all ads are annoying. But enough of them are, and they’re annoying enough that they are driving tens of millions of active internet users to install extensions that do their best to block pop-ups, auto-playing video ads, and other things that disrupt their browsing experience. And it’s hard to switch back once you’ve experienced the web this way: web pages load more quickly, there are fewer nuisances waving in your face, and let’s face it, if ads really annoy you that much, you’re probably not going to be contributing to the click-through rate that some poor SEO manager has to report to their client.

So even if you live on this side of the digital marketing divide, it’s hard not to empathize with the portion of the web—approximately 60 million active users—who use AdBlock Plus, the most popular program of its kind in the English-speaking world. That’s out of 3.2 billion total people using the internet1, by the way.

This is not to say that you should stop creating ads if you’re trying to attract new business; on the contrary, you just have to be smarter about making ads that aren’t disruptive and provide value to your target audience. In fact, many ads work, hence the number of people and companies that invest in them. But we’ll get to that a little later.

The Rise of Mobile Internet

I’ll come right out and say it: if you work in SEO, and you’re not incorporating mobile usage into your digital marketing strategy, then you’re going to have a bad time. That’s because at the start of 2014, mobile web usage actually exceeded desktop browsing2. That’s right—more people are accessing the web from their smartphones and tablets than from laptops, PCs, or Macs. From checking their Instagram feed to Googling where to go for date night, smart phones are now the standard. Even when I’m at home, I go days without booting up my laptop. Why would I bother when I can probably do whatever it was by whipping my phone out of my pocket?

And so it’s important to tailor your marketing campaign to this information (bonus points if you know the actual mobile-to-desktop ratio of your core demographic). This means a mobile-friendly or responsive design, quick load times, potentially a social media presence, and mobile advertising. Up until recently, the visibility of your ads on mobile devices was unimpeded, allowed to run free and wild.

Then everything changed.

iOS 9 and Mobile “Content Blocking”

The word in June was that Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 9, would support what it called “Content Blockers”—effectively blocking mobile advertisements in Safari. The new operating system launched on September 16th, but in a surprise twist, it came in second place in the race to offer mobile ad blocking.

Eyeo, the makers of AdBlock Plus, released their AdBlock Browser app for both Android and Apple devices. The app is an alternative web browser that blocks ads before they load, but it may be at a disadvantage to iOS 9’s system-level content blocking for people who favour the functionality of a specific mobile browsing app. But speculation aside, it doesn’t really matter how mobile users block ads—what matters is that now, they can. Let’s focus on that.

Here are a few reasons why these functionalities are going to be a hit with some: first off, cellular data isn’t as fast as WiFi, and as anyone who’s used mobile ad blocking will tell you, the load time is so much faster, it’ll make your head spin. Some pages will load completely in less than half the time it took before. Then there are the annoying full-page web ads—which are even worse when your screen is only five to six inches—asking you to subscribe or buy the app version of a website. Even Google shares people’s hatred for these, as they have been going out of their way to demote sites that do this in their SERPs for a while now.

But there’s a catch, and it makes a pretty huge difference. All of these platforms for blocking mobile advertising only affect browser ads. Native ads—those found in applications, from Candy Crush and Facebook to various news apps like Apple News—are so far completely unaffected. And that certainly counts for something, as is often overlooked by mobile ad-blocking alarmists. See, 68% of mobile ad spending is on native ads3—because the majority of the time that users spend on their mobile devices are on non-browser apps.

So Is This the End?

Short answer: no.

Slightly longer answer: let’s look at the numbers. According to research figures from 2014 (see below), globally, iOS has only an 11.9% market share for mobile devices. But for a better grasp on its penetration into the western world, we’ll look at the US figures: 41% in 2014.

As of this writing, Apple has announced that iOS 9 has been installed on “more than 50 percent”4 of their devices. So a little over half of a little over 40% is somewhere around 20% of devices currently running iOS. If native ad budgets account for 68% of total mobile advertising spending, and about 5.6% on email and SMS, then that leaves 26% of ad spending on browser ads, which is being wasted on approximately 20% of mobile users—or in other words, about 5.2% of total ad revenue going down the drain—if we’re assuming that every person running iOS 9 is using the content blocking feature.

A fraction of people use iPhones, a fraction of them have iOS 9, and a fraction of the ads they see are mobile—and so a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of their spending is potentially wasted.

graphic of top smartphone OS in the US

Of course, some campaigns are going to take a bigger hit than others, but if you play your hand right, your SEO firm can come out strong.

Where Do We Go From Here?

SEO and digital marketing are about more than throwing in some keywords and buying some digital ad space. There’s an element of strategy that’s key to a successful campaign, and an integral part of that strategy is knowing your clients. You need to know their browsing habits—what devices do they use, and when? What do they search for? What kind of call to action is most likely to generate a lead or make a conversion?

These are all parts of the homework you need to be doing, and you can throw how they feel about ads to the mix. If your target audience is already avoiding full-page ads with lights and sounds, then you’re not going to get a conversion out of them that way, whether they’re blocking your ad or not.

In the end, the adoption of ad-blocking software, on desktop or mobile, is the internet’s many users trying to tell us something, if only we’d listen: they hate ads that disrupt their browsing experience. If you’re going to continue to try and win them over by shoving that which they despise in their face, they’ll just tune you out.

While it’s easy to bemoan how ad blockers are killing your campaign’s visibility, you can be more productive by thinking strategically—invest in native mobile advertising, go where your audience goes, and above all, avoid creating ads that make users want to pull their hair out.

If you don’t believe me that creating less annoying ads will circumvent people’s ad-blocking attempts, let me direct you to Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto. The makers of AdBlock Plus have outlined a vision for the online advertising of the future: ads that are not annoying, disruptive, loud, or inappropriate context-wise. And if you install the browser plug-in, you’ll see that that’s exactly what it does: instead of blocking all ads, it just blocks the annoying ones.

Your PPC results, for example, are totally safe. Now some people call this blackmail—especially since some of the richer sites on the web pay a premium to get their ads shown—but I call it democracy in action.

AdBlock Plus is the most popular program of its kind; people who install it are voting for a browsing experience where the ads are reasonable. It’s too early to say if mobile will go the same way, but considering most of your mobile advertising should be native anyway, I’m not too worried.


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Zac Emery is a content creator for SEO TWIST. His work is fueled by a passion for effective, poignant storytelling and exploring new ideas.
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