Though some websites have been hurt worse than others, virtually all advertising-funded websites have suffered some revenue loss due to ad blockers. In this Buyers’ Guide, I’ll discuss the alternatives— technological and otherwise—available to publishers that are feeling the pinch.
In a seminal blog post from October 2015, Scott Cunningham, senior vice president of technology and ad operations at IAB, and general manager of the IAB Tech Lab, admitted, “We messed up. As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of user experience. … This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience.” Cunningham was referring to poor ad-related experiences, which he felt contributed to the creation and popularity of ad-blocking software. This blog post launched IAB’s LEAN program, which I’ll discuss in a moment. For those who didn’t get that memo, consider the famous Will Rogers quote: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Figure 1 shows the number of trackers found on livingly.com, a site you’ll get to if you click the wrong icon on CNN or ESPN. Each tracker takes a bit of time to load, which delays page load time. Each tracks yet another piece of data about you and your browsing habits, ensuring that if you look at golf clubs on Amazon, you’ll be seeing golf-related advertisements for the next 3 months. While 70 is an exceptional number, the Ghostery plug-in found 35 on CNN, 29 on The Wall Street Journal, and 38 on Forbes. The number of information sources, and the publisher’s responses to that data in the form of personalized ads, contributes to slower page load times and, potentially, page stability. Throw in intrusive ad practices like pop-up ads and audio and video that auto-start, and it’s not hard to see why many turn to ad blockers.
The IAB’s LEAN Principles stand for Light, Encrypted, Ad Choice Supported, and Non-invasive, and the IAB is in the process of converting the acronym to actionable guidance. A good place to start learning about LEAN is the post, “How LEAN Can You Get? A Scale and a Score Will Tell You.” Significantly, the article suggests that “there is a threshold for page load-times that should not be crossed, without risking consumer disaffection. It is equally clear that some factors—such as excessive and redundant data calls from an ad unit—contribute inordinately to these barrier-busting load times. Our goal is to identify the right thresholds and their contributing factors, and incorporate them into our LEAN scoring mechanism.” The article also notes, “Preliminary research implies strong consumer demand for skip—the research from IAB UK indicates that unskippable video ads are a primary driver for installing ad blockers, and that having an option to skip would cause some ad blocking users to reconsider.”
Those looking for additional guidance should download Teads.tv’s “Manifesto for Sustainable Advertising,” which includes 10 specific recommendations in its “guidelines to engage, not enrage.” These include avoiding interstitial and pop-up units, using skippable video advertising formats, and limiting the number of ads per user.
These documents are a great place to start for any publisher concerned about current or future revenue loss due to ad blockers; the best way to discourage ad blocking is to eliminate or reduce the reasons that visitors to your website install them (see Figure 2).
DEALing With Ad Blockers
Beyond improving the advertising-related experience, the acronym-loving IAB recommends that publishers DEAL with the problem by Detecting ad blocking to initiate a conversation, Explaining the value exchange that advertising enables, Asking for changed behavior to maintain the exchange, and either Lifting restrictions or Limiting access if the consumer doesn’t agree. To facilitate the first point, the IAB Tech Lab offers a free ad-block detection code to all members. Promisingly, a U.K. study by the IAB/ YouGov on the state of ad blockers found that 54 percent of web surfers who enter a dialogue with publishers regarding ad blockers would consider turning them off if that was the only way to view the content.
Sourcepoint, a consultancy and technology provider, is helping to facilitate those kinds of publisher/website visitor conversations, and potentially finding new ways to compensate publishers for their content. Sourcepoint primarily works with premium publishers, and most engagements start with publishers installing Insights, a measurement tool to assess ad-blocking losses over their multiple properties. Depending upon what the publishers learn, they may decide to install Dialog, a Sourcepoint tool that lets them offer different compensation choices to the user. With Dialog, and the Sourcepoint platform, publishers can perform A/B testing on different offers and messaging to determine which delivers the most revenue.
What’s interesting about Sourcepoint is that unlike the anti-ad blocking tools discussed next, it doesn’t force advertisements down the throats of visitors who have already expressed their desire not to see ads. Rather, it enables an intelligent dialogue that reminds visitors of the role that advertising plays in content creation, and allows them to compensate the publisher in different, less objectionable ways. Though as yet unproven, this dialogue may deliver more revenue to the publisher than the existing ad-based model.
How Ad Blockers Work
Before venturing into anti-ad blocking technologies, let’s explore how ad blockers work, using Figure 3 as a reference. Under the traditional ad-delivery model, publishers deliver content directly to their users, with periodic calls to a third-party ad network to deliver an advertisement. Before making these calls, advertisers may mine data from the various data sources shown in Figure 1, enabling extremely targeted advertising. However, this schema also makes it simple for ad blockers to monitor and block calls from the player to known ad servers. Since the ad doesn’t get served, video playback quickly resumes, and often the viewer wouldn’t even realize that an ad was supposed to have been served.
For perspective, though client-side advertising is easy to block, it’s the preferred technique for most advertisers because it enables extensive communications between the player and the ad network. For example, it enables all the information displayed in Figure 1 to easily pass from player to ad network, helping shape the ad-buying process and enabling programmatic buying, where computers bid based on demographics and other known buyer info. Of course, this infers a robust client-side application, which can supply features like interactivity, detecting when the ads are obscured by other windows, or disabling the viewer’s ability to fast-forward through advertisements. These types of functions are simple to supply on computers and mobile devices, but they’re more difficult to include on inexpensive OTT devices and Smart TVs. I explain more on why this is important in a moment.
There are two approaches to dealing with ad blockers, client-side anti-ad blocking technologies, and server-side advertising insertion.
Client-Side Anti-Ad Blocking Technologies
Client-side anti-ad blocking techniques work by outsmarting the ad blockers, though most vendors are understandably tight-lipped about what they’re actually doing. For example, according to Frédéric Montagnon, founder and CEO of New York- and Paris-based software developer Secret Media, his company developed a technology that encrypts the URL in the ad call, and replaces it with a proxy that can’t be recognized by the ad blocker. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, Secret Media also scrambles the URLs and search engine keywords of the ads every second, and each time the webpage loads.
This obfuscation is only one piece of the puzzle; the other is preserving all the messaging and data communications inherent to Figure 1 that enable publishers to fully monetize the webpage. According to Montagnon, Secret Media owns two patents on these technologies and is the only company that can deliver an anti-ad-blocking solution that works with programmatic ad buys.
To a degree, all client-side anti-ad blocking technologies are engaged in a cat and mouse game with ad-blocker developers, so choosing a solution means betting on a technology that may ultimately stop working. When evaluating client-side anti-ad blocking technologies, you should also determine compatibility with existing ad servers, and whether the technology enables client-side scripts to deliver the viewability statistics, bidding, and interactivity required for premium add units.
Before implementing a client-side anti-ad blocking technology, be sure to measure latency and failure rate, not only for visitors running ad blockers but for those without them as well. Given the cat and mouse battle we just described, you should keep monitoring these metrics even after implementing the chosen technology.
Server-Side Ad Insertion
With server-side ad insertion, the advertisements are called by the server, so there are no ad calls from the player to the ad network for the ad blocker to block (Figure 4). Ads are fed into the server-side system by the ad network, where they are merged with the actual content to deliver a single stream of content and ads.
At its best, server-side ad insertion, or ad stitching, not only avoids ad blockers, it also improves the playback experience and enables delivery to thin clients like OTT devices and Smart TVs. I say at its best because some providers acquire advertisements at full quality and re-encode them to the same specs as the original content, so ads look seamless. Others simply stream previously encoded advertisements, which could have a different resolution, aspect ratio, or data rate, making them even more jarring to the viewer.
The big negative of most server-side ad providers is that they lack the information flow and reporting capabilities of player-based systems. With client-based systems, the client itself can report how much of the advertisement was viewed; with most server-side systems, the server can only report that the advertisement was served.
How to choose among server-side offerings? One major factor is the information flow and interactivity enabled by the service and how that factors into ad personalization and reporting. For example, Verizon Digital Media Services opens a dedicated session with each viewer, providing an information flow similar to client-side advertising insertion. The obvious concerns of such a system are scale and cost, because more server resources are necessary to support these sessions. In this regard, Verizon claims that its costs are competitive and that it has successfully served millions of viewers in very high-profile events.
Unlike client-side systems, which you can generally integrate into your existing workflow, server-side advertising is very resource-intensive and requires tight integration between the content management system, ad networks, encoders, and player. This means you’ll likely have to change significant components of your workflow and choose new partners. Some providers, like Brightcove and Verizon, provide all the pieces of the puzzle, while others involve premium providers like Ooyala and Elemental combining technologies to provide a complete system.
Though ad personalization is a valued feature, it can present challenges when it comes to caching, since every stream is essentially unique. Less caching translates directly to higher bandwidth costs, so find out how all candidate systems handle this issue, as well as their plans for handling it in the future. Also ask if ads inserted into live events can be swapped for VOD distribution.
Obviously, consider how the service supports the devices that you target with your service, particularly thin clients like consumer OTT devices, gaming platforms, and smart TVs. Other factors include the availability of features like blocking the scrubber bar during ad playback, and the loudness management between your content and advertisements. Some systems offer a hybrid solution, with client-side insertion to viewers without ad blockers, with server-side ad insertion for those with ad blockers.
At a high level, server-side ad blocking delivers a more reliable technique for avoiding ad blockers, though it offers less of the information that advertisers want to more effectively target their ads and control and monitor the ad playback experience. That’s where client-side advertising insertion really shines, though it has the potential costs of degrading the user experience and vulnerability to ad blockers. Ultimately, the market may evolve into a combined solution that combines server-side advertising insertion and a light client-side library. Complicating all these solutions are the different metrics and reporting required by different groups of advertisers.
Killing the Golden Goose
For decades, advertisers lived with nontargeted national and regional ads delivered via linear TV. With the internet, advertisers have become addicted to the ability to collect data and target their advertisements down to the individual level. Like all addicts, they demand more and more. On their side, publishers seeking to optimize the value of their eyeballs have become addicted to the premium revenue these highly targeted ads deliver.
In the middle is the consumer, the proverbial golden goose, about whose user experience both sides clearly forgot. While most people understand and support the advertising/free content tradeoff, no one likes the delays and intrusion caused by 70 points of data collected and responded to each time they visit a website. To paraphrase the IAB’s Cunningham, both the advertisers and the publishers need to stop “messing up” and present a more tolerable user experience. Otherwise, the current crop of ad blockers will be only the first salvo adopted by those seeking to reclaim a secure and relatively private internet experience.
This article was published in the Spring 2017 European edition of Streaming Media magazine.