What the Rise of Ad Blocking Means for Digital Content

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When print newspapers and magazines began dying off en masse about five years ago, most publishers resented the rise of digital content and online distribution channels. Fast forward five years, and those who were lucky enough to survive are fighting for their lives again. This time the threat is coming from ad blockers.

While some publishers initially experimented with paywalls—finding varying degrees of success but mostly failure—others tried to uphold the ideal of free content through ad revenue. Unfortunately for them, their ads were mostly obnoxious, ugly and irrelevant.

As if having to look at them wasn’t bad enough, users had to endure sluggish performance and annoyances like popups and auto-play videos. That was never going to fly in a speed-obsessed era.

Free, but at what cost?

With the growing popularity and ease of installing ad blocking technology—including free apps and browser extensions like AdBlock Pro—more and more users are choosing to bypass the noise of online advertising. Even Apple, following initial hesitation, has jumped on the bandwagon: first with the addition of ad blocking apps to its store, and more recently with the launch of its AdBlock Browser for iOS.

This year alone, ad blocking will cost the advertising industry up to $21 billion in lost revenue

According to AdAge, 45 million people in the U.S. are now actively blocking ads. That’s a 48% increase over the same period the year before.

It’s been estimated that this year alone, ad blocking will cost the advertising industry up to $21 billion in lost revenue. And while few Internet users will shed a tear, this loss could start a chain reaction that dramatically alters the way they access content online.

Short sighted or just a sign of the times?

Some commentators are predicting a greater shift toward paywalls. If publishers can no longer rely on advertisers to subsidize content production, they have to either convince users to pay up or cut down on the quality and quantity of their content.

Given the rise of Netflix, iTunes and other paid platforms, though, it’s not that hard to imagine a pay-for-content system catching on. After all, there was a time not long ago when the music and film industries looked on the verge of collapse thanks to illegal downloading and bootlegging.

The threat of legal punishment was a big reason for the shift in attitude, but it also showed that consumers were willing to pay as long as the price was fair. And that’s a promising sign for digital content publishers.

Quality control

The mere existence of digital ads isn’t what seems to bother users most, it’s the lack of quality and creativity. Installing ad blockers is a way to fight back. Advertisers have already begun exploring ways to get around these blocks, but they should really be investing in ways to improve their ads and deliver them in a less intrusive way.

AdBlock Plus, for example, lets websites apply to be added to a white-list of approved advertisers. Likewise, users can decide to white-list sites that show acceptable advertising content.

Ironically, the golden age of print could serve as the best example going forward. Magazines had elevated advertising to an art form—blending ads so seamlessly into their publication that readers neither noticed nor cared. It wasn’t uncommon for them to rip out an ad and save it for later, especially since that ad was likely thoughtful and relevant.

If advertisers and publishers want to survive this latest threat, they would do well to take a page from the same playbook.

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