The coming ad-block apocalypse

This is AdBlock, the most popular ad-blocking software around.

This is AdBlock, the most popular ad-blocking software around.

The Economist estimates that about 200 million people around the world are using ad-blocking software on websites, and the trajectory of people using ad-blocking software is growing at least 50 million users a year.

Most of the news industry is ad supported. This is not good news.

But it gets worse.

Mobile devices have largely been a firewall against this growing trend. The iPhone and iPad don’t support ad-blocking software, and it’s not as easy to install and use ad-blocking software on other mobile platforms that do support it. With mobile overtaking desktop traffic, ad blocking hasn’t seem like that big of an issue.

Apple announced a big bombshell with iOS 9: iPhone and iPad users will be able to block ads, cookies and other Web content.

How did we get here? Ads on news websites are becoming obnoxious and intrusive. The pop up at you, obscuring what you’re trying to read. They autoplay video (with loud audio that can be hard to turn off). Many ads, of course, are neither of those, but they make webpages much slower to open and load. They also consume a significant amount of data, which is a big issue for people who are surfing the Web on devices without unlimited Internet.

Some news websites will load 10 megabytes of data, despite there being under 1 megabyte of editorial content. The rest is all ads and scripts and code to support those ads. That’s madness.

That’s one reason you may find yourself tearing through your mobile data plan, despite not doing anything like streaming audio or YouTube. It’s also why some webpages seem so slow to load and use.

With ad-blocking software, those pages will go down to being under a megabyte of data. Those pages will load quickly and not use up a lot of your data. Apple is going to make blocking all of those abtrusive ads and all of those data-hogging scripts a lot easier.

Imagine if 25 percent of iOS users block ads in the next five years. That would be billions of dollars of lost ad revenue a year for news outlets. I don’t believe we are going to see rates that high, but if it both becomes easier to block ads and ads continue to get worse and worse, anything is possible.

For news sites that are heavily dependent on ads served through ad networks, things could get very rough. So, what’s the solution?

We have to start serving up ad units that aren’t obtrusive, that users consider adding value and that don’t affect site performance. Compare most ads on news websites to magazine ads. Magazine ads are often elegant and people either enjoy reading them or don’t mind having them around That is nothing like ads currently on news websites.

Sponsored content/native ads is one way around this. This sponsored content won’t be served up by ad networks and ad software, so there won’t be tons of scripts to load, and it should generally be just as fast as editorial content. This will also allow advertisers to use all of the features that your CMS supports: Photos, video, text, lists, HTML/CSS/Javascript/polls, etc.

These sponsored ads will not be able to be blocked by ad-blocking software. A lot of news orgs have hemmed and hawed about adding sponsored content, but there is no way around it now.

The core difference between sponsored ads and traditional banner ads is that sponsored ads are served through a CMS, not ad serving software. This will cut down tremendously on load times. These ads could be really good and non-annoying.

One of the core issues with traditional banner ads is that they don’t take up a lot of space, but they are loudly vying for your attention. The only way to be seen is to try to stand out with garish colors, flashing text and animation.

The quality of these ads almost never mirrors the quality of the editorial content. Again, a good magazine has high quality ads that mirror the high quality editorial content. That’s where we want to be.

There is also much more headroom to use ads on social networks (responsibly of course) and in other venues. What’s the point of having a million Facebook fans if you never drop sponsored content in there? Pace yourself, of course, but everything you build and maintain should have some way of being monetized.

This doesn’t mean that we can no longer use banner ads and other more traditional ad formats, but we do need to find ways to make money online that don’t annoy the hell out of users. With better monetization through sponsored content, social media ads, podcast ads, etc., we should be able to demand higher quality banner ads.

In a future post, I’m going to discuss how news orgs may want to consider building their own ad serving software or building it into their CMSes. News orgs constantly go through new CMSes because finding better ways to serve editorial content is really important.

A 10 percent improvement in your CMSes capabilities or workflow for your editorial users would be huge. We need that same mindset with serving ads to customers.

That same process has not been repeated on the business side. Most news orgs are content with using whatever Google DFP supports. For many news orgs, maybe going with Google DFP makes the most sense, but we should be seeing an explosion of different ad-serving platforms from news orgs.

These competition and innovation would lead to be lighter ways to serve ads, different ad types and a culture of trying to constantly improve.