It’s a busy week for Ben Williams. Standing at the head of operations and communications for one of the companies driving the recent boom in ad-blocker usage, it’s hard to depict what might be around the corner, especially when just about every media outlet wants a word.
For a point of reference, we’re speaking on Tuesday, September 22. Ben’s employers at AdBlock Plus, home of an ad-blocking mobile browser and desktop browser extension, are still coming under fire for allegedly paying some of its rivals to adopt their whitelist of accepted advertisers. As we go to publish, word breaks of the company evading legal action from German publishing giant Axel Springer for the third time.
Surrounding AdBlock Plus is a never-ending stream of press coverage that would put even the most seasoned of PRs under pressure.
A simple Google News search for the brand name returns a grand total of 711,000 results; seven times more than “programmatic” and nearly 11 times over the hit from rival blocker “Purify”. But that top-bracket level of fame appears to be coming at a cost.
Aside from the recently-dodged legal action from parties that claim to have lost money from the ‘no display, no pay’ attitude to ad-serving, AdBlock Plus’s decision to base a product which siphons revenue from the publishing industry has been met with a predicted reception.
Last week saw Business Insider cry “irony” as a result of the company running its own pop-up ads. The week before that, criticism over the group offering “compensation” to other ad blockers for displaying advertisements from clients on its whitelist. To count the swathe of objection from ad industry reps following the launch of AdBlock Plus’s new iOS browser, that was September in the news.
For Ben, a mixed press is part and parcel of life at a company so small that “everyone wears a few hats”, but capable of costing billions in lost ad revenue.
Millions by the week
Operating at what is so far undoubtedly its peak, Williams guides PerformanceIN through some of the basics of AdBlock Plus in 2015.
It’s a brief round-up which takes us through the staff count (“around 40”), the market that really “gets it” (Poland) as well as touching on that user base (400 million and growing). Amplifying the significance of these trinkets are the conversations with Ben about the changes seen since his tenure at the company began some two-and-a-half years ago.
“I didn’t know about ad blocking before I started working here,” he comments. “But back then we were on everything we are on now except for Safari. We had just launched for Internet Explorer, and we were on desktop.
“We saw our numbers rise quite a bit in 2013 as far as downloads go. Around that time we started to average two-and-a-half to three million downloads per week, and we’ve maintained that ever since.”
A less-than-flattering article/tirade by known German tech blogger Sascha Pallenberg in 2013 was cited as one of the fragments of press coverage that kicked off the consumer’s awareness of ad-blocking as a practice, which in turn helped downloads for AdBlock Plus’s browser extension.
The usage of extensions for blocking ads on websites, social media feeds and other destinations is now commonplace, and there is certainly a great deal of interest around the developers’ motives.
“I don’t think it’s any one group’s fault,” insists Williams. “It’s the ecosystem and the way it evolved.
“It evolved to the point where everyone in the entire chain felt like they not only had to make the ads more intrusive but pack as many tracking pixels into them as possible. I wouldn’t say there’s anyone principally at fault there, but it’s in all of our best interests to make things better.”
Our talk over the evolution and prevalence of ad blockers quickly turns to some of the less than savoury articles being written about Williams’s company and its whitelist for ‘Acceptable Ads’. According to Wall Street Journal, the company is currently accepting payment from “around 70” advertisers to ensure their inventory passes through its filters, before paying rival applications to have them bake the whitelist into their own functionality.
Pallenberg’s so-called expose of the group labelled it a “unique network” with “blackmail potential”, and there is no question that AdBlock Plus has become a bigger name as a result of the millions of people that have read these stories. Is this the “all press is good press” theory going to work?
“Could have been, but I could do without it to be honest with you,” Williams states, taking the situation at face value.
“There’s no reason why people in Germany should be against innovation - there’s some really great companies in Berlin; it’s a very fertile environment.
“People are pro-innovation, but I wish it didn’t happen. Even if it may have been one of those examples of ‘all press being good press’, I would have rather done without it.”
Ad blockers are huge business at present, but that’s not to say that some developers aren’t getting cold feet over their releases and intentions.
The decision by Tumblr co-founder Marco Arment to pull his Peace ad blocker from the App Store on the grounds of it hurting people that “don’t deserve the hit” showed the repercussions being too much for some.
Williams insists that financial losses are not something the group takes as a given (“that’s not something we’d ever applaud”) but this is when accounting for the fact that AdBlock Plus won’t solve all the issues people have with advertising.
“I think that ads will continue to be a big part of how the web is run, and as far as apps go, that’s another thing.
“Ad blockers have not made it over to apps but they have developed differently to the web. The web is like surfing your television whereas an app experience is like going to watch your Apple TV and clicking on the Hulu. And we all pay a Euro or a dollar a year for WhatsApp. It doesn’t seem like people are too worried about that.”
Regulation over mobile apps functioning within other mobile apps means this space is, for the most part, protected from ad blockers. Still, 2015 appears to be the opportune point for advertisers and publishers to take stock and see what really works, as well as what really doesn’t.
“Every publisher has to decide how to implement this mix, and we’d be overly pessimistic if we felt we couldn’t make better ads than we’ve made in the last 10 years.”
Williams is adamant that aspects of the current ad economy certainly don’t cater for users, some of whom are choosing to block the ads that were meant to provide value to their experiences.
According to stats from Adobe and PageFair, global usage of ad-blocking browser extensions grew by 41% year on year between Q2 2014 to Q2 2015, up to a monthly active count of 198 million following some serious progress midway through 2013. In Europe, annual user growth of 35% came between the two aforementioned quarters, while the US saw a rise of 48%.
All the while, those providing the tools are benefiting massively from debates over customer tracking. Evidence of this can be seen in the front-of-house messaging from ad-blocking tools such as Ghostery, Purify and Adguard, which focus as much on what they can do for guarding a user’s privacy as they do on blocking their ads.
Roll on 2020
The rising ad-blocker usage rates are proof that the consumer is pushing towards a more innovative product, says Williams, who is keen to highlight a rarity in users who will download tools like AdBlock Plus and then uninstall them. It’s an important point to make.
Keen to test the tools’ longevity, PerformanceIN recently asked its readers whether ad blocking would represent a greater threat in five years’ time, to which 48% - the largest proportion - voted yes. In short, while there is certainly an argument to suggest that ad blockers won’t be enjoying this amount of press attention next year or perhaps even next month, the threat they pose to the advertising industry is very real, and likely to exist for some time yet.
While their activities are kept under a watchful eye, with an audience locked in, those behind the tools are making good use of what is a crucial stage in their development. According to Williams, AdBlock Plus will continue to make “every opportunity” to meet with members of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) about what can be done to improve certain facets of the ad economy.
It’s a bold move considering the organisation’s campaign for an “ad-funded web”, but the first talks were said to be productive.
“The meeting we had with them was very constructive,” says Williams. “We learned a lot, hopefully they took a little bit from us as well, and these are talks that we’re keeping open in order for things to be reciprocal.
“Everybody is aware of the fact that the system we have is unsustainable. Also, we have the fact that ad blockers are here to stay and that it’s unlikely for users to uninstall their software. So now we have to find a way of going forward. Rather than blaming people, let’s make innovation together - that’s the sentiment on both sides.”
Williams is just as open about some of the conversations his group has had with fellow ad blockers about adopting the whitelist, which could even serve as a framework for others to follow.
“The truth is, we approached every person we could… We want to make Acceptable Ads the industry standard, and we’re not massacrists: we like the ideas we have. We reached out to everyone we could and it’s good to see Crystal [one adopter] doing so well. We definitely offered compensation to a few of them, because we had this implemented for years and we wanted to share our developmental know-how with them.”
There are no shortage of ad-blocking options for people to use on their mobile or desktop, but there can be no arguments over which is generating the most press. AdBlock Plus stands as the go-to reference for anyone inside and outside of the tech community writing about the blocking of ads, and a perfect case study for the impact that’s had.
While publishers attempt to weigh up how much ad blocking has cost their businesses in recent months, they face a tough decision over whether to stick to the display ad formats that are likely to get sounded out by the blockers or to relieve some of the financial strain with other methods of monetisation, like content paywalls or sponsored editorial. With that in mind, the next hundred million ad-blocker users could perhaps be the most influential.