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Why Most Websites Look the Other Way on Ad Blockers

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Joshua Brustein
@ joshuabrustein
January 29, 2016 — 8:00 AM EST

Randall Rothenberg doesn’t want anyone to forget the dangers posed by software that hides online advertising. Rothenberg, who runs the Interactive Advertising Bureau, gave a scathing speech at an industry conference this week in which he accused ad blockers of “stealing from publishers, subverting freedom of the press, operating a business model predicated on censorship of content, and ultimately forcing customers to pay more money for less—and less diverse—information.”

Rothenberg said publishers have begun to fight back with their own technology designed to disrupt ad blocking software and encourage readers to either turn the blockers off or pay for content. Readers should be forgiven for not noticing that this battle is happening.

Only 4 percent of large online publishers are taking any visible action to stop visitors from using ad-blocking software, according to research by MediaRadar, which makes software for advertising sales departments. MediaRadar tested some of the most popular ad blockers on 100 large websites, half of which were ranked as the largest by research firm ComScore. CBS, the Guardian, EBay, and Forbes were the only sites that either prevented visitors from seeing some content, if they had ad blockers enabled, or displayed a message asking them to turn them off.

The study comes almost five months after the latest wave of alarm over ad blocking, which kicked off last fall, when Apple Inc. changed the software on its mobile devices to allow the programs to work. Todd Krizelman, MediaRadar’s chief executive officer, said media companies risked lasting damage if they continue to drag their feet. “If we don’t train customers, it’s a long-term problem,” he said. “Media companies are not particularly fast at evolving.”

Ad industry organizations insist that there’s much more going on behind the scenes. Scott Cunningham, general manager of IAB’s tech lab, said at least 20 large publishers are experimenting with anti-ad-blocking software. In some cases, this may just mean studying how many readers use ad blockers, something that varies widely from one website to the next. Video-game blogs, which attract a tech-savvy and heavily male readership, are much more affected than, say, the AARP.
Men’s fashion magazine GQ got attention late last year for its experiments combating ad blockers, but its efforts appear to be very minor in scope. GQ.com has shown some readers messages asking them to either turn off their ad blockers or pay 50 cents to read an article. But MediaRadar couldn’t get these messages to show up in its tests. “We went back hundreds of times looking for it,” said Krizelman. Conde Nast, which publishes GQ, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
To illustrate the extent of the issue, the IAB currently cites data it gathered showing that more than a third of American adults (PDF) were using ad blockers as of late 2014. A study conducted by PageFair and Adobe Systems Inc. last summer found that 45 million Americans were using such software, up almost 50 percent from the year before. The companies estimated that ad blockers would cost publishers $22 billion in lost revenue in 2015.

Starting in mid-December, Forbes began showing readers using ad blockers messages that asked them to deactivate the software in exchange for an “ad-light experience.” Over 2 million people saw the messages, and 42 percent of them agreed to turn off the blockers, allowing Forbes to ring up 15 million hits on ads that otherwise would have been blocked, according to an article published to the magazine’s website on Jan. 5.

If publishers are losing so much money, and the solutions seem to work, why aren’t they pushing the anti-ad-blocking message harder? Mostly because they’re afraid of vexing readers.

British newspaper the Guardian has strived for geniality in the way it approaches readers who are using ad blockers. Eamonn Store, chief executive of Guardian US, said his site has steadily increased the success rate of its messages to ad-blocking visitors by tweaking the language. He declined to give statistics. One message the site has shown reads: “We notice that you’re using an ad blocker. Perhaps you’ll support us another way?” Readers who ignore the message can continue to browse the site.

Store said the current fear over ad blockers is overblown, and he is skeptical of the IAB’s estimates on their prevalence. The average age of a Guardian reader is 35, he said, and fewer than 10 percent of them use ad blockers. Publishers in similar situations are going to be tempted to hold off taking any drastic measures, Store said. “There is understandably a bit of nervousness about what it means when you start blocking content.”