Why Users Block Your Ads

Ad-blocking software is becoming more prominent—and thanks to a decision by a German court, it isn't going away anytime soon. If your association relies on banner ads for revenue or promotion, that's gotta sting. Perhaps the solution is to try something a little bolder.

Let’s accept online advertising for what it is: a profitable business that isn’t an exact science.

If you want proof, I present to you this piece from The Awl, called “A Complete Taxonomy of Internet Chum.” (Let me warn you that it’s full of the kind of images that web advertisers should be above publishing, but aren’t.)

It’s not you, it’s them. But it’s still your problem.

It’s odd, considering that we quite often talk in technical terms about the ads we run. We’re focused on the data, the return on investment, the time on site, the click-throughs, and all that other fun stuff. But perhaps the ads you use to lift up your association’s site or a secondary publication aren’t having the effect you’d hoped for because, simply put, users are going out of their way to tune out ads. Not just your ads—all ads.

It’s not you, it’s them. But it’s still your problem.

Ad Blocking Wins in Court

Case in point: the headaches that the popular browser plugin AdBlock Plus raises for publishers. It’s a popular piece of software because it offers a feature that certain internet users can’t live without: a way to block the programmatic banner ads that follow users on their browsers.

AdBlock Plus and similar plugins have surprising reach—according to the startup PageFair, 150 million users rely on such software, with AdBlock Plus representing about a third of those users. And last month, Eyeo, the Germany-based maker of the software, won a legal challenge brought by two major German broadcasters that had alleged the product is anticompetitive.

“This is the fourth time that massive publishers have brought legal proceedings against our startup,” Eyeo said in a statement to The Guardian. “But even with expensive lawyers and bottomless pockets, this was a clear case of users’ rights—so we felt it was the right time to stand up and draw a line in the sand. Thankfully, the court sided with users and with compromise.”

Is a Compromise Needed?

This situation is problematic if you rely on online ads to promote your organization or to bring in nondues revenue from advertisers. (The fact that many online ad impressions are fake makes the circumstances even more disheartening.)

On mobile, things have been a little less awful because ad-blocking technology hasn’t been so prevalent. But even there, the landscape is changing quickly: Last month, AdBlock Plus introduced a mobile browser for Android, with its technology baked in.

It makes me wonder if the solution to ad blocking might involve embracing the simple idea that we need to think differently about online advertising. That’s certainly Eyeo’s argument. The company offers a whitelist option for advertisements that meet its criteria for transparency and unobtrusiveness outlined in its “Acceptable Ads Manifesto.”

“We want to reverse the cycle,” the manifesto states. “We don’t hate advertising per se, but nobody wants obtrusive blinking ads and content-obscuring rollovers running amok on their computers and mobile phones.”

Google cofounder Larry Page, a recipient of the online ad industry’s good graces, seems to agree with that assessment, and when he was at his annual shareholders’ meeting earlier this month, he noted that subtlety appeared to be the best solution in this case.

“We’ve been dealing with AdBlock for a long time,” Page said. “There’s been a number of different products to do that. Part of it is the industry needs to do better at producing ads that are less annoying and quicker to load. And I think we need to do a better job of that as an industry.”

So What Does This Mean for You?

Programmatic banner ads will continue to have their place, but with interest in ad blockers growing, perhaps it’s time for associations to consider other options. The best way to think about your online ad strategy is to focus on scarcity and prominence, not banners.

Online, associations need to embrace big content projects that involve sponsorship opportunities, rather than small content projects that rely on cheaply produced ads. Why not have a sponsor underwrite a big content project of yours? It’s already a common strategy at your events; why can’t it translate to the content you publish online? (Best part: An ad blocker would never block an underwritten piece of content.)

In recent years, many publishers have been forced to lower their standards in the name of all-important ad revenue. The roundup of images that The Awl described as “internet chum” have become more common than ever, and they’re starting to define the online experiences of sites as prominent as Time magazine, Business Insider, CNN, and the Los Angeles Times.

Publishing probably isn’t your association’s main gig. Your revenue probably isn’t defined by those banner ads. Why not embrace that and aim for some higher-quality advertising?

If your website's advertising looks like Times Square, you might have a problem. (iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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