Use of ad blocking software is skyrocketing. During the past year alone, ad blockers—which act like firewalls between web browsers and ad servers, preventing ads from appearing on websites, in searches, and on social networks—saw a whopping 41% increase in use, according to a new study by PageFair and Adobe. And since Apple announced that iOS 9 would for the first time allow users to block ads on mobile websites, ad-blocking apps have topped App Store charts. All this is making publishers and advertisers a bit nervous, to say the least, and unfortunately, email marketers won’t be spared, either.
As we explored in our Publisher’s Guide to Email Advertising, advertising in email newsletters drives revenue for an increasing number of publishers and companies—and ad blocking works to nix ads in email, too.
Today, we’ll review exactly what ad blocking is and what it means for email. Keep calm and read on.
How ad blocking works
Users who want to block ads can simply download and install an ad blocking application, many of which are browser extensions, like AdBlock, the one we’re trying out today in Chrome. In a couple of clicks it’s up and running—we know it’s “on” when the icon at the top right of our browser window is red.
When we go to a website, as the page loads, the ad blocker compares the site’s scripts against a list of scripts it was built to block. If it finds anything from its list, it will block it, and when our page loads, the blocked ads are nowhere in sight. On iOS 9, ad blockers work in a similar way, except they’re even faster because the block list is able to be processed before the page even loads. (For a more detailed explanation of how the process works, here’s a good article from Macworld.)
Here it is in action. These are the regular ads on CNN’s homepage (we outlined key parts in yellow, but the ad is actually the entire backdrop of the page):
Here’s the same homepage with AdBlock at work (you can see in the upper right corner, AdBlock says it stopped 7 ads from appearing):
The good, the bad, and the ugly
In addition to faster loading times—and the bandwidth-reduction that comes with it—a lack of ads certainly makes for a cleaner, clearer look on a web page. Let’s face it, many of us don’t want to be bothered by ads when they’re not the content we’re actually seeking out. Ads can be downright pesky and annoying. Another big reason people choose to block ads? Privacy. Ad blocking applications also halt tracking and profiling systems used by ad delivery platforms.
However, for digital media companies, ad blocking can crush an entire revenue stream, threatening companies’ livelihoods. Ad blocking is becoming more popular, and if blocking on mobile reaches desktop levels, Business Insider reports that US digital media companies could lose out on as much as $9.7 billion next year. As WIRED points out, for many publishers who aren’t asking readers to pay subscription fees for digital content, ad revenue is literally what keeps the lights on. After realizing the negative impact on publishers, the developer of a popular iOS ad blocker, Marco Arment, actually pulled his app from the store, saying, “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”
Another negative side effect is that ad blockers can erroneously block non-ad content. Design elements, comments, images, and other content unrelated to an ad could get removed, or not render properly. After Apple began permitting ad-blocking software on iOS 9, big e-commerce sites like Walmart and Sears found that their sites weren’t fully rendering when shoppers used ad blocking apps.
Some publishers and webmail services are pushing back. Earlier this month, Yahoo Mail stopped users from accessing their inboxes unless they turned their ad-blocking software off. Likewise, the Washington Post has also experimented with preventing readers from accessing content unless they either pay to subscribe or turn off their ad blockers.
As a middle ground, some blockers such as Adblock Plus do allow some ads that they deem “acceptable” based on specific criteria covering placement, size, and more. “Since ads fuel a lot of the content we enjoy for free online,” they note, “finding common ground seemed to make sense. We asked our users about this and they overwhelmingly agreed.”
Ad blocking in email
Ad blocking software not only blocks web ads, but it also affects how ads render in email. In our Publisher’s Guide to Email Advertising, we took stock of how tech companies and publishers large and small used ads in emails. Not surprisingly, most place advertisements in their emails, frequently with display and interest-based ads—exactly the types that can be blocked. To see what actually happens with our emails, we revisited the ones we looked at in the previous post, this time with AdBlock. Here’s that email from GOOD: on the left is the original message, and on the right is the one viewed with AdBlock.
The display ad—”Back to School to the Future”—in the center of the email gets removed, and pretty cleanly, too. We never would have known it was there had we only viewed it with our activated ad blocker. Notice, however, that the native ad directly below the display ad remains.
Here’s another example from PureWow. This is the original version, which contains three Robo-Sauce ads:
And here it is after AdBlock, display ad-free:
But we also noticed that not all emails got stripped of their ads so cleanly. Here’s an email from the Daily Beast, with ads throughout, marked in pink:
And here it is with AdBlock:
Those ad placeholders stick out like sore thumbs and don’t do much to decrease distraction, simplify the email, or prevent the need to scroll just as much. We saw this happen in a few emails. And, in some, we actually noticed a few ads sneak through, like this Saks ad in our Refinery29 email:
If this amount of variation exists within the same blocker used in the same browser, we have to wonder how differently the same email might show up under different circumstances—using others of the many available ad blockers, across different browsers. It seems there’s actually no guarantee for how ads will render in email. In the worst case scenario, it won’t just be the ads that appear or look distorted, but your content may be impacted as well.
At the moment, it’s not immediately clear how emails viewed on mobile devices will be impacted. Because iOS 9 allows developers to create ad blocking apps for Safari, it seems that email will not be affected, for now.
What email marketers can do about ad blocking
Take a closer look at your audience and at your ads. Is your target audience likely to use ad blocking software? Are the ads you provide relevant, elegant, useful? What’s working, and what’s not? These may feel like overwhelming questions to ask, but now is the time to invest in research. Certainly, ad blocking isn’t going away any time soon, and it will continue to evolve.
Here are some other options, inspired by LiveIntent‘s great advice:
- Get whitelisted. Look at ad blocking software’s requirements for acceptable ads, like the ones mentioned from Adblock Plus above, and follow the guidelines. In other words, raise your standards and make sure ads are valuable to viewers. A recent poll found that 71% of ad block users “would proactively whitelist sites that are optimized for performance, maintain transparent privacy policies, and only serve ads that meet ‘acceptable’ criteria.”
- Make the shift to native ads and sponsored content. As we saw in the GOOD email, the native ad still appears. Native ads and sponsored content—when transparently identified—are less disruptive to users and probably more useful. If you haven’t already tried, venture into native advertising and test its effectiveness.
- Advertise in apps. For the time being, mobile ad blockers are browser-based, so ads in apps will be unaffected.
Have you gotten creative with your approach to advertising since the iOS 9 news? What do you think the recent changes mean for advertising in email? Let us know in the comments!