Brace for the Worst

Everyone will soon use adblockers so move your ads to well-targeted apps.
Image credit: Mariusz Lewandowski

I care about adblocking a lot. If you don’t, try to take into account that adblocking is disrupting tens of billions of dollars and causing more and more revenues to miss their ordinary targets as of late — so, maybe you should care too.

I am subscribed to adblocking news alerts and this past February painted an unusual picture that I want to share with you. There were three strong narratives this month:

February started with the usual “adblocking is so bad and getting worse” whimpering. This was triggered by the release of a recurrent report — one that stopped differing from the others years ago. For a long time, I haven’t paid attention to these unless they boast some strong particular regional focus.Something unusual happened in the middle of the second week, though, when this recent report’s figures were questioned. The narrative has been developing and growing almost to the point where many experts and reporters have started to celebrate the death of adblocking, itself. The main fact that laid the basis for this delight is that “last year the adoption rate of adblockers has not grown much” — at least it has grown considerably less than in earlier years.The feast of optimism didn’t end there. The, “Hey, it’s finally not so bad!” narrative was well supported by the “betrayal story” of Shine (prominent and unusual provider-level adblocking startup) which renamed itself to Rainbow and pivoted to become an advertising firm instead.

Ah, dear optimists, it is too easy to deceive you! Ok, let’s not question whether we can rely on a single positive report. Let’s not question the figures in the optimists’ report too much and just assume that the adoption rate really has slowed down by a significant margin. With this assumption, let’s figure out where we are as a result.

“Stopped growing” does not indicate a subsequent — much less casual — decline.

Adoption of adblocking will surely grow more. The adoption rate was growing quickly during the previous years and has only recently “slowed down”. The sudden change of tempo should mean that, according to the often cited technology adoption curve, we’re leaving the “late majority” stage and about to enter the “laggards” stage.

In adblocking adoption, we’re now somewhere in between the thick arrows.

If we estimate the current adoption rate at one quarter of all users (estimations vary, of course, but somewhere within the 22–28% range seems plausible) the “final” percentage of Internet population that will use adblocking is going to be around 33% (adding the yet-to-arrive laggards’ portion).

Let’s conservatively estimate that one third of users can be considered dead for direct online advertisers.

That is surely enough to consider the need to rebuild the entire industry. As a gas station network owner, for example, if one third of households own a Tesla, would you not consider some business upgrades, diversification, or restructuring? Of course, advertisers are not completely passive and you can see some vertically integrated players such as Facebook taking adequate, precautionary measures. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry keeps playing from a position of weakness and forming high-morale associations.

Perfect Ship in Perfect Waters

Image credit: Justyna Kopania

When optimists talk about the “plateauing of ad-blocking”, “ad-pocalypse that never materialized”, or a “chronic but manageable condition” — I can only sense a dangerous misconception.

I think adblocking might be wrongfully taken as a “normal” innovation where the adoption/diffusion concept implies that there’s no guarantee of the technology’s eventual successful integration and continued use. In most cases, technologies arrive, replace something, get replaced themselves, and then go away. If you one day find your film camera business dead, you don’t necessarily need to catch up by building digital sensors, you might want to proceed towards more familiar grounds and invest into tiny lenses for smartphone cameras which will soon replace the killer of your business, i.e. stand alone point-and-shoots.

I suppose, adblocking might well happen to be a rare case of an “ideal” tech. The same gentleman who developed the adoption stages theory, Everett Rogers, has another piece called the Perceived Attributes theory. Adblocking scores five out of five attributes there:

Perfect trialability (free download)Results can be immediately observed (more on that below)Not yet exposed to a threat of relative advantage by any other competing scenario because micropayments — something that could change the game — are not present yetNot overly complex to learn or useThe technology obviously fits into the current circumstances pretty well.

Thus, the ordinary adoption curve interpretation might downplay things here: adblocking might be not plateauing at all, but, steadily, monotonously, slowly growing till the very end — till advertisers’ margins are thinned out to zero.

Past the Point of No Return

Image credit: nJoo

I’ve been using adblockers for six months. To look closer at the February news narratives described above, I had to switch to a non-protected browser to read some of the articles, otherwise some publishers wouldn’t allow me access.

The experience of non-adblocked browsing is simply shocking.

I liken it to jogging in a lifelong, heavy smoker’s body. Visual and even auditory noise are simply killing the attention of users. It’s literally impossible to read anything meaningful these days without a well-conditioned ability to ignore distraction, namely intrusive ads. For users, there’s no easy return to ad-filled pages once they have tried the alternative of browsing with adblocking extensions or browsers.

This shocking emotion made me think I have to re-evaluate the 33% adoption level we’ve discovered above. It might be higher. Report compliers may be seriously fooled by including more and more biased websites into stats since they are based on those sites with special analytics deployed, e.g. with counter-adblockers installed. Those website are probably not visited evenly — in terms of statistical distribution — by blocking and non-blocking audience. Calculations strongly depend on analytics provided by several large publishers. And those might be very wrong as well.

Take me as an example: starting today I will never visit Forbes, whatever the case, so they will be without me — a convinced adblocker — in the future and thus wrongfully shifting integral reporting to a more optimistic picture. Besides Forbes, there are other large publishers I try to avoid: when I see a link in social media or elsewhere I hover and read the link before going there. I’m pretty sure other fellow adblockers feel the same, do the same, and most importantly, will continue to do the same.


PS Modest advice to publishers

Try to obtain more in-depth research relevant to your geo/target audience because broadly quoted international/overall reports might be very misleading.Please don’t be like Forbes — give some more thought to how you can use your anti-adblock software (which you certainly need), preferably with some personal advice attached.

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