Adblock Walls: Doomed Arms Race or Heroic Last Stand?

Last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) started telling publishers how to D.E.A.L. with the problem of adblocking.The IAB’s Publisher Ad Blocking Primer suggests a range of tactics, including “access denial”, in which adblockers are prevented from accessing content. Otherwise known as an adblock wall, denying access to adblockers can seem logical and fair. The reality is that this approach leads to a costly dead end for publishers.

Adblock walls are nothing new. US network giants CBS and NBC, European TV channels including ITV in the UK and Irish national broadcaster RTE, and video subscription services such as HULU have been using adblock walls for years. Non-video publishers have been slower to adopt the practice, but that has changed, possibly because of the increased mainstream visibility of adblocking in 2015.
The list of non-video publishers experimenting with adblock walls has grown to include the UK’s City A.M. and The Telegraph, Germany’s Bild, GQ, The Washington Post, Forbes and WIRED. Some of these walls are currently turned off, or have already been defeated by adblockers, but with adblock walls being actively encouraged by the IAB, we expect to see this defensive practice become more widespread.
Adblock walls seem like a great idea because they’re a visible measure and a very public statement that a publisher is drawing a line in the sand. Only a handful of visitors may choose to turn off their adblockers, but the publisher can at least feel that they’ve done something to deal with the problem.
Unfortunately, in the arms race between adblockers and publishers, building an adblock wall is an expensive and temporary solution which can only ever slow adblockers down. Ranged against publisher adblock walls is the combined effort of legions of smart coders who will work hard to circumvent such a clear obstacle, if for no other reason than it poses an interesting challenge.
Even though Adblock Plus developers Eyeo might be sensitive to legal measures, they have an even better reason to knock down these walls, as their lucrative business model depends upon being able to control exclusive access to publisher content while appearing as champions of adblockers. And remember that Adblock Plus is not the only adblocker: more extreme options are ruthless in their destruction of adblock walls.
But even if a line in the sand could stop the adblocking juggernaut, there’s another reason why publishers should be wary of investing in and relying on adblocking walls: rejecting visitors who want access to your content is a dangerous move on the Internet, where irrelevance and obsolescence are always just a click away.
In some cases, adblock walls can be made to sound like a resounding success. Forbes has been admirably open about their experiments with adblock walls, regularly addressing reader concerns and publishing data which they argue shows that “the time spent, engagement and demographics of those who turned off ad blockers make for a valuable audience for both journalists and marketers”. The publisher has reported that 42.3% of users opted to switch off adblocking and that an additional 63 million ad impressions were consequently delivered, generating “not immaterial” revenue.
But turning away over 50% of adblockers seems to us more like resigned acceptance of a failure to deal with adblocking, especially as adblockers are actually incredibly valuable to advertisers and therefore to publishers.
Adblock Walls
PageFair has been arguing for some time that adblockers represent a completely new and significant marketing segment. Adblockers see much less online advertising and currently have very few unwanted marketing demands on their attention. In a digital world long afflicted by banner blindness, that makes the adblocking segment invaluable to advertisers. Our data shows that, when they are exposed to advertising that doesn’t abuse this attention, they respond well.
Simply accepting the loss of half of this segment cannot be the way forward.
So what’s the alternative?
We believe that the solution is to serve ads in a way that is unaffected by adblocking, and to simultaneously stop delivering the abusive, annoying, intrusive ads that have forced people to turn to adblockers. We’ve already written extensively about improving the advertising experience for non-adblock users. PageFair technology now enables publishers to serve their own unobtrusive, respectful advertising campaigns to users who refuse to turn off their adblockers.
Adblock walls are a defensive measure that leave publishers counting their losses. PageFair ads enable publishers to get back onto the field and engage with their entire audience – even adblockers.

  • I suppose you could look at it like this; sure, you’re turning away some visitors, but if those visitors are eating up your bandwidth and not paying the “entry fee” (ad impressions) then why do you care if they don’t visit you? Given the numbers quoted here and the performance of Pagefair ads in my experience, it’s actually a better strategy from a purely financial standpoint to have the Adblock wall and convert a small number of adblockers than it is to switch to the less than pittance that Pagefair ads seem to earn, even with potentially more traffic. Hopefully this will improve in time though.

    • Bandwidth and hosting are relatively trivial. The real cost is in salaries for writers, editors and admins. Letting adblock users see content is not costing a publisher much at all, but adblock use IS eating into the revenue and the ability to keep the lights on.
      How do I know? I work at a publisher with about 120 million pageviews monthly.

  • Adblock walls seem like a great idea because they’re a visible measure and a very public statement that a publisher is drawing a line in the sand. Only a handful of visitors may choose to turn off their adblockers, but the publisher can at least feel that they’ve done something to deal with the problem.

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