The Need to Know Adblock Slidedeck (updated!)

Dr Johnny Ryan of PageFair presented at The Advertising Research Foundation in New York this month.

This presentation includes

  • The latest adblock figures globally and for the US
  • Demographic discussion of who adblock users are
  • Options for media owners to address adblocking, from access restriction to tamper-proof ad serving
  • Unexpected benefits for marketers from the adblocking crisis

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He was speaking alongside Omnicom, Annalect, and Intel.

21 years later: Se7en privacy horror is our reality

A brief exchange in the 1995 film Se7en shows us just how far our expectations of privacy have been eroded in the intervening two decades. Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) are on the trail of a particularly grisly serial killer and need a break in the case.

Somerset: For years, the FBl’s been hooked into the library system, keeping records.
Mills: Assessing fines?
Somerset: No, monitoring reading habits. Certain books are flagged. Books on, say, nuclear weapons… “Mein Kampf”. Anyone who checks out a flagged book has his library records fed to the FBl.
Mills: Wait. How is this legal?
Somerset: Legal. Illegal. These terms don’t apply.

Mills is visibly uncomfortable with the revelation that the FBI can monitor reading habits. The jaded Somerset dismisses his concerns, refusing to even engage with any moral debate. If for some reason you haven’t seen Se7en yet, you should. If you have, you’ll remember how it all turned out. Then watch it again anyway. Either way, the takeaway from Se7en for us is that it was at least still slightly shocking twenty years ago that a government agency could spy on US citizens.
Today, post-Snowden and after years of both fictional and real-life examples of government tracking, snooping and data collection, few of us would react as the innocent Mills did. We might dislike the thought of a permanent record of our conversations, emails, Internet habits and even physical movements ending up in front of government employees, whatever their reasons, but we could hardly be surprised. An impotent sense of resignation is more likely.

Promiscuous Cookies

While being spied on by governments is one thing, we still might be shocked to find out how extensively our Internet reading habits are being tracked by private companies. The cornerstone of this invisible surveillance is the humble cookie.
Cookies can be pretty useful little things to both web developers and website users. They enable a site to remember a user, so that we don’t need to log in every time we visit. Cookies can be used to remember site preferences, allowing users to customize their experience on a site. Put an item in your shopping cart and a cookie is probably helpfully going to keep it there for when you checkout. But many – especially third-party cookies, or cookies set by a site other than the one you’re visiting – are actively there to facilitate the recording and analysis of our behavior so that we can be shown supposedly relevant advertising across the web.
The Internet is fueled by advertising and current advertising technology depends on targeting. To carry out that targeting, websites and companies all over the world have for a long time been putting cookies on our devices. These cookies report home to their creator whenever we load any website, leaving a trail of crumbs recording almost our every click, or at least the URL of the sites we visit.
From the point of view of an advertiser, it is far more effective when these cookies are synchronized across companies and this is done regularly and freely. Maybe you deleted your cookies from one website but not from another. Or you accessed some sites on a different device. Synchronizing cookies from different sites fills in the gaps. Building up a comprehensive portrait of an Internet user is good for business, if your business is the targeting and re-targeting of ads at people who fit into a certain demographic or might be thinking about a particular purchase.

False Sense of Anonymity

At the murky edge of cookie synchronization is the potential to pair up your Internet habits with your real-life name and address. Personally identifiable information (PII) is often claimed to be radioactive data by advertisers and advertising platforms, as something that nobody wants to obtain or hang onto. But there is no technical limitation on building up a profile of an Internet user that includes a range of PII, such as name, email address, IP address, physical address and beyond. In fact, it seems that the use of cookies for advertising, and especially cookie syncing, is aimed at gathering and storing as much data as possible.

Once two trackers sync cookies, they can exchange user data between their servers. This data can be browsing histories or even PII… To be clear, we don’t know if this is a common practice. But this is precisely my point: cookie syncing enables a world of back-end data sharing, and there is so little oversight of the tracking ecosystem that we just don’t know what is happening behind the scenes. And this is a problem. Based on the evidence of what we can observe in the browser, it seems that every avenue for data collection and sharing does seem to eventually get utilized… Given the sophistication of today’s trackers, starting a truly fresh browsing profile is a very difficult task — the web never really forgets. Steven Englehardt

Starting a truly fresh browsing profile is a very difficult task – the web never really forgets.
It isn’t difficult to imagine a range of future uses for this hoard of cross-indexed data: healthcare providers, insurance companies, private detectives, currently unimaginable oppressive regimes – all would undoubtedly be very interested in even the most innocuous searches made throughout our online lives. Even if real names are never attached to potentially embarrassing or compromising Internet searches, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept that nothing is really private – or forgotten – on the web.
And cookies are just the beginning. Fingerprinting is an even more effective – and disturbing – approach to gathering comprehensive user data.
The Internet is the modern library. We use it for research, entertainment, escape. But these days it isn’t just a disapproving librarian (and shadowy government agency) who knows your secret proclivities and interests. Everything you do on the Internet is being stored, examined and evaluated by a myriad of unaccountable private companies. They may only be interested in selling you stuff for now, but does that make you any more comfortable with their insight into your Internet habits?


PageFair’s ad serving technology displays safe and respectful ads in a way that adblockers are unable to block. It is the leading global authority on adblocking, issuing the most widely-cited reports on the topic over the last four years. PageFair is also working with global stakeholders, including publishers, consumer groups, advertisers, agencies, and browsers, to develop sustainable approaches to advertising on the web.

Publishers – your only weapon is trust

This post was first published on Digital Content Next.
Adblocking—and publisher responses to it—sit at the nexus of two trends: the increasing value of trust in the publisher-consumer relationship, and the emerging conditions of the new information market.
I wrote some years ago that the information market had been turned on its head. The Internet turns many types of information that were once scarce and expensive into overabundant—and therefore cheap—commodities. By corollary, trust and attention have become increasingly valuable.
In short: As information becomes cheap, trust becomes precious.
This generation suffers from the crushing pressure of information overload. Consumers trust premium publishers to help them cut through the white noise and present information and media that are worth spending their limited attention on. As the information deluge continues to swell over time this trust will become even more valuable.
We are witnessing the erosion of this trust and of the fair deal between users and content creators as millions of consumers install adblockers. Publishers must choose between two conflicting options at this historic moment: to reinforce trust by addressing consumer grievances; or to ignore those grievances and restrict consumer choice.
This is a human question rather than a technological one. Adblocking will soon be technologically irrelevant. PageFair has the technology to serve ads in a manner that adblockers cannot circumvent, and some of our competitors claim similar abilities. Indeed, publishers can defeat adblocking by serving ads from their own editorial content systems. But the ability to serve ads should not prevent publishers from addressing the genuine consumer grievances that caused the rise of adblocking.
These consumer grievances that caused adblocking are now widely understood and can be summarized thus: aggressive ads obscure content, infringe on user privacy, hoover up bandwidth and thereby add expense to users’ data plans, slow page load times, and expose users’ devices to easily avoidable security hazards.
Ignoring these grievances and erecting an ‘adblock wall’ that prevents visitors from entering one’s web site until they switch off their adblockers is a lost opportunity to rebuild trust with the user. In the longer term this tactic restricts user choice on the open web and harms publishers—with few exceptions—by causing large numbers of users to go to other sites.
The ultimate power to leave any website that does not live up to their expectations has always been in consumers’ hands. It is a mistake to think of an adblock wall as a mechanism to give the consumer choice rather than restrict their access.
The ‘blocked web’, the portion of the web where users block ads, is steadily growing. This is creating a new, premium space that brand marketers (and therefore publishers) can ill afford to ignore—particularly since it is uncluttered and unaffected by ad fraud. But simply reinserting ads on the blocked web without addressing the consumers’ grievances is a mistake that will undermine the trust between publisher and user.
Publishers must make sure that the technological solutions they employ to serve ads on the blocked web also solve the speed, privacy, and UX issues that caused adblocking in the first place.
It is worth describing the approach that we have taken. Whether or not a publisher opts for PageFair or some other solution, the following are requisite elements in a sustainable response on the blocked web, irrespective of whatever one is doing on the normal web.
First, we decided to take a strong consumer-friendly approach on privacy. For example, our analytics respect the Do Not Track standard. Advertising can be relevant and at the same time be respectful of user’s data.
Second, we adopted a robust approach to security. “Malvertising” incidents are only possible because hackers can programmatically book ads to deliver their malicious JavaScript into the user’s browser. In programmatic and elsewhere we nullify this problem by executing active JavaScript in a safe sandbox on our servers, not in the user’s browser.
Third, we learned how to limit the file size of ads to guarantee better page load times and protect the user from undue charges from their bandwidth provider. We also committed not to work with any ad formats that unexpectedly interrupt the main content of websites.
This is an approach built on the trust that users have the choice of what site to visit, and that publishers have the responsibility to protect users’ data, bandwidth, security and experience.
This is not re-insertion, it is reinvention. Showing respectful ads in a way that protects consumers from hacking, data snooping, and unwanted data plan fees will start to re-establish trust on the blocked web.

The Hidden Ad Tech Gold Rush for Your Personal Data

What happens to all of the data generated by people as they use the web? Who is interested in the minutiae of our lives as we browse Facebook profiles, read the news or shop for new socks?
Read more

Global stakeholders discuss new approach to the Blocked Web

From late 2015 onward PageFair drew together global consumer groups, advertisers, agencies, publishers and browsers for senior level roundtable discussions on adblocking. These were held at The Financial Times, at Mozilla, and at MEC Global. The most recent roundtable was organised by both PageFair and Digital Content Next.
Participants at the PageFair roundtables included the World Federation of Advertisers, the 4A’s, DCN, the World Association of Newspapers, the National Newspaper Association, International Federation of Periodical Publishers, Havas, Google, Mozilla, the Centre for Democracy and Technology, the EFF, the Open Rights Group, the European Commission, the UK Government, the World Economic Forum, and many others including the global advertising holding companies.
Read more

Four big ideas emerge from PageFair global stakeholder roundtable

A growing segment of Web users sees few or no ads. Publishers are suffering mounting revenue losses as a result. But even as blocking of advertising harms publishers it also undoes the mistakes of the first 20 years of advertising on the Web.
Several vendors including PageFair have the technology to display ads in a way that is not affected by blocking. In the future it is likely that major industry incumbents (such as SSPs and CDNs) will also gain this ability.
We believe that the ability to defeat blockers should not simply enable a return to the situation before adblocking. Hundreds of millions of users have rebelled against the status quo in advertising. We must listen to them.
Advertising can be better. Earlier this month PageFair drew together the first summit of global stakeholders including consumer groups, advertisers, publishers, and browsers to consider the form that advertising on the blocked Web should take. You can read AdAge coverage here.
The roundtable, which PageFair convened at Mozilla’s London office, included the World Federation of Advertisers, the European Commission, the World Economic Forum, Mozilla, IAB Europe, ISBA, the Worldwide Magazine Media Association (FIPP), the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Digital Content Next (DCN), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and others.[1. The meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule. The participants mentioned here are a selection of those who have waived their right to anonymity.] The discussion focused on how to better respect users, support publishers, and provide value to advertisers.

The Four Points.

The following is a synthesis of points that emerged (as a majority view):

  • The user must have immediate tools to reject and to complain about advertising. This puts the consumer at the core of reform.
  • There should be a more sustainable balance between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ advertising on the Web. Rather than restore all ads we should display only a limited number of premium advertising slots. This will make a better impact for brands and clean up the Web.
  • Use of contextual targeting to establish ad relevance can be increased. This will end what some view as an over-reliance on behavioral tracking of users.
  • Better metrics of advertising success are needed to reform the economics and quality of online advertising. This will end the race to the bottom. 

Note: revised on 15 April 2016 following participant feedback.
These Four Points amount to a basis for a tentative concord among four key communities – consumer groups, advertisers, agencies, and publishers – about a responsible approach to advertising beyond blocking.

Agencies can have their cake and eat it.

The Four Points, though radical, do not mark a painful departure for the advertising industry. It is true that large quantities of capital and other resources are being invested by agencies into the further development of personalized and captivating advertising. That is likely to continue.
But in parallel the Four Points provide agencies with a new and separate opportunity to respond to blockers with contextual targeting that does not track users, and with simple, respectful formats in an uncluttered part of the Web.
It is this parallelism – the ability of agencies to leverage the new opportunity of advertising beyond blocking without cannibalizing their status quo business – that will give publishers an opportunity to sustain themselves beyond adblocking.
And fundamental to this approach is an understanding that adblockers are a new and valuable segment.
adblock user

What the Four Points mean

Point 1. The user must have immediate tools to reject and to complain about advertising. This puts the consumer at the core of reform.

Point 1 makes consumer choice paramount. The user should, literally, have an immediately obvious mechanism, such as a large X, and a simple thumb up and thumb down button that he or she can tap to kill the ad or give immediate feedback.
This will also give the advertiser useful insight on which ads are positively and negatively received.

Point 2. There should be a more sustainable balance between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ advertising on the Web. Rather than restore all ads we should display only a limited number of premium advertising slots. This will make a better impact for brands and clean up the Web.

Rather than use technology to simply put all the ads back what is proposed here is to limit the quantity of ads. And rather than imposing a prescriptive standard of what a “quality” ad is, this approach exploits the market conditions that arise when a limited number of ads has the benefit of abundant audience attention. The scarcity of this inventory will incentivize advertisers and agencies to invest in quality creative.
We know that the formats that blocking users are most willing to tolerate are text, image, and skippable video pre-roll.

Chart: survey of adblock users who were asked what types of advertisement they would be most willing to tolerate. 

Combining these formats with scarce inventory establishes a premium form of advertising that better serves brands and improves the user experience.
In other words the ads that are displayed will be not only fewer but better too.

Point 3. Use of contextual targeting to establish ad relevance should be increased. This will end the over-reliance on behavioral tracking of users.

Blockers are largely cookie-less users, because the majority have blocked tracking cookies. They can not be tracked across the Web. This means that the ‘below the line’ marketing activities that focus on the bottom of the marketing funnel become unworkable.

But this creates a new opportunity: appeal to these users in the same way as the glossy advertisements do in premium magazines. Ads can be shown to relevant consumers simply by using the context of the content alongside which they appear. For example, an ad for golf equipment is likely to be relevant to a person who visits a site to read a piece of content about a golf event. Using contextual relevance is how offline media have always placed advertising, and it works for the Web too. 
Taken together, points 2 and 3 dramatically expand the role that the Web can play in the marketers toolkit. This new type of premium ad can help marketers use the Web as an ‘above the line’ medium similar to TV, radio and magazine and newspaper advertising, which focus on the top of the marketing funnel.
The PageFair Funnel

Point 4. Better metrics of advertising success are needed to reform the economics and quality of online advertising. This will end the race to the bottom.

More realistic metrics, perhaps akin to those used off line to measure important results like purchase intent, could incentivise procurement departments within brands to focus on value over price. Rather than spend their budgets on lots of cheap inventory that appears in inferior places (the audience might be bots) advertisers equipped with better metrics are likely to invest inventory that can cut through the clutter.


Ad Network Comparison

While documenting the journey of new publishers and the motivation for intrusive advertising, we discovered that getting started with online advertising can be challenging. We’ve created this table to help small publishers choose an ad network that’s right for them, depending on their needs and the type of site they run. To start, simply choose the description in the first column that best describes your site. Each description is broad in order to encompass a large spectrum of websites. While browsing the columns, take note of what is important to you as a publisher- such as minimum payout amount or where in the world your audience is. Suggested ad networks are listed in the far right column.

Ad Table Round 2

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CPM, CPC, CPA: Ad pricing models explained

While documenting the journey of first-time publishers, we uncovered that comparing pricing models can be a bit difficult. This post gives a brief overview of each pricing model and explains how to compare their revenue potential.

CPM – payment when an ad is seen

CPM (cost per mille or thousand impressions) is the granddaddy of them all- a pricing model that existed long before the advent of the internet. Under this pricing model the publisher is paid every time a website visitor sees an ad. It’s commonly used where an advertiser wants a branding campaign; the focus is on raising consumer awareness of a company or product rather than persuading them to buy right now.

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Bob the Website Builder- One Publisher’s Adventure in Ads

In our last article we examined the vicious circle that drives ever more intrusive advertising. In this article we begin the search for a virtuous circle; a way for publishers to battle the spread of bad ads. To begin to define this virtuous circle we must understand how people choose the ads that appear on their website.

Meet “Bob the Website Builder”: he loves to create content about home-page improvements. It occurs to him that he has pretty good traffic to his website and that he could make some money from advertising to pay his hosting costs. But Bob is a busy guy and he doesn’t have a lot of time to put into an advertising strategy- he simply wants to set up the ads and let them run without any more maintenance required on his part.

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