Dennis Publishing’s Paul Lomax on adblocking and ‘anti-ad zealots’

The growth of adblocker usage is one of the major problems affecting publishers today, as it has the potential to cut into ad revenues which many rely on. 

Paul Lomax is CTO and Head of Product Development at Dennis Publishing (founded by the great Felix Dennis), an independent group which publishes many different titles, online and offline.

We caught up with Paul to ask his views on the growth of adblocking and how Dennis Publishing will look to deal with this issue.

How much of an issue is adblocking for Dennis Publishing? 

Not insignificant but still very much in the minority. It varies hugely by market, with tech and younger brands affected more than say our automotive brands.

We have a fairly diverse portfolio, thankfully. Obviously we’re concerned the numbers may grow, so we’re not resting on our laurels. 

Will adblocking force some publishers to abandon ad revenue models in favour of other revenue streams, such as ecommerce? 

I think if other revenue models were viable enough to be a primary revenue stream, they’d already be in wider use. Ecommerce is far from being a new thing. There’s clearly opportunity to further diversify revenue steams, but that doesn’t mean abandoning ad revenue models which are still very strong.

Also, ecommerce (in the publishing sense, usually affiliate based) is not immune from ad-blocking in so far as many ad blockers stop affiliate cookies being dropped, which means the publisher won’t get paid for referrals.

Some publishers may diversify more drastically into real ecommerce, ie shipping products themselves rather than via partners. Dennis, for example, now sells cars and finance online having acquired buyacar.co.uk in November 2014.

buy car

It could be argued that poor usability (intrusive ads etc) from publishers has driven the rise of adblocking. Is it too late now to change tack on ad formats?

There’s an argument that Pandora’s Box has been opened and can never be closed – even if publishers clean up their sites, there will be enough bad sites out there for users to leave ad blockers on, and there are other concerns too (malware, privacy). There’ll always be an element of ‘I ad block because I can’.

Remember though that publishers don’t create the adverts – advertisers, agencies and ad-tech companies have all played their part in this. There’s a drive towards good ‘acceptable ad’ formats, although the fact it sometimes requires payment is of course controversial, but there’s an element of user backlash about ad blockers letting any ads through. Some blockers that allow no ads are springing up. There will always be anti-ad zealots, but they’re in the minority.

The problem is when this filters over to mainstream users who have more legitimate concerns and would be happy for some value exchange to take place. At the moment ad blockers are mostly indiscriminate. I think we need to improve ad formats, but that alone isn’t enough. 

You have been experimenting with ways to deal with adblocking. What do those experiments look like?

Like other publishers, we want to see whether our readers are happy to white list our sites, or if they’re more aggressively anti-advertising. There are also many questions about ad blockers’ ability to circumvent measures. And we want to look at discrepancies between various tracking and measurement methods.

We think solutions may vary depending on the brand and its market – for example a B2B IT website with pretty unique content might be in a better position to block users than say a news or more mass-market website.

And some of our brands may do a ‘data wall’, where we could ask for their contact details rather than require them to view advertising. More mass-market brands such as Coach might have more of a soft message, or an ad recovery solution. We’re open minded. 

What have you learnt from other publishers’ attempts at combating the negative impact of adblocking? Did you use them as a reference when designing your experiments?

I don’t think we’ve seen studies long enough to draw any conclusions. For example, the much publicised Forbes trial data ends the day before the Adblock Plus community added rules to circumvent their message.

This resulted in ad block users seeing the ‘thank you for whitelisting’ message but not actually seeing any ads. If you have an absolute ‘whitelist to view this site’ wall, then ad block developers are going to try and circumvent it – it becomes, to quote Sourcepoint, a knife fight. 

forbes adblock

Do you think that adblocking could be a blessing in disguise for publishers, who will be encouraged to consider their sites’ user experiences?

For users, maybe, for publishers, no, because of the largely indiscriminate nature of ad blockers. Let’s be clear, ad blockers aren’t all about users either – there are companies involved in ad blocking who are and will be making millions from the protection racket of pay to display.

It’s also a massive threat to net neutrality, if ISPs and mobile networks starting using technology like Shine, as has happened in Trinidad.  

I’ve heard of examples where mobile and other adblockers are blocking even native posts. Many imagine that adblockers target only popups and banners, but are there other consequences? 

People also think they only block third party content, eg ad-served, but they can block anything that can be pinned down via it’s HTML pattern (eg a CSS class name). All it takes is a user to right click on something they think is an ad for it to be reported to the community developers, who then figure out how to block it. And those creating the block lists tend to be anti-ad zealots.

They can and do block logos from sponsored blocks, any content or links labelled sponsored or similar (which given the ASA are starting to crack down on native labelling in the UK will become easier), anything they consider ‘annoying’.

Also things like related content blocks (if some of the items are paid-for), or newsletter sign up promos, or paywall notices. Ironically some even block cookie privacy notices. Many also have privacy options, which can stop affiliate or attribution tracking, retargeting, personalisation, ad effectiveness measurement, analytics (eg GA), A/B testing. The latter could have an impact on web professionals being able to optimise user experience or improve conversion rates. 

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