Ad Free Experience on Platforms – What it means for brands


“Do you have an ad blocker installed in your desktop browser”? 1 in 4 people answer in the affirmative today! Ad blocking sparked a huge debate two years back, that has seen strong arguments for and against it, but no consensus could be reached. Ad blocking is an escalating cold war between publishers & consumers.

The usage of ad blockers stemmed from pressing needs of users. As publishers started maximizing the advertising potential of their digital assets, one of the first problems users faced was higher bandwidth usage. Broadband providers decided to end their “unlimited” plans globally almost a the same time & users had to deal with hugely inflated internet bills. Ad blocking turned out to be a good cost cutting measure.

Usability was another major issue. Advertisements had started disrupting the user’s overall ability to complete a task, from reading a news article to watching a video. It decreased productivity & efficiency of both the user and his PC/smartphone. An auto playing HTML5 video ad in one of the 50 tabs open in the browser was a tough one to spot, until some browsers displayed a sound icon in the tab that was playing the video.

Privacy had always been a concern of the average netizen, but she seemed to be fighting a losing battle. Advertisers had tried to convince users that there’s a price to be paid to be online & connected. An online advertising technique called “retargeting” however set that price too steep for the average user. Ads chased netizens across websites & hounded them for weeks together. “How does this news website know what I intended to purchase on an ecommerce website?”

As ad blockers crossed the 10% mark globally, publishers moved on from just arguments to stern action. Users with ad blockers on were shown the door. They would be given the option of disabling their ad blockers or to leave the site. What advertisers forgot was that these users were “early adopters” of technology. They hit Google again searching for a solution and sure enough there was one: Block the Ad Block Blocker! Try saying that aloud & repeat it fast a few times. Advertisers realised that they are not just dealing with a tongue twister, but a brain twister.

Now that publishers realised that technology was not the solution, they resorted to strategy. If you can’t beat them, join them! Ad free experiences were created for discerning users, although for a price (again!). This created a rift between advertisers and publishers for the first time. If everyone opts for ad free experiences, where would that leave advertisers? It’s a big “if” though. The loss of revenue as a result of ad blocking was $10.7 billion in 2015 and skyrocketed to $20.3 billion in 2016. Can such huge sums be recovered directly from users?

Publishers seem to be betting on it. Google has launched an ad free version of Youtube, dubbed Youtube Red at $9.99 per month (aimed at US viewers as of now). Almost all large publishers, streaming services and even email providers have an ad free paid option today. AdAge has done some quick back of the envelope calculations that look quite scary though. A world without advertisements won’t be cheap. Each Facebook user has to pay almost $20 a year to sustain the corporation. Facebook’s growth would then depend upon its user base, which is growing at only about 7% every year.

Ads are not going away that fast. From Tor to Firefox Focus, the ad blocking browsers are now reaching the masses. Google has promised to release a version of their popular Chrome browser with a built in ad blocker. It has also promised not to read your emails inside Gmail. This means ads inside Gmail will not be customised based on your communications. Advertisers meanwhile are trying to figure out as to what constitutes an “acceptable advertisement” and are working with ad blockers to get those ads unblocked. Even the new Google Chrome will allow these “acceptable advertisements”. Advertisers, publishers and software platforms collaborated to form a body named “Coalition for Better Ads” that defines as to what advertisements are acceptable to consumers.

We need a well-balanced ecosystem of advertisers, publishers, platforms and consumers to get the online juggernaut rolling!

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