The Uncertain Future of Digital Advertising

So far, this series has examined recent trends in digital advertising, and covered various approaches to increasing digital ad revenue. This installment will take a look at the apparent trajectory of this industry, and some of the challenges that publishers and content creators face. At the moment, the future direction of digital advertising is in question. Agencies are being founded with the express purpose of selling unblockable advertising, while other companies opt for paywalls or simply barring adblock users from accessing their sites in the first place. Some companies such as Twitch have found success with new ad serving technology, while others like Facebook have struggled to keep pace with the evolution of adblockers. The inherent difficulty of implementing unblockable ads successfully may act as a deterrent for some, especially as recent studies show that many adblock users are willing to simply turn off their adblockers if they are denied content entirely as a result of using the software.

With the practice of implementing unblockable ads online seemingly becoming more prevalent, it follows that agencies offering unblockable ads as a service would begin popping up as well. Perhaps most prominent is the company mentioned in the first part of this series, PageFair. PageFair claims that their “mission is to sustain the open web by re-establishing a fair deal between users and content creators”, and that the manner in which they serve ads for their clients “solves the speed, privacy, and UX issues that cause adblocking in the first place”.

PageFair seems to believe that holding content hostage is not the path forward, allegedly opting to push for ads to be more carefully catered towards a site’s particular audience rather than blocking site access entirely. While their rhetoric might be somewhat overzealous, it is hard to argue with the notion that providing more palatable advertising to the user is a step in the right direction. Intrusive and irrelevant ads may well contribute to the adoption of adblockers, so PageFair’s approach is certainly not without merit. Of course, not everyone finds PageFair’s practices acceptable: in late 2015 PageFair’s analytics service was hacked, rendering more than 500 of their client sites vulnerable to malware attacks, highlighting just how contentious digital advertising can be.

Many sites (such as Forbes, among others) are beginning to simply block access to their sites if adblocking software is detected in a user’s browser. While some people (the author included) simply avoid sites that employ this practice, it may be more effective than one might think. According to a 2016 study, more than half of all adblocker users would disable them to read content. Despite the ongoing disagreement regarding the most profitable direction for online advertising, many publishers are taking hope in the fact that some groups are reporting a steady increase in the number of users accessing content through a mobile platform (such as a phone or tablet) For example, as of late 2016, more than half of Facebook’s total user base only log in on mobile, and on the whole these devices are much less likely to have adblocking software installed.

According to a recent article by the Internet Advertising Bureau UK, adblocker use has “stabilized” in recent months, and the massive increase that many alarmists (such as PageFair) were predicting simply hasn’t materialized. The moderate tone of this article seems to indicate that not all groups buy PageFair’s apocalyptic rhetoric about the massive threat of adblockers, and some are opting to rethink the content of the ads they are serving, rather than dedicating resources to ensuring the ads are unblockable.

Only time will tell what the future of online advertising holds (both for advertisers and consumers), but the sheer volume of conversation surrounding this topic strongly suggests that big changes can be expected sooner rather than later. Readers are strongly encouraged to keep an eye out for the different types of ads displayed online, as the proliferation of different advertising methods is likely to continue picking up speed.

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