IAB Primer on Ad Blocking for Publishers Leans Toward Carrots Over Sticks

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The Interactive Advertising Bureau is a vehement opponent of ad blocking: “It is robbery, plain and simple,” the 20-year-old trade group says, zeroing in on software “profiteers” who, besides targeting users with their “extortionist scheme,” are ”shaking down publishers for payments to circumvent their barriers.” Worse, IAB sees ad blocking as an “existential threat” to the entire advertising business, which now clocks $50 billion worth of sales in the U.S. annually.

But amid all its fire and brimstone, the IAB has another message: “Ad blocking is a crucial wakeup call to brands and all that serve them about their abuse of consumers’ good will. Ad blockers are…exploiting a real vulnerability: the erosion of stimulating consumer experiences online. For this, the marketing-media ecosystem bears real responsibility.”

A big part of this ecosystem is publishers, who are reacting to ad blocking almost in outright panic. What should they do? The IAB Tech Lab set up an “Ad Blocking Working Group” that recently produced a “primer” for publishers that laid out seven options, with the risks and benefits. The agnostic primer even includes “payment to ad-blocking companies,” which the IAB earlier had denounced as a shakedown of publishers.

About 60 publishers and other groups that sell advertising on digital platforms – everybody from ABC TV to GumGum to the National Football League to Tribune Publishing – are part of the Ad Blocking Working Group.

To get behind what the group is doing and what it hopes to accomplish, Street fight put these questions to Scott Cunningham, General Manager of the IAB Tech Lab and Senior Vice President, Technology and Ad Operations, at IAB:

While the working group did not endorse any of the tactics [that it suggested to counter ad blocking], “tiered experience” looks — to me — like the best because, ideally, it would retain audience. Is this a correct inference?
“Tiered experience” offers options. Publishers should experiment. Not all tactics are right for every publisher, depending on their audience, as long as the customer and publisher are on the same page of the value exchange for free content.

Does the primer cover display, and video ads?
It’s generic for the most part, not particular to any one use case. However, as these tactics mature, there will be evidence for certain use cases over others such as mobile, video, etc.

Scott Cunningham, SVP of Technology and Ad Operations at IAB,
Scott Cunningham, SVP of Technology and Ad Operations at IAB,

IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg recently said that publishers should “deny entry to people who have ad blockers on,” as reported in Street Fight. But the IAB primer sees this as a “drastic move” that could “alienate the existing audience” and invite it to migrate to other sites. Are there times when publishers should go with denial as a preferred tactic?
I think it is a tactic that a publisher needs to make on its own and whether it believes its content quality cannot be found elsewhere. Some publishers can “limit” access under the IAB’s DEAL for consumers, whereas others will “lift” more often than not. As experimentation and learning grows, the solution sets mature as well so the primer outlines many possible tactics and outcomes.

Haven’t most publishers been tackling the ad-blocking issue well before IAB developed its primer? Have the earlier responses had any significant response. If not, is that why IAB developed the primer?
Yes.  Some have seen increased installations prior to 2015. The pervasiveness of blocking led to heightened activity, which is why we have publishers working to make a “LEAN DEAL” with consumers [that aims to improve user experience by eliminating pre-loaded and “auto-play” ads].

Looking at the long-term relationship between the user, publisher and advertiser — as well as society — has the IAB embraced any realignment of this compact?
The public Internet and content distribution have largely been a free model supported by advertising to sustain costs to create and deliver. The only element really missing from offline media was testing user pricing elasticity of demand.

What is happening now is publishers are testing this in the name of user experience to see what users are willing to do to access free content. The value exchange of free content supported by advertising helps keep a public internet open. This, and offering a LEAN user experience, is just good customer service.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.