Is a truce possible in the ad-blocking war?

The rhetoric between online advertisers and ad-blocking companies remains incendiary. But both sides say there may be a middle ground – less intrusive, less bandwidth-hogging ads that put user experience above all else

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It doesn’t sound like there is much room for agreement. But, apparently there is.

Even Rothenberg, after he got through trashing “ad-blocking profiteers,” acknowledged that they had, “done this industry a favor. They have forced us to look inward at our own relentless self-involvement, and outward to the men, women and children who are our actual customers.”

And Scott Cunningham, general manager of IAB Tech Lab, began a blog post last October with a mea culpa.

“We messed up,” he wrote. “As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience.”

Cunningham was emphatic that, “digital advertising (is) the foundation of an economic engine that, still now, sustains the free and democratic World Wide Web.”

“But,” he wrote again, “we messed up … we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves. This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience.”

And, he added, it upset the “equilibrium of content, commerce, and technology,” and robbed consumers of, “a safe, usable experience.”

This is music to Meyer’s ears. “The online ad ecosystem is a mess, a Frankenstack, a disaster,” he said. “Thousands of companies are all trying to get access to get consumer data in one form or another, and consumers see it in pages getting slow and ads following them around the Internet. Data plans are being drained, batteries are being drained and bandwidth is getting eaten up.

“Not to mention that it is a scary new threat vector for malware.”

The IAB Lab’s proposed solution is what it calls the LEAN Ads program - Light, Encrypted, Ad-choice-supported, Non-invasive ads. The standards for such ads, Cunningham wrote, will be set by a nonprofit body with “many diverse voices,” including consumers, providing input.

All of which sounds at least something like the AdBlock Plus “Acceptable Ads” manifesto, the standards for which are going to be turned over to an “independent committee,” according to Williams, who added that ads that are allowed through, “are very safe because there are no ads served programmatically – malvertising is basically a byproduct of the uncertainty that programmatic ad buying creates.”

That does not mean the end of conflicts, however. Sourcepoint’s Barokas agreed that publishers and advertisers, “need to be constantly reviewing ad strategies to ensure they are not alienating audiences.”

But he maintained that too many ad blockers remain “blunt objects that punish publishers that offer even the most polite and relevant ad experiences.”

And he said he doesn’t think many publishers will “find comfort or solace in paying whitelisting fees associated with ad-blocking companies. “The only way for premium publishers to remain in operation,” he said, “is for consumers to agree to view ads in exchange for content.”

He likened the current situation to the disruption of the music industry in 1999. Napster, he said, “played a central role in raising awareness of changing digital consumption patterns,” which convinced the legacy industry players they would have to evolve to survive.

The result was services like iTunes and Pandora, which, “provided a user experience consumers were willing to pay for.” But the Napster model essentially disappeared.

Ultimately, Meyer said he thinks the ad industry has realized that even if their ads get through, it isn’t good if they are intrusive. “If the consumer doesn’t want to look at the ad, it’s not good for the company,” he said.

Indeed, a lengthy reply from an ad-blocker user to the YouTube video of Rothenberg’s recent keynote declared, “Brand exposure is not necessarily a good thing for the brand. If I see your product ad pop up on my face or flash some B.S. 5MB JavaScript on my eyeball while I'm reading an article on every website, your product may not be on my shopping list anymore.”

Dave Grimaldi, executive vice president of public policy at the IAB, conceded that the complaints about intrusive ads make, “a worthwhile point.” He said that the industry’s response, with LEAN ads, along with a DEAL (Detect, Explain, Ask and Lift or Limit) approach to consumers who are blocking ads offers a way, “to convey to visitors that ad blocking harms the free Internet.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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