Why Apple is ad blocking and what it means for advertisers and publishers

Apple users can now block ads they see online on Safari for the first time, a move that could pump more advertising through apps and consequently its iAd advertising platform rather than browsers.

The ad blocking debate takes perhaps its biggest twist today (16 September) with the debut of the feature on iOS devices, which could conceivably change how branded content appears to Apple users. It’s the latest chapter in mobile marketing’s evolution, with advertiser and publisher alike coming up with more native content-led strategies in order to get in front of harder to reach users who can simply block ads by downloading an app from the Apple App store.

It’s not just banner ads and pop-ups that are under threat, but also tracking scripts, cookies, images, and auto-play videos. Also important is that any impact will be largely limited to the Safari browser or mobile web and should not have a significant impact on in-app advertising.

While some advertising observers are already in mourning about the feature’s potential to disrupt the $70bn a year mobile advertising sector, Apple has kept schtum on its reason behind the move, sparking much speculation (and confusion) from all quarters of the industry.

“The implications of blocking ads across all iOS devices are huge, as these devices make up 14 per cent of total web browsing,” said Justin Taylor UK managing director of online video advertising platform Teads “However, we can’t blame people for using ad blockers online and on their mobile if they’re being bombarded by poor quality, irrelevant ads.”

The clearest reason for Apple’s move is to capitalise on a shift from ad-funded services where viewing banners and pop-ups are a necessary evil to access free content to advertising free subscription models that have been pioneered by the likes of Netflix. US users spend most of their time consuming digital media within mobile apps, according to Comscore, which found that they account for 52 per cent of the time spent using digital media.

Apple’s ad blocking could be viewed as a response to this, pushing content providers and subsequently advertisers to get users to access their content from apps rather than browsers. Given the ad blocking update doesn’t affect apps, it paves the way for Apple to build up its stuttering IAd mobile ad format, which places ads in apps rather than websites. Indeed, the format was mooted as one of the key reasons why Apple has developed News, a feature that lets readers access content from publishers directly from one app as part of the latest iOS update.

People are increasingly willing to pay for ad free subscription models that have a reasonably robust privacy policy. It’s highlighted in the success of services like Netflix and rather tellingly through Apple’s recruitment drive for people who can make sense of data across its product marketing and retail arms.

This could also be viewed as a shot at Google. Apple, which reportedly gets $1bn a year from using Google as the default search engine on iphones, could choke the revenues the search giant extracts from the lucrative deal. In its most recent quarter Google made $3.6bn, around 20 per cent of its total, from its Network category of those it gains from partner sites.

Todd Ruback, chief privacy officer at Ghostery, privacy add-on for various web browsers, said: "Apple's announcement that it will embed ‘content blocking’ functionality - ad blocking by another name - in its upcoming iOS 9 mobile operating system is not only a direct shot at Google, but also is troubling to publishers and the digital marketing industry alike just as revenue from mobile advertising is poised to overtake desktop.”

Ad blocking may have some impact on the publishing world in the short term, but it certainly won't kill publishing. That’s the view of Pubmatic’s president Kirk McDonald, who argues that deterioration of the user experience has opened up the possibility for ad blockers to chip away at publishers’ revenue

“As it always has, advertising will change and adapt, it will get faster, evolve to new formats, gain advancements in measurement and tracking, and find a way to reach the consumer. We are focused on helping the publishing industry thrive - powering a media environment where the consumer is surrounded by media that is relevant. Instead of people being subjected to unwanted intrusions, they are served by thriving journalism, interesting entertainment, and advertising that feels natural and appropriate,” he added.

Much of the condemnation of ad blockers has come from publishers wary that the potential popularity on Apple’s iOS could spread to other platforms such as Android and Windows 10. However, brands The Drum has interviewed in recent months have tempered their worries with an interest in how the feature could foster better, richer advertising on smaller screens so that less people are inclined to block ads in the first place.

In an interview with The Drum earlier this year, O2’s marketing and consumer director Nina Bibby said:

“We’re always trying to find new ways to give our customer s abetter mobile experience” she explained. “There are interesting [ad blocker] models being reported like Shine that can give people more choice over the advertising they see. To date, I’m not sure that I’m ready to embrace an approach that takes a wholesale approach to ad blocking across our mobile network.”

It's a thought not lost on Bauer Media's digital commercial director Vicky Foster, who thinks ad blcoking going mainstream could elevate the quality of native content. "Ad blockers will further push the industry to create a better standard of advertising which is more relevant to the audience they are trying to reach and we will have to work harder to get the consumers’ attention," she added.

"Developing a clear strategy around native or branded content is critical and this needs to be in a way which fits with the tone that the targeted audience is familiar with and relevant to their interests. For example, we are seeing that naturally Millennials have a low tolerance for interruptive advertising and ‘ad blindness’ is becoming common place as they are so much more digitally savvy. Of course Millennials are just one audience segment and the individual publisher needs to work out an audience specific strategy."

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