City AM: ‘We’ve banned ad blockers for ourselves but it’s only a matter of time before other publishers follow suit’

City AM believes its decision to ban ad blockers is just the start of a more conscious riposte from publishers to the threat ad blocking poses to their revenues, but argues advertisers and technologists need to chip in to find techniques powerful enough to convince readers that they’re benefiting from ads.

The financial freesheet has become the first UK newspaper to ban readers who use ad blockers from its website. Desktop readers seeking ad-free articles using Firefox browsers are greeted with blurred out text, ahead of a wider rollout to other browsers.

While media owners like the Guardian and Condé Nast have gently reminded those readers blocking ads that they are potentially damaging the content they crave, City AM’s tougher approach is emblematic of the extremes some publishers feel they’re having to go to in the short term to negate their losses. Indeed, the Washington Post and Germany's Axel Springer have also banned ad blockers.

City AM’s digital director Martin Ashplant reveals that around 20 per cent of its 1.2 million monthly browsers using Firefox have ad blocking software installed.

“That’s a high number,” he told The Drum - and it will get higher if the publisher continues to do nothing. The explosion of ad blocking is set to cost publishers in excess of $40bn by the end of next year according to a report from Adobe and anti-ad blocking firm PageFair, with European audiences more likely to block commercial content, compared to their US counterparts.

“It’s hard to say in specific numbers the impact it’s [ad blocking] having on our revenues but on a day when we could sell out our entire inventory then we wouldn’t be able to do it for 20 per cent," added Ashplant. “We’re doing this for ourselves. We’d hope and expect that the advertising industry would be pleased to be able access more of our audience than they currently are.”

It’s the stuff of nightmares for a publishing industry still trying to get to grips with how to create premium ad experiences around mobile inventory. Banning ad blockers on City AM’s mobile site won’t happen anytime soon due to the bulk of its traffic (and revenue) flowing from desktop, although Ashplant was quick to highlight that the ban shows the publisher is “also really mindful of the user experience”.

Media experts and advertisers have branded City AM’s move as “bold” and a “wake up call” to the industry. The Weather Channel’s director of global programmatic and yield Barbara Agus said: “Smart publishers such as City AM will undoubtedly ensure their audience remains central to their content to keep their loyal readers and attract new audiences, even with the extra step now in place”.

There are calls from some in the industry for more publishers to move to a paywall model to counter the threat from ad blocking software. For the most part, Ashplant thinks City AM's trial ban of ad blocking is part of a paradigm shift from publishers towards protecting their revenues, and predicted that some will also ban the software as others tackle the problem in another way.

“It’s going to be horses for courses in terms of how we deal with ad blocking because different publishers will have different strategies. Those with subscription models or paywalls will have a different approach to those who are completely reliant on ad funding,” he added.

However, the threat of ad blockers cannot be quelled by publishers alone.

“I think it should be a collective approach by advertisers, publishers and technologists to really put the user experience right at the heart it [of the solution],” argued Ashplant. “It has to be done in way that people accept ads as a way to drive revenue so that [publishers] continue to produce decent journalism. That’s got to be the approach.”

Readers have already voiced their support of City AM so soon into its ad blocking push, though the “reaction has been skewed at the moment by the news story that’s attracted lots of people who perhaps aren’t on City AM”, admitted Ashplant. It can’t pinpoint the age bracket of those of its readers with ad blockers installed on their computers and yet he believes they’re likely to come from the younger end of its 25 to 44-year-old readership.

City AM’s decision to ban ad blockers is the latest in a digital showdown between publishers and ad blockers that’s been charged by the arrival of ad blockers to Apple’s iPhone and iPads last month. The topic has fuelled conferences and dominated the trade press in the weeks since, with all quarters of the industry pitching in their own responses to the thorny issue.

The UK's leading brand-side marketers are trying to put together a coherent strategy to help tackle the challenge and are looking to trade body ISBA to help align their efforts. Just last week, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) launched its LEAN ads program to give advertisers clearer guidelines on what ads are likely to push people to install ad blockers in the first place.

Richard Reeves, interim managing director at the Association of Online Publishers (AOP), said: “Premium publishers are responding to the challenges presented by ad blockers. As the creators and guardians of quality, independent content, they are steadfast in their commitment to providing an engaging, positive consumer experience. If that requires publishers to reassess existing business models to create new standards – that negate the appetite or deter readers from using ad blocking technology – then, that is what must be done.”

For insights into how AOL thinks the ad blocking problem needs to be solved, read The Drum's interview with UK chief Hamish Nicklin.

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