Is it too late for Adblock Plus to stand for something more than adblocking?

Adblock Plus's moves to move closer to 'the traditional media industry' have been met with disdain by some of its biggest names

Adblock Plus has a problem; it’s known for being an adblocker but would rather be known for having an amicable relationship with the industry it has done so much to disrupt. To do that, it is planning to launch three additional features next year.

It might sound like a crisis of identity for the beleaguered business and yet the provider of the service Eyeo is at pains to point out that it never wanted to just be known for something as controversial as adblocking.

The trouble is, mud sticks, and global operations director Ben Williams knows it needs to somehow shake it off if the business is to kick-on from the 100 million active users it topped earlier this year.

A big part of that shift rests on the formation of the independent committee it wants govern its controversial ‘Acceptable Ads’ programme. Rather than decide which ads are, and are not acceptable to be served to its users, Eyeo expects to hand over the reins to a non-profit committee – made up of stakeholders ranging from adtech companies, consumer champions, publishers, journalists and academics – as soon as next year.

“We’ve spent a lot on getting the legal details ironed out and that took time to get right but now we’re comfortable, we’re starting to actively approach [potential participants],” explained Williams. “We think at the beginning of next year that we can have our first sitting – that’s a little optimistic but we’re hopeful.”

His optimism belies how slow progress has been since the last update at the London Camp David peace talks in February. “It’s been a lot easier to approach [potential participants] now because people know us and what we’re about,” explained Williams.

“When you talk to the publisher and the advertiser and say you’re going to be part of the committee that’s open to decide what is acceptable not just for Adblock Plus but for other adblockers like AdBlock. That’s a pretty compelling pitch and so those conversations have actually been quite constructive.”

Conversations that haven’t gone so well include with Dennis and the IAB, both of which have refused to join the committee. Speaking at AOP Digital Publishing Convention yesterday (7 November), Nick Flood, head of product management at Dennis and Steve Chester, the IAB’s director of data and industry programmes at the IAB, shared concerns over Adblock Plus chasing the money.

Furthermore, if Adblock Plus is taking money out of the system to then use it to fund the development of more adblocking technology then that could potentially be extortioninate, they agreed.

"When looking at AdBlock Plus’ revised positioning, we remain skeptical as to a publisher’s willingness to partner with them,” says Brian Kane, co-founder and chief operating officer at publishing software company Sourcepoint.

“SSPs [supply-side platforms] were founded to empower publishers with technology and services that enable them to better control how they generate revenue, but the Acceptable Ads platform does not have any of these capabilities. To the contrary, the company’s approach has been likened by some in the media industry to that of an extortion scheme or that of a pawn shop robbing people’s homes, then selling the goods back to the homeowner. We don’t think this is positioning that will resonate with premium publishers.”

Taking all this on board, Williams admitted how Eyeo’s belief that “partial ad blocking is better than complete ad blocking,” has been “hard to express”. So much so that it’s in no rush to roll out a service that allows people to fund the publishers and content creators they visit the most – Flattr Plus.

Hived-off in a closed beta for “friends and family”, Flattr Plus is partnership with the popular adblocker and online donation start-up Flattr, which was created by the founder of The Pirate Bay. An open beta is expected to run next month but the donation mechanic will be turned off so that it can get a handle on how to quantify engagement. It isn’t going to be time spent and it won’t be scrolling, said Williams but it could be a “mixture of the two”.

“We want to make sure we have the algorithm down before we evolve it [Flattr Plus] further,” he said of a project he believes will mean money goes back to publishers of all sizes. “There are lots of little questions we’re still trying to work out when it comes to building tremendous amounts of whitelists of sites that are 'flatterable' and those that aren’t.”

One example of this, is how in Germany the business has had to trawl through sites branded by Nazi logos because it's illegal in the country. Williams is hopeful Eyeo can weed out most “non-flatterable” sites, though is willing to conceded that there’s a possibility some could fall through the cracks. “We hope that we get to most of the places where anyone would reasonably go,” he explained.

“And if people don’t get that then the publishers are probably going to come to us and say you’ve got money sitting on the table right now – what do the users want? We’re going to rely on user feedback.”

If that’s not enough to convince publishers it comes in peace, then Eyeo is hopeful the SSP it’s prepping for launch will do the job. Like it did with Flattr Plus, the business is working with a start-up – in this case ComboTag – to allow publishers to insert what it deems “acceptable ads,” which won’t be blocked by Adblock Plus (unless users apply the strictest settings) on their site.

Suspicions over the SSP’s intent quickly turned into a media storm when it was announced last month due to confusion over the nature of Google and AppNexus’ involvement with ComboTag. This detracted from what Eyeo wanted the launch to mean, admitted Williams, who said the business “could’ve done a better job” explaining the service to its users.

For all the criticisms levelled at what is an ad network of sorts, there has been interest.

“Right now, we’re having very good conversations with several demand side partners,” said Williams. “We think that by December we should have a beta up and running … it was surprising to us that both the demand side suppliers – Appnexus and Google – pulled out of the partnership they had with ComboTag, but it wasn’t distracting because we figured we had those 1,000 publisher sign-ups already. We knew that if we had enough people on that side then finding the demand would be easy.”

What’s more, Eyeo’s SSP can serve ads through time real-time bidding. It’s something Williams believes is “something pretty cool” but was lost amid the initial furor around the launch and could tempt smaller publishers over to the service.

Another way it could change perceptions is through marketing. Nothing is planned but Williams admitted it was “food for thought,” adding Eyeo had considered it had considered “a couple of provocative campaigns” in the past but none came to fruition. “We’ve just not had the perfect idea yet,” he concluded.

Moving away from Eyeo’s hopes for the future, Williams took time to set the record straight regarding its much publicised battle with Facebook. He admitted that the tit-for-tat between the two companies “got out of hand”, though stopped short of saying his business would relent after Facebook managed to get ads through Adblock’s latest attempt to stop the flow of ads. Such was its happiness at the victory, that the social network’s chief financial officer took the time on its latest quarterly call to point out that nullifying adblockers on the social network helped boost its desktop revenue by 18% in the period.

Williams views those gains as a temporary reprieve ahead of what’s to come. “At some point they [Facebook] will remove so many of the indicators for an advertisement that they’ll have to stop [blocking ads],” he continued.

“When we get to that point I don’t know because they’re whole ad business is in-house and it's very difficult to get into that black-box. But from our perspective this is not any different from any of the other back and forth we’ve had. It’s just the notoriety of the player.”

A repositioning of the company, three products in the pipeline and a more humble outlook may not be enough to convert some of Eyeo’s more vociferous critics. What will change going into the new year, is that Adblock Plus will switch things up after 10 years as it looks to build out a sustainable business model.

“The business we’re in is a competition of ideas,” Williams said.

“I can be very critical of ad re-insertion but I’m not going to be critical of The Coalition for Better Ads – it’s a fanatic idea. If they beat us in the war of ideas then fine, but we feel like that we have something else to offer because we’re not asking people not to download adblockers, content blockers, etc we’re saying keep all that control and we will work with them to find better ads … I’ve got no criticism of that [The Coalition for Better Ads] whatsoever, I just think out method will be the one that wins at the end of the day.”

Hosted in a real-life boxing ring and now in its second year, Programmatic Punch on 8th December is a one-day event that asks experts from all corners of the advertising industry to trade verbal blows over the realities of automated media trading.

For more insights into programmatic advertising and data come to The Drum's Programmatic Punch event in London on 8 December.

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