Rising above the blocking game

The Apple iOS 9 is barely a month old. Yet it has drawn the kind of impassioned reactions that few of its predecessors have seen, especially amongst marketers and digital advertisers.

And this time round, there is more panic and anxiety than the adoration anything Apple typically inspires.

The reason is Apple’s decision to integrate ‘Content Blocking’ into iOS 9, a feature that allows programmers to build apps for filtering out content from the Safari mobile browser. This technological shift effectively throws open the floodgates for ad-blocking apps to stream into the iOS ecosystem, potentially restricting advertisers’ access to more than 1 billion iOS devices worldwide – from Beijing to Brasilia.

The move comes at a time of growth for mobile advertising in Asia. A study by the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association, better known as the GSMA, shows that the number of mobile broadband connections in Asia is set to reach 1.1 billion in 2015, a staggering number that marketers simply cannot ignore anymore. In India alone, a relatively new market for mobile advertising, spending has ballooned to SG$ 17-22 million within a short span of just four years.

With the rising threat of ad blockers, though, this is certainly no time for marketers to be sitting still. The fact that Apple has repeatedly disrupted consumption patterns through subtle changes in technology is an indication that a broader shift could be on the horizon as ad blockers come into the picture. But there are good reasons not to panic.

Firstly, ad blockers will not transform user behaviour overnight, even if the news headlines seem to drum up their domination in the first few days since the launch of iOS 9. Of course, removing ads from the equation can mean faster loading time and greater efficiency in the use of battery power and data bandwidth. Apple itself trumpets the introduction of Content Blocking as a way of streamlining the user experience, and many early adopters have thus flocked to apps like Crystal and Purify, making them two of the top 10 paid apps on the Apple Store.

However, this early surge is by no means a definitive predictor of how the rest of the users – the much-feared mainstream – will eventually take to ad blockers. While more technically-savvy users measure the speed improvements and bandwidth efficiency in terms of milliseconds and bytes, most users are less likely to see much of a difference in their experience.

More importantly, the onus is still on the app developers to ensure that the filtering mechanism used in their ad-blocker apps is user-friendly and laser-sharp. If it ends up leaving out desired content and compromising the users’ content experience, there is every chance that users will end up simply turning off the ad-blockers and reverting to their habitual usage. In short, the availability of ad blockers does not automatically guarantee its sustained, widespread adoption and usage amongst mobile users.

At the same time, the rise of ad blockers may in fact serve to underline the often forgotten fact that ad revenues are necessary if consumers want to enjoy quality content for free. Publishers can only continue to produce well-researched stories and beautifully shot videos if they have the necessary resources and expertise – all of which come at a cost.

This is why after just 36 hours at the top of the App Store chart, the ad-blocker app Peace was pulled by its own creator Marco Arendt. He openly shared his concerns over the ethics of the app’s ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to ads and thus, the harm it can inflict on publishers who otherwise serve up solid content.

With mobile’s share of web growing by as much as 30% year-on-year in Asia and reaching 43.4% this year, demand for mobile content will only continue to grow, and along with it, the ad revenues needed to support the publishers producing it.

What all this means in essence is that mobile ads did not die when iOS 9 was born. But what the rise of ad blockers does call for is a new normal in the way marketers, publishers, and technology companies engage consumers and win their hearts.

The dynamic technological landscape should be rightfully seen as a germination ground for innovations, for cutting-edge, creative content based on hopefully greater mutual respect – for users’ preferences and interests, but also publishers’ quality of work and marketers’ need for genuine brand engagement. And none of this could conceivably happen as a mere knee-jerk reaction in panic.

In introducing Content Blocking, Apple, for one, is not thinking just for the short term. It is responding to the competition amongst technology companies that have been leading the charge in shaking up the digital content and advertising industry. For years, with search engines being the first stop for many users, Google has been reaping enormous revenue from its ads, but Facebook is now fast catching up as it aggressively transforms itself into a giant ‘meta-media’ in its own right.

This rivalry has fostered a competition for control over content in their respective platforms, so as to secure their own ad revenue streams. Facebook has launched Instant Articles, where publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are able to upload their content for users to read. For its part, Apple has not only seeded ad-blocking adoption, but also launched Apple News (though this is currently restricted to the US) where publishers’ content and ads would be presented in Apple’s carefully calibrated design aesthetics.

Some are worried that the situation might end up putting disproportionate power in the hands of the technology companies, but it’s clear that the intense competition is opening more avenues than ever before for users to experience better content more seamlessly. In Asia-Pacific, Google and Facebook have also been growing their teams systematically to nurture stronger content partnerships with local publishers and influencers, while engaging the millions of small and medium-sized enterprises driving the economy here.

In that context, marketers need to recognize that to engage more meaningfully with consumers, they can no longer act in isolation or think only from their limited perspective, picking and choosing platforms and technological tools that only serve their own metrics.

Marketing, content and technology are so inextricably bound now that marketers ought to keep pace with the world’s best technology companies and publishers – by stepping up and rethinking their role beyond pushing products and generating sales.

In other words, marketers cannot continue putting up the same loud and intrusive display ads and then expect users to engage with brands more deeply. Marketers will lose out if they simply automate the placement of mobile ads and expect high click-through rates without truly understanding what consumers want, need and feel, at the right time and in the right context. After all, it is this lack of genuine understanding from brands and marketers that probably drives consumers to install ad blockers in the first place.

At the end of the day, what consumers value and resonate with are powerful stories, entertaining content, eye-opening insights; these are the fundamental building blocks that create moments of delight in consumers’ digital experience and keep them coming back for more. Given the vast market and long growth runway in Asia-Pacific, marketers should seize the opportunity to turn this region into a veritable incubator of such innovative content.

Ad blockers have not killed mobile ads, but they are set to kill old, lazy marketing habits that die hard. Marketers should be prepared to raise their game, as consumers rightly expect much more.

The writer is Rohit Dadwal, managing director of Mobile Marketing Association (APAC).