#OPSPOV: So Ad Blockers Are Selling Ads Now?

Ad Blocker... and Seller?

You don’t have to be following the DMEXCO conference in Cologne, Germany, to have heard the biggest story/scandal. EyeO GmbH – the parent company of everyone’s favorite ad blocker, AdBlock Plus (ABP) – decided the event was a prime time to announce the launch of its new exchange for replacing blocked ads. Uproar was swift from both ad industry types and ABP users.

According to the press release, the “New ad platform turns tables, lets publishers programmatically offer nonintrusive ads.” In partnership with SSP ComboTag, EyeO would theoretically replace ads blocked by ABP with ones that fit its “Acceptable Ads criteria” – e.g., “non-intrusive,” not too heavy, no autoplay, proper labeling, etc. Through a simple tag integration, publishers could choose ads from a marketplace of white-listed creative. 

The Wall Street Journal reported that Google and AppNexus would offer ABP’s replacement inventory to buyers through their exchanges. This was news to the former – “We were just as surprised by the announcement as you were,” Google SVP of Ads and Commerce Sridhar Ramaswany told reporters at DMEXCO. “We certainly have no relationship with Eyeo when it comes to this effort.” 

An AppNexus spokesperson initially told WSJ that the company was working with EyeO and ComboTags on the Acceptable Ads Platform, but in a typically reflective blog post, CEO Brian O’Kelley clarified that while ComboTag “has been an active client with AppNexus, we have not — and will not — allow them to use our platform to monetize Eyeo and AdBlocker Plus.” Both Google and AppNexus appear to have stripped the SSP of exchange privileges.

Our sister company PR News will gladly point out that it’s a faux pas to announce such potentially explosive news before chatting with your launch partners, but the reactions from Google and AppNexus made clear that ComboTag was only using them as demand partners. Both companies were shocked (shocked!) to hear how ComboTag planned to leverage their services for ABP’s replacement ads.

Though AppNexus’ initial response sprinkles some skepticism on that claim, in a statement the company (correctly) re-classified the so-called Acceptable Ads Platform’s business model as a toolbar reinsertion scheme. That’s about as scummy as you can get in ad tech. 

That didn’t stop ComboTag CEO Guy Tytunovich from gloating that the company had a thousand publisher sign-ups at DMEXCO. While that number seems suspect, the interest in the Acceptable Ads Platform is not surprising as it’s basically an innovation on how ABP has been doing business.

Same Song, New Dance

ABP was adamant on Twitter that nothing had changed when it came to user experience on its product. And they’re sort of right – when signing up, users have the choice of a blanket block or allowing ad that meet its “acceptable” criteria slip through. 

The latter is how the company makes its revenue – by charging major demand partners like Google and Amazon to have their ads white-listed. If you think that sounds like high-tech blackmail, you’re not alone. While they may have cut ties with ComboTag, will Google keep paying the ABP ransom?

With the Acceptable Ads Platform, users would see more ads on publishers who had opted in and were loading up white-listed replacements from the marketplace for blocked ads. Theoretically, publishers could make up for some lost revenue while ComboTag and its demand partners take a cut. 

But in this case did ABP’s hubris do them in? It’s honestly too early to judge. AppNexus and Google may not be playing ball (for now – hardened stands are known to soften in ad tech), but other demand sources will certainly try to fill their shoes. Ad-blocking users are technically a valuable audience that is hard to reach.

Acceptable to Whom?

The thing is – how many users opt into being shown acceptable ads? I’ve mocked the Acceptable Ads Initiative before because I have trouble believing that ad-block seekers will reject a complete shutout for receiving some ads – particularly ones deemed OK by the blocker. (Understanding ABP’s monetization strategy makes it even harder to swallow the company’s supposed altruism.)

At the same time, recent studies have shown that ad-block users have a conscience and are willing to whitelist certain sites that ask them to. Surely some that seek out ad blocking will realize they are starving beloved media sites of revenue, and let their pangs of guilt enable acceptable ads. It’s just not clear how many. And at what point does the ad load hit the point where our hypothetical user says, “Whoa, this isn’t what I signed up for,” and either turns on blanket mode or switches to a more hard-line ad-blocker?

So as a publisher, you could make a stand and refuse to work with ABP – do your part in starving them of revenue. Or you could join in and reclaim some of your revenue, but be aware that despite all that acceptable rhetoric, the replacement demand sources will likely not be major players (though you can never count out arbitrage…). 

In the end, ABP is a racket that shields itself in the notion that it’s making the Internet better by choosing which ads are soon. The better solution for publishers is removing one more intermediary and simply offering your own brand of acceptable ads. It’s not about protesting against ad blockers but reconnecting with your users, as the IAB’s DEAL initiative wisely points out. 

Make the case to your ad-blocking users to whitelist your site – Forbes has already had some success with this (more details about that next week) by offering assenting users an “ad light” package. The Acceptable Ads Platform is a quick fix with a heavy ethical cost for the industry; engaging your users is a long-term solution. That’s something we’ll dive into during the Tech Forum in LA on October 18.