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How Ad Blockers Work – and How to Beat Them

Sprinklr Team

February 21, 2021  •  6 min read

Ad blocking started out as a byproduct of procrastination.

Back in 2002, Henrik Aasted Sorensen wrote the code for Adblock, the first widely used ad blocker, while trying to avoid studying for an exam.

Flash forward to 2016, and ad blocking has gone mainstream. Around 25% of mobile users have ad blocking software installed and 63% of US millennials now use ad blocking tools. The ad industry is expected to lose $40 billion in revenue this year as a direct result.

It isn’t just websites and publishers missing out on ad revenue through lost bookings; advertisers are also being charged for unseen ads.

A drop in the performance of your campaigns could very well be due to ad blocking. If that’s the case, ad blockers are costing you money – even if just 5% of the ads you pay for are blocked, that’s still a serious chunk of your advertising budget.

So, what can advertisers do to protect themselves? Here’s how ad blockers work and what you need to know about them.

How Ad Blockers Work

Ad blockers operate in much the same way on desktop and mobile, but the differences in how consumers use the internet on these devices means that the impact of ad blocking is diminished on mobile ad campaigns.

On desktop computers, ad blocking software scans web pages and removes anything that looks like an ad. This includes files loaded from known external ad servers or HTML code that defines certain content as an ad (such as a “promoted” heading). This means 100% of desktop advertising is at risk from ad blocking.

The New York Times website viewed without ad blockers (left) and with Adblock Plus (right).

On mobile, the outlook isn’t so bad. This is due to the behaviors of mobile users. Most of the time users spend on mobile isn’t in the browser, it’s in apps like Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, Gmail, and Twitter. In fact, US mobile users will spend more than three hours per day using mobile apps this year, compared to just 51 minutes using mobile browsers.

As browser extensions are restricted from having an influence on other apps, ad blockers installed on mobile devices can only block ads served on websites viewed in mobile browsers. All ads served in other apps are safe.

On the mobile web, although ads are technically blockable, for some sites such as Facebook and YouTube – where a huge chunk of mobile advertising is spent – ads are still served. However, the only place where ads are guaranteed to be safe from blocking is in mobile apps.

How to Beat Ad Blockers

There are a number of ways to avoid ad blockers: either buy ads that are served where ad blockers don’t work, shift budget away from advertising, or buy ads that are charged based on user actions rather than exposures.

1. Target ads to mobile apps

Since mobile apps are immune to ad blockers, any campaign that allows you to target mobile apps is a safe bet, especially if you are buying based on exposures.

Ads can’t be targeted exclusively to users of the Facebook mobile app, but there is a workaround: a campaign can be set up to target iOS and Android users and exclude users of the main mobile browsers, Safari, and Chrome.

For apps like Instagram, which doesn’t display ads outside the mobile app, and Snapchat, which has no desktop or mobile web version, ads are only served in the mobile apps and are therefore unblockable.

Many other apps such as games or messaging apps don’t have a web version so if you want to avoid ad blockers these are a good place to start. Mobile ad networks, such as Facebook’s Audience Network, Google’s AdMob, and Apple’s iAd allow advertisers to target a wide network of mobile apps – which are all safe from ad blocking.

2. Shift focus to content marketing and earned media

If ad blocking is a real issue for your organization, shifting budget to content marketing could be an option. This won’t be able to replace advertising altogether, but it can be successful when combined with other options listed here. (See our guide to content marketing here).

3. Target ads based on actions

Blocked ads can only be charged for when the ad is paid for based on exposures. If you only buy action-based advertising, then you can be sure you aren’t losing money to blocked ads. So if you are looking for leads, sales, signups or video views, this is the way to go.

Google’s TrueView guarantees a real view by requiring a user action to view the ad or measuring a completed view, such as reaching the end of the video. TrueView campaigns that target desktop users should also be safe from ad blockers.

Of course, there are budget implications when switching from CPM to CPA advertising, and it may not be appropriate for every brand or campaign. If you are running a brand campaign that requires maximum exposure, then it would be better to look at a CPM deal targeting mobile apps. It’s not possible to know if a CPA model will be more cost-effective for your brand or product until you run tests.

4. Target websites that use “adblock gates”

Some sites, such as Forbes, have set up an adblock gate preventing those using ad blocking software from entering until they disable it. Those who oblige are then rewarded with access to an “ad light” version of the Forbes site for 30 days. Any campaign targeting desktop sites that use an adblock gate would therefore be immune to ad blocking software.

A combination of some (or all) of these approaches may be right for your brand, but the only way to know for sure is to run tests and see whether a new strategy outperforms existing campaigns.

Ad blocking is a real danger for advertisers at the moment, and the ad industry is struggling to keep up. For the foreseeable future, it looks as though in-app advertising is the only way to avoid ad blocking completely. This is likely to speed up the shift within online advertising away from the desktop and on to mobile.

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