Publisher Strategies to Monetize AdBlock Users [for 2022 and beyond]
Ad blockers are perhaps the most popular tool on the internet.
While they haven’t been a popular topic in recent years with so many other events stealing the spotlight, ad blockers are critically important for publishers to pay attention to.
It’s commonly estimated that over 40% of global internet users have an ad blocker installed in their web browser, with some modern browsers having ad blockers pre-installed into them.
This statistic poses a critical challenge for publishers to overcome when monetizing their web properties.
While not every user is guaranteed to interact with ads displayed to them, serving 40% less ad impressions can significantly damage the ad revenue potential of a web property owner.
This guide showcases some common strategies for monetizing adblock users and covers the basics of how ad blockers work.
Table of Contents
- How Does Ad Blocking Work?
- The Historical & Modern Ad Blocking Landscape
- Strategies For Monetizing AdBlock Users
- Detect ad blocker usage & measure the impact
- Update to server-side ad serving practices
- Bite the bullet & get whitelisted
- Request for users to disable their adblocker
- Implement a content "blocker wall"
- Implement alternate ad content & forms of monetization
- Optimise for mobile-first design & overall user experience
How Does Ad Blocking Work?
Ads are used by publishers to monetize their web properties.
In order to serve ads to visitors, a publisher must install certain pieces of code into their content pieces which activate whenever users load that content, including:
- Ad units which are effectively the ad “space”, “zone”, or “slot” into which an ad is served and displayed on the page.
- Tracking pixels which send reports to platforms used by advertisers whenever a user generates an ad impression by loading the page.
Ad blockers prevent the process of serving an ad from taking place. Different types of ad blockers go about doing this using a variety of methods:
Downloadable browser extensions use an approach to ad blocking that requires the installation of third-party software into a web browser, allowing the extension to manage which ads are able to be displayed. Ad blocking extensions can work by blocking HTTPS requests - or in other words, telling the web browser not to load the ad tags which make the ad calls to any associated ad servers. Ad blocker extensions can also work by blocking various CSS elements on a page. Because some in-house ad serving techniques like native advertising and general marketing promotions don’t make external HTTPS requests, the extensions target various parts of the webpage’s presentational styling to prevent the ad unit from displaying in its entirety. In both cases, ad blocking extensions use filter lists to determine which HTTPS requests and CSS elements to block, with the most widely used filter list being EasyList. Downloadable browser extensions are the most popular type of ad blocker, accounting for over 90% of online ad blocking activity.
Built-in browser ad blockers work in a similar way to downloadable browser extensions. In some cases, browsers may make use of EasyList just like extensions do, and in other cases, a browser may maintain its own list of ads to block. Each browser takes a slightly different approach to how it blocks ads. For example, Google developed its own ad grading system called the Better Ads Standards initiative to determine when and which ads to block on Google Chrome.
VPN (Virtual Private Network) or DNS (Domain Name System) based ad blockers work by preventing DNS requests from being sent to identifiable ad networks - somewhat similar to how HTTPS requests are blocked by browser extensions. By referring to lists of known ad networks and suspected malicious domain names, VPNs block connections to these web addresses when a DNS ad blocker is installed and selected as a VPN’s active DNS server. More reading about VPNs is available here if you’re interested in learning more.
Due to their impact on both programmatic ad serving and the ability to serve in-house marketing promotions to website visitors, finding ways to manage ad blockers without disrupting user experience has been a tricky challenge for publishers to address over the years.
The Historical & Modern Ad Blocking Landscape
Ad blocking has always been considered a never ending “arms race” between publishers and adblock users - with publishers constantly seeking ways to “disarm” the latest versions of the internet's most popular ad blockers.
To some extent, the “war” has been ongoing since the first banner ad was introduced - though even early publications including Digiday’s "Why publishers shouldn’t fight ad blockers: ‘The hackers will always find a way’" from 2015 acknowledge that the war is ultimately “unwinnable” by website owners.
It’s not just publishers who have historically realized the complicated problem posed by ad blockers - because ultimately, ad blockers benefit user experience at the price of hurting all publishers, including independent content creators and large brands alike.
This point was enough to make Marco Arment, the developer of the ad blocking app, Peace, pull his app from the app store back in 2015, stating in a blog post that ad blockers often end up hurting publishers that don’t deserve the financial hit posed by the software.
Even ad block users themselves often feel guilty about the financial damage they may be causing to their favorite publishers, with a comprehensive ad blocking study by HubSpot revealing that 77% of ad block users would prefer to filter ads, rather than blocking them completely, given the option.
What’s more, certain ad blocking whitelist initiatives including the Acceptable Ads Program by AdBlock Plus have long been branded as a form of “extortion” or “blackmail” by the publisher community.
These whitelist programs effectively force publishers to either pay the “ransom fee” to have their domains whitelisted as part of a “de-facto ad network” membership (in the form of being on the whitelist), or suffer the penalty of having the ads served to their site blocked.
With all of this in mind, how do all of the different parties involved in the online advertising ecosystem end up interpreting and acting upon all of these moral considerations?
A still relevant piece from 2016 published on Harvard University’s blog titled "It’s People vs. Advertising, not Publishers vs. Adblockers" draws attention to the concept that people simply want to protect themselves from the undesirable and intrusive effects produced by traditional online advertising - and that ad blockers have traditionally been an effective means to that end.
While ad blockers were initially created as a justifiable and desirable response to counteracting annoying, frustrating, and otherwise invasive ads which disrupted web browsing experiences, the internet’s opinion of ads has been (albeit, very gradually) shifting in a positive direction in recent years.
An article by What’s New In Publishing titled "Good news for publishers: Ad blocking is on the decline" provides a statistical overview that demonstrates desktop adblock usage rates declining by 5% and 10% in the United States and the United Kingdom respectively.
The same report indicates that global adblock usage rates have declined from 49% to 42% since the previous year’s update.
Despite the positive news, mobile ad blocking rates are reported to be higher than ever (perhaps due to, again, the original pain-point of poor user experiences) - a metric which still necessitates the need for publishers to take action to protect their revenue.
In Blockthrough’s 2021 Adblock Report, it’s cited that adblock users are twice as likely to accept light, non-intrusive ads over dealing with some of the most common ad blocker workarounds.
With the mention of ad blocker workarounds, and a complete view of how ad blockers are being used by the modern market, it’s time to dive into some tangible strategies that publishers can implement to monetize their adblock users.
Strategies For Monetizing AdBlock Users
For as long as there have been ad blockers, there have been strategies for publishers to use to monetize ad block users.
While results vary, companies that implement some or all of these techniques, including partnering with anti-adblock companies, have reported ad revenue increases in the average range of 5-15%.
Detect ad blocker usage & measure the impact
Before looking into the implementation of some of the other most common ways to workaround adblock users, it can be helpful to diagnose the impact of ad blockers on your website to begin with.
This step can be taken care of easily via the Ad Blocking Detector plugin for WordPress.
Unfortunately, if you’re not using WordPress, this step can get a bit technical - and it only gets more complicated as ad blocker tactics are shared and updated across the web.
A guest post by Admiral on the What’s New In Publishing blog offers a look into some legacy approaches to manually configuring ad blocker detection and highlights a software solution for tackling this otherwise technically complicated process.
Another great post titled "Measure Ad Blocker Impact With Server-Side GTM" by Simo Ahava offers a modern DIY approach to setting up ad block detection by using Google Tag Manager if you prefer to take things into your own hands.
Update to server-side ad serving practices
As described in the How Does Ad Blocking Work? section, one of the most common methods ad block extensions use to block ads is to prevent HTTPS requests from taking place on a webpage.
But publishers have an equally effective option available to them to counteract this technique when it comes to direct deal ad arrangements they’ve created with their advertising partners.
SSAI (server-side ad insertion) is a method of serving ads that doesn’t rely on the on-page ad requests sent from a web browsing client.
Instead, ad requests are sent to and processed by a backend ad server which operates separately from the web browser, allowing any selected ad to be delivered in its entirety to the webpage as it loads.
While this technique isn’t used for programmatic ads (due to the necessity of communication between the web browser and programmatic platforms like DSPs - a similar but different technique referred to as "S2S" or "server-to-server header bidding" is used for serving programmatic ads instead), it does allow publishers to serve their direct sold ads in an unobtrusive native ad format.
To accomplish server-side ad serving, a publisher’s proprietary web domain or app simply needs to issue an API call to an ad serving partner in order to select and return an appropriate ad creative for an available native ad unit.
If you’re interested in configuring a server-side advertising solution, including the ability to serve ads with custom domain names to bypass filter lists, we encourage you to contact the AdButler team to find out more.
You can also scope out a preview of what AdButler’s server-side requests are capable of for yourself here (if you’re not that technical, our team can help decipher what everything means!).
Bite the bullet & get whitelisted
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this approach, but it’s worth mentioning.
In some cases, especially for medium to large publishers, paying the “ransom fee” to get whitelisted in programs like the Acceptable Ads program by Adblock Plus is worthwhile, and can outweigh the cost of admission.
However, for smaller publishers, this approach doesn’t often provide a positive return on investment - and even some larger publishers may have a moral problem with “giving in” to the demands of ad blocking platforms.
Thankfully, in both cases, other options are available.
Request for users to disable their adblocker
This is by far the most common method used by publishers to get users to unblock ads on their website, and for good reason - oftentimes it works, when implemented correctly.
Keeping your message short, avoiding jargon, and reminding visitors of how much they use your site if you’re keeping track of engagement metrics like how many articles each user has read can all be effective approaches.
Another highly effective technique is to remind the audience of your mission as a publisher. Saying something along the lines of “ads allow us to continue doing…” helps to request the same action in a more authentically humanistic tone.
Of course, it’s also worth experimenting with your own particular audiences - as not all audiences will react the same way to your request.
A full-screen popup may work for some sites. For others, a subtle but ever-present message box to the side of an article may be a better approach.
Some websites may see great results from a “soft” ask, while others may need to switch to more “pushy” techniques to get desirable results.
WordPress users can implement this technique by using the Anti-Block plugin or similar tools.
Implement a content "blocker wall"
A content “blocker wall” is the strictest method of asking users to disable their ad blockers - with the content of a web property being entirely blocked unless users comply with the request.
An alternative method is to offer the user access to the content in exchange for another form of conversion, such as subscribing to a newsletter, or even paying to access the content.
The effectiveness of this technique has mixed results, and may vary depending on the type of website and/or audience in question.
A report from Blockthrough in 2017 cites that 74% of adblock users in the United States said they would typically leave sites that blocked completely locked their content behind a blocker wall.
Meanwhile, a report from the IAB during a similar time period reported that 54% of users were compliant in turning off their ad blockers if it was the only way to access content.
It’s not that one report or the other is inaccurate - but it certainly stands as a testament to the individuality of web properties and their audiences.
Audience experimentation is key here, once again.
This post by BugReplay offers some examples of blocker walls in action, as well as a few solutions which can help with their successful implementation.
Implement alternate ad content & forms of monetization
When users refuse to disable their ad blockers, it’s still possible to make use of the otherwise unused ad unit position if alternate content is available.
Alternate content can come in many forms. It might be a CTA (call-to-action) for an internal promotion of one of your own products or services, or a non-dynamic advertisement that doesn’t rely on ad calls to display properly.
This approach offers the most creative freedom to publishers, and may be most effective when used to amplify alternate revenue streams beyond ad monetization, including:
- Promoting social media channels
- Promoting affiliate marketing offers
- Promoting contextually relevant sponsored content
- Creating & selling digital products like e-books & courses
- Creating & advertising podcasts (which can contain unblockable audio ads)
A post by Amit Agarwal showcases a potential DIY method for implementing alternate content to adblock users.
Optimise for mobile first design & overall user experience
As mentioned earlier, while desktop ad blocking usage rates have declined slightly in recent years, mobile ad blocking is on the rise.
Ensuring that your website presentation, as well as the presentation of ads on mobile devices are both optimised can go a long way in improving a user’s ad receptiveness.
It’s also worth auditing your list of ad networks every once in a while to ensure that they’re continuing to operate ethically, as low quality ad networks are more likely to have their ads targeted by filter lists.
Finally, an excellent guest post by Content Insights on What’s New In Publishing suggests putting more thought into which ads you’re serving, and where on your website.
This approach can be amplified further by updating your overall content strategy to be more considerate of the contextual themes found in the website’s content, and how ads are strategically aligned to work in tandem with that content.
As the previously referenced studies indicate, users are more tolerant of contextually relevant ads than ads which don’t align with the website’s atmosphere.
Picking The Right Approach & Software To Monetize Your Adblock Visitors
Many approaches to monetizing ad blocker users were covered in this article, but it's up to publishers like you to continue experimenting and taking actions that promote good user experiences, without compromising your ads.
We hope you’ve been able to gain some fresh perspectives and new strategies to implement in reclaiming the ad revenue your web properties deserve.
Finding a reliable ad serving partner can not only help to monetize your ad block users, but unlock new streams of revenue with a suite of features to optimise every aspect of your ad serving strategy.
The AdButler team has over two decades of experience in providing and configuring ad serving solutions for both publishers and advertisers.
We’d love to share a conversation with you. Ask us a question today!