Apple released the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 9, Wednesday and as anticipated, ad-blocking apps became available via the Apple App Store ecosystem. These apps quickly shot up the App Store charts as the most popular paid apps (note the irony of paying to block ads).
This screenshot shows the Peace ad-blocking app at $2.99 atop the charts yesterday morning and, at number four, for a dollar more, the content blocking app, Purify:
So popular is the concept, that the phrase “content blocker” was trending as a search term in the app store:
Indeed, this chart from the Google Trends Explore tool, shows search volume in Google during the past seven days for “Ad Blocking” and for “Content Blocking.” You can see interest spiking as word got out that the new iOS update would include such apps:
Popularity Of Ad Blocking
The fact that these apps are popular and even that people would pay to block advertising should come as little surprise. According to a recent study by Adobe & PageFair, the number of people who used ad-blocking software globally grew by 41% year-over-year in Q2 2015, totaling 198 million people in June. That includes 16% of the American online population who blocked ads in 2015.
Couple that demand to avoid ads with the lack of patience people have for anything that interrupts their mobile experience added to the increasing amount of time we are spending on mobile devices, and the appeal of ad-blocking becomes obvious.
[Tweet “Apple’s Bid To Become The Master Of The Universe”]
The advertising industry largely brought this upon themselves.
For decades, the standard operating procedure for the industry was to partner with someone who had amassed an audience–a publisher or a broadcaster–and pay them to interrupt that audience’s experience with messages that were irrelevant to the vast majority of those audiences. Advertising was ignored or tolerated because people had no other choice.
Enter the Internet, which offered consumers ever more choices and produced increasing evidence that people don’t want to be interrupted with advertising and yet the advertising industry stuck to its tradition of interruption and publishers and broadcasters, for the most part, went along.
The result was banner ads cluttering up content and pop-overs and pop-unders that bombard website visitors.
Smart advertisers and smart audience aggregators recognized the changing landscape and consumer attitudes and adapted.
Facebook created a social graph that coupled demographic, psychographic, technographic, relationship and behavioral data to offer advertisers the ability to deliver hyper-relevant ads. Google understood that search queries could be matched with ads to the same effect.
And advertisers began creating content that was compelling, entertaining and valuable to their target audiences.
But those were the smart ones. Unfortunately, there are still a lot who have yet to understand that the universe has changed.
Apple’s Positioning As Protectors Of Our Privacy
A December 2014 TRUSTe survey revealed that nearly 80% of US Internet users were concerned about smart devices collecting their personal info in general, and a similar percentage were concerned about location tracking behind their back.
Apple is clearly aware of this, which explains Tim Cook’s positioning of his company as a benevolent protector of your privacy online. Yet on Apple’s own Privacy page, the company uses Optimizely, an A/B testing service which, of necessity, must track online behavior in order to work.
Apple’s own spanking-new News App (which can’t be deleted, by the way) personalizes the news it feeds you based on your own behavior with the app. It works across devices, too, so you can get the same personalized experience on iPad as you do on your iPhone. In order for that feature to work, Apple must store your personal information in the cloud.
Content blocking apps such as Purify are designed to not only block ads but to block tracking code such as Google Analytics as well. Users may be able to prevent that tracking code from firing in their Safari browser but it’s not as if their activity will no longer be tracked, it’s simply going to be tracked at the app- and iOS-level.
What Apple’s Really Up To: Ad-Blockers + App Use = Die, Google, Die
In her Why Apple Decided To Block Ads On The Same Day It Started Pushing A News App article, Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz says:
…it becomes obvious why Apple would make its News app mandatory on the same day it’s blocking ads for the first time ever in iOS. It’s destroying media revenue models on two fronts: with ad blocking for the web, and an app for your phone.
This isn’t about protecting consumers. It’s about Apple getting into the business of serving you news, in an app where you’ll never be able to block ads or sponsored content or “native advertising” or whatever you want to call the same old game of making you want to buy expensive shit you don’t need. When all the small news sites go out of business because they can’t “adapt” to ad blocking, Apple’s News app is there for you. Oh and also? There’s a whole new market for apps like Peace and Blockr and all the others that will soon be stuffing the App Store.
You can bet that Apple News will track your interests and feed you ads, even if you have Peace installed. Maybe these are ads that you “tolerate and respond to” as [Marco] Arment would have it. But it will also mean that nobody gets to publish a small news publication without sucking up to Apple and Facebook and Google and all the other platforms with so-called ethical native advertising.
It’s a solid take.
Allowing ad blocking cuts to the heart of Google’s business, which relies on AdWords and Doubleclick tracking code to measure the effectiveness of the advertising it sells, AdSense tracking code to determine how much to pay publishers for the ads they display on their sites, and Google Analytics code to measure traffic to websites for those of us who publish them (Yours Truly included).
Destroy the ability for people to see Google’s advertising in the first place and the ability to track all that activity in the second place and you destroy the appeal and effectiveness of Google’s advertising universe. Consider also that people spend 90% of the time on their mobile devices within apps and only 10% using a mobile browser, according to Flurry:
Apple wants the world to consume all content through their devices and through its controlled universe via the Apple App Store (and soon, Apple TV apps).
Apple = Big Data
The trends are clear: People are spending more of their online time on mobile devices and most of that time is via apps. The more people use the Apple ecosystem, the less activity there is to track for everyone else.
The heavy hitters of the burgeoning Big Data industry–IBM, Experian, Palantir, Google, Amazon, and others–rely largely on activity on the public web to collect data and extract the insights that make them valuable businesses. If Apple is successful at becoming the center of online gravity, then they become the de facto 800-pound gorilla of the Big Data industry as well.
The Walled Garden vs The Public Square
Apple and Facebook are what we used to refer to as “walled gardens,” systems that are essentially private, proprietary, and require some barrier or cost to entry. Those costs to consumers are your email address and your data for Facebook and the cost of the device and your data for Apple. Advertisers have to pay those companies to reach the audiences they control.
…what’s happening now is that attention is shifting fast from desktop browsers — where Google’s Chrome is dominant (and supports ad blocking!) — to mobile browsers. In particular, to Apple’s Mobile Safari, which dominates usage statistics on mobile. There is no alternative web rendering engine on the iPhone; there’s just WebKit, which Apple controls. The dominance of the iPhone and Mobile Safari give Apple “veto power” over the web, as John Gruber put it — a veto power which means Google’s revenue platform is increasingly under the control of a major rival.
And with iOS 9 and content blockers, what you’re seeing is Apple’s attempt to fully drive the knife into Google’s revenue platform.
And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.
Google Is The Public Square
Conversely, the Web is an open communications protocol. Anyone can learn HTML (and it’s pretty easy) and buy a domain name and some hosting and for about $100 a year, build their own online presence that they control and is publicly available to anyone. The genius of the Web is that it is not proprietary.
It is that open standard upon which Google has built its business model and whose business model has fostered its growth. As a company, Google has practiced enlightened self-interest. By creating a self-serve advertising system, they’ve made it easy for small, independent publishers to earn some money from their efforts by giving them a cut of the ads Google serves.
Cutting the heart out of that system (the ability to track) will leave in its wake a pay-to-play universe that will be a burden too heavy to bear for many smaller independent publishers.
6 Things For Businesses To Consider
1) Mobile Advertising Metrics
Most immediately, it means you’ll have to keep a close eye on your metrics for any mobile advertising you may be running via Google and/or any mobile ads you may be serving on your site. Check with your vendors about how they plan to adapt to Apple’s moves, if you are using someone other than Google. Check your web traffic analytics to get a baseline on the percentage of visitors who are using the mobile Safari browser.
2) Take A Deep Breath
Don’t do anything drastic. Monitor the situation. Obviously, we don’t know how this will ultimately turn out and the activity of one or two days is nothing to base business decisions on but it behooves decision-makers to keep an eye on your own metrics, your own traffic, and overall adoption of mobile ad- and content-blockers.
3) App-ify Yourself?
Given the trend in mobile use toward apps, it might be time to get serious about developing your own app if you haven’t already. This is one pay-to-play-ish option, if a fairly expensive one for smaller businesses.
4) Facebook Mobile Ads
A lower-cost pay-to-play option might be Facebook mobile ads. Ad blocker’s will not block ads within an app but if you are driving Facebook visitors from the app to your website, and the user’s default browser is Safari, conversion tracking and re-targeting may not work.
5) Earned Media
Getting your message out via public relations efforts and earned media should be something most businesses are already engaged in but those efforts may prove even more valuable in a future where advertising is strip-mined from the Web.
6) Content Marketing
If only large media companies are capable of surviving the loss of ad revenue Apple’s move may portend, there may be an opening for businesses and brands to fill the void.
Pay attention to how the media that cover your industry fare financially over the next year or two. For smaller and mid-sized businesses, it might be a good time to launch your own content marketing operation serving that niche. Larger organizations might want to consider buying failing media companies.
As always, we’ll keep an eye on this development. Be sure to subscribe to our free weekly Success @ Creative PR newsletter to stay on top of communication trends:
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