At Mobile World Congress, Ad Blocking Is A Game Of Cat-And-Mouse

catsgameMWC drinking game: Take a drink every time someone says “value exchange” in reference to the ad-blocking issue. You won’t stand a chance.

“We believe in the fair value exchange. If someone wants content from CBS Interactive, we will deliver it to them happily for free in exchange for them watching an ad,” said CBS Interactive EVP and CRO David Morris at a joint IAB/dmexco event held during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Tuesday. “We think we can strike a fair balance between advertising and content that consumers will be very happy with.”

CBS Interactive, home to 21 news, sports, tech, entertainment and business pubs, including CBS Sports, CNET, ZDNET, TechRepublic and GameSpot, is experimenting with a bunch of different strategies – many of which sound like military maneuvers – to counter ad blocking on several of its sites.

“Test and inform” is one method whereby CBS Interactive identifies ad-block users who visit its properties and then asks to be whitelisted.

While that might work best to convince loyal readers, it won’t be all that effective for sites that rely on search traffic.

In those cases, CBS, as Forbes did, is playing around with “detect and withhold,” where the content is concealed from ad-block users until their blockers are turned off. The New York Times recently said it’s mulling a similar move to deal with ad blocker users that don’t subscribe.

And then there’s “detect and recover.” That’s the “nuclear option,” Morris said. After detecting an ad blocker, CBS circumvents it and serves advertising anyway, albeit as an “ad light experience,” Morris said.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game – and we can play that game. We can afford it,” said Morris, who noted that CBS has contracted with ad tech companies and hired dedicated in-house staff to address the ad-blocking issue. “But I feel bad for the smaller publishers who can’t afford to do it.”

In the mobile arena, a larger potential ad-blocking threat looms as wireless carriers consider screening ads at the network level.

The star (or villain, depending on where you sit) in this drama is Shine, the Israeli ad-blocking tech company that’s made it its business to court carriers and block advertising before it’s even served.

Shine’s first public partnership was with Caribbean mobile carrier Digicel in September. On Thursday, British telecom Three Group and one of its regional subsidiaries in Italy inked a deal with Shine to screen in-app and mobile browser ads for their subscribers.

It’s not all smooth sailing for Shine, though. In November, the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority wrote a letter warning Digicel that cutting ads off at the pass could be a breach of the region’s net neutrality rules. No action had yet been taken by Caribbean regulators against Digicel.

“The reason you hear so much about ad blocking recently is because these for-profit companies are so desperate,” declared IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg. “They’re seeing more limits on ad blocking and they’re desperate to sell and get attention.”

But these machinations don’t address the underlying reason why people use ad blockers in the first place. That all comes down to user experience.

The Internet should be striving for a “five-nines experiences,” CBS's Morris said – where “99.999% of the time the execution and the experience is flawless.” It’s about sensible advertising. A 30-second pre-roll on a one-minute video is no bueno, for example, but serving that same format against high-quality long-form content is another story.

Take Carpool Karaoke. It’s a segment on “The Late Late Show” where host James Corden drives musicians around in his car. They chat, they sing, they make jokes – it’s funny. Since January, the Carpool Karaoke video featuring Adele – a nearly 15-minute-long piece of original content – has generated more than 78 million views, most of which came compliments of, and complemented by, pre-roll advertising.

All of that said, according to CBS Interactive’s internal data, ad blocking isn’t that big of a problem yet – at least not in apps. The mobile web is another story. “But that doesn’t mean we should sit back and do nothing,” Morris said. “It’s a privilege to be that close to somebody [through their mobile screen], so let’s not waste that privilege.”

Until the golden days of true value exchange arrive, the IAB's Rothenberg said he doesn’t blame consumers for using ad blockers. His beef is with the blockers themselves.

“We are not in any kind of battle with consumers – consumers who are downloading and installing ad blockers are acting rationally and in their own interests,” Rothenberg said. “This is a battle against for-profit ad-blocking companies … because they require advertising as part of their business model, which is about holding advertising hostage so publishers and possibly others will pay to release it."


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