How Digital-Native Publishers Are Dealing With Ad Blocking

Mic, Quartz, Vox Media Turn to Branded Content, Tech Platforms' Apps

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Mic CEO Chris Altchek sees branded posts as a way to deal with ad blockers.
Mic CEO Chris Altchek sees branded posts as a way to deal with ad blockers.

Mic CEO Chris Altchek should be freaking out right now. Apple's plan to let people use ad blockers when browsing the web on their iPhones and iPads could hurt his four-year-old news site more than most publishers.

Not only are millennials -- Mic's core audience -- considered more likely than any other age group to use ad blockers, but 75% of the more than 20 million people who visit Mic each month arrive via phones and tablets. Sixty percent of its mobile traffic comprises browsing on an iPhone or iPad, according to Mr. Altchek.

But Mr. Altchek seems calm. Instead of pleading for its readers to turn their ad blockers off, or cutting deals with ad blocking companies to let Mic's ads pass, Mic and some other digital-native publishers such as Vox Media and Quartz are investing in more appealing ad formats that consumers might better accept. Not coincidentally, however, they will work even if someone has an ad blocker turned on, or run outside of the reach of browser-based ad blockers entirely.

"Almost all of our ad campaigns include branded content, either text or video. That type of marketing is not blocked by AdBlock," Mr. Altchek said, referring to one of the main ad-blocking providers.

"Leaning into that is what we're currently doing to deal with people that have ad blockers," he added.

Branded content, also variously referred to as native advertising and advertorials, is not necessarily a cure for all publishers. While ad blockers can't hide the actual advertorials, they can often erase the units' promotional placements on publishers' sites, such as a spot on the homepage nestled among editorial articles.

For example, placements on BuzzFeed's and Quartz's home pages that link to branded posts are nowhere to be found when an ad blocker is turned on. BuzzFeed declined to make executives available for this article. Mic appears to be an outlier, as ad blockers currently appear unable to detect Mic's branded content when these advertorials appear within the site's article feeds. And it's unclear to Mic why the links to its advertorials aren't blocked.

"Just because it's native doesn't mean its immune to content blockers or people who don't want to see ads," said Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff. "Even native has to be good and good in the sense of compelling content that audiences are interested in." Mr. Bankoff said he is counting on higher quality ads, such as the branded content from its in-house agency Vox Creative, as a way to stem consumers' appetite for ad blockers.

The same goes for Quartz, which has always avoided the standard ads that ad blockers typically target. "Obviously we couldn't have seen into the future enough to know that something like what Apple was doing was on the horizon," said Joy Robins, seinor VP-global revenue and strategy at Quartz. But ad blocking was already bubbling up when Quartz settled on a business model oriented around selling custom, branded content campaigns.

That focus means the rise of mobile ad-blocking is "not necessarily going to erode our business," Ms. Robins said. "What we have to focus on is making sure we don't lose the customers and the readers who are currently seeing our ads."

Vox Media similarly considers itself "in a better spot relative to most publishers," said Mr. Bankoff. He asserted that the bigger risk lies ahead for the ad-tech companies, whose tracking and targeting systems spur some consumers to install ad blockers by slowing down page loads and seeding worry about privacy.

"The companies that are focused on display ad products on the open web, whether they're an ad server or another ad-tech company, if they don't get their act together, then they're the ones that are going to be in trouble," Mr. Bankoff said.

As a result publishers like Mic, Vox Media and Quartz are turning away from ad-tech companies and turning toward tech platforms' new distribution options, such as Facebook's Instant Articles and Apple's upcoming news app, as ways to insure their businesses and try to prove to audiences that ads don't have to be deleterious to the content experience.

"What the programmatic ad community has built is not going to work," said Mr. Altchek. "It's not going to work because of AdBlock. It's not going to work because a lot of traffic is going to stay inside of Facebook and Apple News now. So a lot of what mobile advertising was built on is going to go away. And so we're working with a couple of these platforms directly to build new ad experiences that will be native to these platforms and leverage all of our content expertise to redefine mobile advertising." He declined to name the tech platforms Mic is working with or detail the new ad formats, other than to say that they "blend content marketing with creative ad units."

"We're looking at things like Apple News and Flipboard as extensions," said Ms. Robins. "I wouldn't call it a safe haven, but I think it's very much going to be duplicative of the engaging ad experiences we're creating on Quartz."

Lame ads, however, are only one reason people use ad blockers. When it comes to mobile, people may be more likely to use ad blockers so that pages load quicker. As mobile ad-blocking developer Dean Murphy recently showed, blocking mobile ads can make the page-loading process nearly four times faster. A major reason pages load faster when ads are blocked is because those ads carry a lot of data that needs to be piped to someone's phone for the ad to render.

For example, when loading an article from Mic's desktop site about Mt. McKinley being renamed Denali, the page was a hefty 18.7 megabytes when ads were included but only 2.7 megabytes when ads were blocked. The 16-megabytes difference is not such a big deal when browsing on a wifi-connected laptop; oddly the heavier page loaded 0.75 seconds faster when Ad Age compared the two desktop versions. But on a cellular connection, it could be the difference between loading a page almost instantly or taking so much time that a person decides they'd rather do something else on their phone.

Reducing page-load speeds "has been and continues to be one of the top priorities," Mr. Bankoff. "But there are parts of it that are not just about us but other partners in the ecosystem," he said, referring to the ad servers, data firms and measurement companies that can attach their own code to ads that also slow down page-load times.

"Everything is directly sold by our sales force, and also most of the ads are often created by our team internally," Ms. Robins said. "So we're not consciously slowing down the site. In fact when we get ads from outside vendors that kind of pour code all over the site and slow it down, we get a bit of a talking to from our tech team."

The tech teams at Mic "focus almost all of our page-load time and effectiveness on mobile," Mr. Altchek said. When Ad Age checked out Mic's aforementioned Denali article using an iPhone's Safari browser, the ad-carrying page weighed in at 4.11 megabytes, which is 1.51 megabytes heavier than the ad-free desktop version but 14.59 megabytes lighter than the ad-full desktop page.

And Mic expects its new ad units to further lighten the load. "Part of these new ad units are ad units that are incredibly small [in terms of the amount of data attached to them] but still look really good," Mr. Altchek said.

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