This week, I was fortunate enough to speak with Ben Williams, Head of Operations at Adblock Plus and key speaker at ad:tech London. With a cool-headed and friendly demeanour it’s easy to see how Ben is the perfect person to publically represent Adblock Plus – a company with a track record of ‘taking on the internet’. With the not insignificant mission of empowering users within a free internet, Ben and I chatted about the personal and professional challenges of trying to make a better internet for everyone.
So Ben, first off I’m intrigued by your decision to work with Adblock Plus. There’s no denying that it’s a controversial piece of software, was that daunting? Was it a tough decision to join?
To be honest, the controversy is exactly what motivated my decision to join!
I like our approach at Eyeo in that it’s not one-size-fits-all blanket ad blocking, our approach and our goal is to make the web a free place but also a place where people are in control. Inherent in that is a compromise. Complete ad blocking would kill the internet but you can’t take away a users’ right to own and control their own experience. That compromise is at the seat of all the controversy and that’s also what really interested me about the job.
Perhaps surprisingly, my background was in international affairs and politics but I was looking for something new. I wanted to stop wearing the suit every day (especially in the swamp of Washington D.C. summertime!) and to break free from that world – whilst still being able to argue and get my hands dirty.
And since making that decision, what have been the biggest challenges?
There were challenges for sure, more so at the beginning than now I’d say. Just from a personal perspective, the notoriety was new and that took some getting used to. I joined during the very early days when no one knew about what we were doing and then suddenly it just started ramping up and up. Regardless of whether the comments were critical or positive, it was more just that none of us were used to the spotlight.
The other major challenge was that for a long time our message was just not out there. We had been trying and trying for two years to get our point of view heard but we just didn’t have the clout or the resources to make it happen. People didn’t quite understand how it was that an ad blocker wanted to do something other than block ads. Our bigger philosophy wasn’t being received…. and I mean, we’re an ad blocker so marketing wasn’t really on the cards!
The ‘500 million downloads’ is a heavily used figure but in reality, is ad blocking mainstream?
I’d say it’s getting there…There’s actually this great DigiDay article I read entitled ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Ad Blocking Statistics’ - which made me smile. And it’s true there are a ton of wildly disparate figures out there. All we can really comment on is our own figures, which say that there are 100 million active devices. And according to the IAB ad blockers are used by 22% of the UK public.
So no, I don’t think that it is quite mainstream yet. It’s certainly not in the majority. But in a short space of time it has gone from something that only techy people like me were into, to something that the general public can easily use.
On the other end of the scale there’s also a small contingency of our users for whom ad blocking is just the jumping off point. You can block tracking, block malware sites and write your own filters, so the software actually allows you to change your internet experience.
I find it fascinating that Adblock Plus has evolved from a grassroots counter-culture movement to being quite a thought leader on ad standards within the industry. How did that happen? Was it hard to establish authority in this field?
Well that’s kind of you to say, but I’d wager that lots of people in the ad world would disagree with this! In public anyway….
But no, in our own humble way we’re trying to make an impact in the industry. It really all goes back to the goal of Eyeo – be it through Adblock Plus or a new project we’re working on called Flattr Plus – it’s about the bigger mission of empowering users and keeping the internet free. Our work makes those two, almost contradictory things possible.
And also we’re open to talk to anyone. Getting into the scrum, receiving criticism and having debates – that’s really the only way to move forwards.
Recent studies show that 80% of people would reconsider using ad blockers if given the choice to skip or scroll past ads. So is what we need an ad skipper, not an ad blocker?
Remember Adblock Plus started as a hobby and it simply blocked everything. The Acceptable Ads program was our first pivot towards the mission I was talking about before and the reason that we changed is because we really do believe that partial blocking is superior. We tell all our clients this and we make it very clear that it’s our recommended way to use the software.
In fact we did our own study and found similar results. 83% said they only wanted to block the ‘obnoxious’ stuff and 77% would rather filter than block everything.
Of course there are some who disagree - 10% of our users block everything. And we have to acknowledge and respect that. Perhaps these users can contribute in different ways, using a platform like Flattr Plus for example.
But I do think people understand that ads are the monetising backbone of the internet and we’re starting to get to a place where partial ad blocking is the norm.
As I’m sure you are aware, in January this year a new browser called Brave launched, which cuts users in on the revenue. They would perhaps argue that online advertising needs to go one step further than giving users control; they also need to give a reward. What would you say to this?
Well, we know some of the guys behind Brave and they’ve certainly thrown a new idea into the mix. I’d say that we have a very different approach to Brave as we try to work within the existing ad tech infrastructures rather than replace them. Also our approach works on the assumption that a free web inherently benefits all users; that’s reward enough.
You’ve mentioned Flattr Plus a couple of times and it is a really interesting new take on the Eyeo mission. Can you explain a bit more about it and how this new partnership come to be?
We just got in touch with the guys at Flattr through some mutual connections. The original Flattr platform works by giving users the option to ‘Flattr’ websites by clicking on a small icon and paying them a small donation. It’s a way to support the free and open web by paying for free content. We loved what they were doing and got together to discuss how we could take it to then next stage. One of the things we noticed was that the act of paying each site was quite effortful for the user. We wanted to reduce that interaction to make it easy and seamless. So that’s what we’ve done. Flattr Plus will automatically give your donations based on the budget you have set and the sites you’ve visited. We’re about to start the closed beta testing and should have open beta live by the end of the year.
The goal here is, of course we’d love to have the likes of the New York Times on board, but the real goal is to help small and medium sized content creators. I personally know a lot of musicians. They make better music than most mainstream crap but they also need day jobs to survive. If we could get just 1% of our ABP users, say 10m people, at an average donation of $5 per user - we could be generating over $500 million in a year for these artists and for the New York Times.
We often talk about ad blockers creating demand for a higher calibre of advert online. But The Times reported that more than 40% of users agreed to whitelist the site when provided with a message about the need to pay for high-quality content. Is there a case to say that ad blocking is also helping to raise the calibre of online content? I‘d be interested to hear your view on how ad blocking is changing the online publishing industry?
Again, I would step back and take a broader view. Our mission with Ad Block Plus and Flattr Plus is to empower users and to reward and encourage good content. If you can get users to whitelist your site then you’re doing something that’s worth it. In all cases it will create a better online experience.
So in our final minutes, I’d love to hear your perspective on the Good.Loop platform.
It is an ad platform that rewards users with a free charity donation every time they watch a video advert. Users simply choose which charity they’d like to support and then watch at least 14 seconds of the ad to generate the donation.
It helps publishers to monetise whilst also being respectful, non-obtrusive and mutually beneficial for the user. Good.Loop is all about putting users in control of their online experience, which I think echoes a lot of the principles underpinning ABP – so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts?
First of all, it sounds like a fantastic idea. I do think that people are more likely to engage in content if going to a good cause, so that’s a good start.
Also this sort of approach has a really positive effect for the publishers’ brand. It shows their users that they are taking their time into consideration and this sort of thing makes people feel appreciated.
It’ll also create more goodwill towards the advertiser. Typically what you’ll find is that lots of brands don’t like the offerings of the ad tech industry but have no choice but to use them. Something positive like this is great for their brand image, which is really what it’s all about for them. I’m very critical of the two key metrics we have for online advertising, clicks and impressions, because they don’t actually take brand perception into consideration. We did a study working with an eye tracking company to understand the impact of online ads and sure enough, the most obnoxious, blinking ads produced most negative brand perception.
People love to measure ‘views’ but are these views a positive or negative experience for your users? It’s an important question that right now brands often don’t know the answer to.