Apple’s New Openness to Ad Blockers Threatens to Remove Publishers’ Mobile Ads

Including premium branded content

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When Apple unveils its new iPhone and iOS 9 operating system this week, it could also drop a bomb on publishers by opening the door to ad-blocking technology on its massively popular mobile devices.

Ad blockers have been available on desktop browsers for years, but analysts say Apple's backing has the potential to make ad blocking more mainstream, making it available to a wider group of consumers.

With Apple's new tools, developers can build ad-blocking apps that consumers can download to wipe out ads on mobile sites when using Apple's built-in Safari browser.

Run-of-the-mill ads like banners and display placements are easy targets for ad blockers. But a small test by Adweek of a handful of apps shows that they remove native and branded content, too—putting the business model of publishers that have been at the forefront of native advertising—including BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Forbes and The Atlantic—at risk. (Apple declined to comment for this story.)

"This is the absolute beginning of what I think is going to be a long and passionate debate. Reputable publishers are going to say, 'Hey, this is interesting content, people want to read it, so you shouldn't block it the same way as an ad,'" said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst who covers digital marketing and media.

Typically, publishers' branded-content teams work with marketers to create articles and videos that look like editorial content, but they are published differently through ad networks that provide advertisers with additional data about how campaigns perform.

Ad blockers then assume that the sponsored content is a garden-variety ad and remove it from the page. That's a blow for publishers that have eyed sponsored content as a lucrative alternative to mobile banners that have been deemed ineffective by agencies and brands for years.

Native advertising is expected to bring in $4.3 billion in ad dollars this year, according to eMarketer.

"Should ad blocking become materially greater, we're going to have to figure out a different way to serve native content and report to our advertisers about that content," said Peter Spande, Business Insider's chief revenue officer. "We don't know how bad it will be—we're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."

BuzzFeed—which helped pioneer the sponsored-content business in 2010—noted that 75 percent of its traffic comes via social media, meaning that consumers see ads on platforms like Facebook and Snapchat that ad blockers cannot hit.

While there could be some snags early on, Raymonde Green, vp of partnerships and investments at DigitasLBi, said he expects for media brands to find quick solutions. "There will be a ton of immediate impact on the scale that we'll see with our campaigns from content that is trying to be blocked, but within months, updates from the app developers [will] allow for workarounds," he said.

Meanwhile, other publishers, like Hearst, are betting that treating branded content the same as editorial will help offset the issue.

Hearst's sponsored articles are posted by way of the same CMS software editors and writers use, meaning that ad blockers do not detect the content as an ad. Brands can choose to place articles and videos on pages without ads surrounding them.

"For the first time, we're having clients who are asking to deliver branded content with no ads," said Todd Haskell, svp and chief revenue officer for the digital arm of Hearst Magazines. "When it's produced at a high quality, the content stands on its own, and it makes the message work really hard."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.