The IAB Pivots on Ad Blocking and Issues a Mea Culpa: ‘We Messed Up’

Debuts program for better digital promos

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The Interactive Advertising Bureau today said the digital publishing industry has cared too much about revenues and too little about user experience and needs therefore to accept blame for the rising popularity of ad blockers. So it's launching an effort called L.E.A.N. Ads, with the acronym standing for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive.

"We messed up," said Scott Cunningham, senior vp of technology and ad operations at the IAB. "Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty."

Cunningham's words were part of the IAB's lengthy, mea culpa-style online statement issued about the growing phenomenon that is ad blocking. It represented quite a turn of events: After all, Cunningham just two weeks ago called ad blocking "highway robbery."

The exec also addressed the historical evolution of how the digital publishing industry failed—specifically in the mobile era when smartphone users get their batteries drained by never-ending ads—to remember that the consumer experience was integral to continued sales growth.

"Through our pursuit of further automation and maximization of margins during the industrial age of media technology, we built advertising technology to optimize publishers' yield of marketing budgets that had eroded after the last recession," he wrote. "The fast, scalable systems of targeting users with ever-heftier advertisements have slowed down the public Internet and drained more than a few batteries. We were so clever and so good at it that we over-engineered the capabilities of the plumbing laid down by, well, ourselves. This steamrolled the users, depleted their devices, and tried their patience."

Cunningham laid out what L.E.A.N. Ads means, saying it's not a program meant to replace existing IAB standards. "Rather, these principles will guide an alternative set of standards that provide choice for marketers, content providers, and consumers," he said.

L.E.A.N. Ads will focus on concerns such as frequency capping on retargeting to "make sure a user is targeted appropriately before, but never after they make a purchase," Cunningham said. "If we are so good at reach and scale, we can be just as good, if not better, at moderation."

He added, "We must address volume of ads per page as well as continue on the path to viewability. The dependencies here are critical to an optimized user experience."

For non-ad-blocking consumers who have been annoyed seeing the same promo over and over again while trying to read, watch or listen on the Web, the IAB's change of direction should come as a sigh of relief.

There are varying research stats out there about the level at which consumers are using ad blockers. One of the most troubling came down the pike this week, when Trendera said more than 40 percent of the folks it surveyed were using systems like AdBlocker Plus and AdBlock Fast.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.