SINGAPORE - Asia, home to 55 percent of the world’s smartphone population, is also the region where users are most willing to install a mobile browser that blocks ads. That's according to a research report by PageFair, in partnership with Priori Data. And APAC-based experts contacted by Campaign back up the assessment.
The report found that mobile ad blocking is most popular in emerging markets, such as China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia, with 36 percent of smartphone users in Asia-Pacific blocking ads on the mobile web.
Globally, about 22 percent or 419 million people are blocking ads on smartphones, though this number excludes the use of content-blocking apps, in-app ad blockers, and opt-in browser ad blockers.
The most damming statistic is the report’s finding that in March 2016, the Asia-Pacific region contained 55 percent of global smartphone users, but 93 percent of ad-blocking browser usage.
China, India and Indonesia alone accounted for 319 million active ad-blocking browsers in March this year.
The report noted that ad-blocking browsers improve page speed and reduce bandwidth consumption on mobile. Accordingly, they are most rapidly adopted in markets where mobile-data infrastructure is less developed and therefore slow and/or expensive relative to income.
Sean Blanchfield, CEO of PageFair, said that the research project came about due to a belief that "any constructive industry response to ad blocking must be based on facts, not opinions.”
He added that the report sought to map “the real trajectory of ad blocking usage” as it shifts to mobile devices.
Unlike other reports on mobile ad blocking, we are presenting findings based on empirical data, not surveys of user-stated ad-blocking adoption,” said Blanchfield. “People are installing ad blockers for different reasons, many of which are indisputably valid. If the open web is to survive, these reasons must be fundamentally addressed.”
The study follows an earlier analysis released by Juniper, which found that by 2020 ad blocking would cost publishers almost US$28 billion a year.
The PageFair report includes a warning that given “the next billion Internet users will come online via low bandwidth, relatively expensive mobile connections and with readily available mobile ad blocking technologies, the next billion Internet users may be invisible to digital marketers.”
From the trenches: Practitioners weigh in
Asia-based digital practitioners surveyed by Campaign Asia-Pacific all noted that the findings corroborate their own in-region experiences.
Kat van Zutphen, GM of Mobext Singapore, said the report quantifies what many have known all along: People don't like to be interrupted by ads.
“This is especially true on mobile devices, where the intimate nature and active 'tool-like' use makes ads even more intrusive,” she said. “On mobile, we must really earn the right to be on people's devices. As marketers and particularly mobile marketers, we have a higher responsibility to be relevant, timely and useful.”
RP Singh, regional head of media at VML Southeast Asia and India, reported that the agency has started seeing slow delivery of ad impressions in the last six to 12 months, especially across markets like India and Indonesia.
“I agree that ad blocking is a growing concern in this part of the region,” he said.
However Singh noted that the extent of problem has “yet to be discovered in totality” because there are different reports from different companies following different methodologies.
“As a media practitioner I would also like to see what kind of ads are blocked the most and which industry is facing this issue the most,” he added. “My guess is that gaming and tech companies are the worst hit because of this phenomenon.”
Ranga Somanathan, Southeast Asia COO for Starcom, echoed Singh’s note about visibility into the scope of the issue in the region.
He noted that while the PageFair numbers might be accurate in terms of the number of devices having an ad-blocking browser or apps, that is not the same as knowing how many devices are actually blocking ads or what percentage of ads get blocked in the region.
“If we look at the mobile advertising inventory available to marketers, the numbers are growing in double digits on an annual basis,” he said. “With advertising inventory increasing, it contradicts with the scale of ad blocking in the region.”
Vikas Gulati, APAC MD at Opera Mediaworks, said the report’s finding that mobile ad blocking is popular in emerging markets “comes as no surprise”.
“Users in these emerging markets care a lot about using less data for cost savings, hence use mobile ad blocker for cost-savings purposes,” he said.
Gulati noted that these ad blockers only block ads on the mobile web, and as emerging markets move toward more smartphone usage, most of the user’s activity will move into apps, where ad blocking is not as effective.
“As many of our publisher partners rely heavily on advertising revenues to run their business, we will need to find the balance between monetisation and delivering the right user experience,” he added.
Rohit Dadwal, the Asia Pacific MD of the MMA (Mobile Marketing Association), said the message toward improving the online ad experience has only been growing stronger, and this new report adds to that process.
“This report, backed with valuable datasets, serves to remind the industry of the urgency to do so not only on desktop, but more importantly, also on mobile,” he said. “One area I would love to have a glimpse of is the innovative mobile ads we’re starting to see as a result of this heated ad-blocking debate.”
Dadwal also agreed that the report debunks the perception that ad blocking is limited to the West, and heightens concerns about growing ad-blocking rates on mobile.
“Take-up of ad blockers is highest in emerging markets such as China, Pakistan, Indonesia and India,” he added. “An indication that the technology is rapidly being adopted in markets where mobile data infrastructure is not as developed and consumers’ experience on mobile, relatively new.”
Mobext’s van Zutphen noted that she has always found users in emerging markets to be very practical about mobile-related costs and savvy about how to negotiate within varying levels of infrastructure quality.
“I would agree that any assumptions that are based on lack of mobile knowledge in emerging markets need rethinking,” she added. “I suspect we haven't truly fathomed the mobile ad and its level of disruption in the context of not just a mobile-first, but a mobile-only environment, where people conduct their lives and livelihoods through their mobile devices.”
Accordingly, Dadwal said brands and publishers need to facilitate a greater discussion around the value exchange that advertising enables and get to the root of why consumers in these markets use ad blockers.
“There needs to be a coordinated effort to ensure that the industry gets a chance at flourishing in these developing economies,” he added.
The report’s launch was paired with reactions from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), with CEO Stephan Loerke stating that brands, whose money has driven the development of the online ad ecosystem, “must take responsibility”.
“We get the message loud and clear; we must listen to what people are saying and take action,” he added.
In response to the report’s findings, the WFA has called for the industry to take action. The organisation envisages a three-point process involving the creation of international standards for digital advertising, allowing consumers to establish clear preferences for the advertising they are willing to see and then regularly monitoring their responses.