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What the new mobile advertising guidelines mean for subscription companies

Advertising can be a double-edged sword for consumers. On the one hand, advertising subsidizes the cost of services or, in some cases, even enables free models. For instance, subscription companies like Spotify provide ad-heavy baseline services at no cost while offering premium customers the option to remove those advertisements, in addition to other perks.

On the other hand, advertising can be intrusive, annoying and excessive, presenting certain cyber security risks and ultimately leaving a bad impression.

Ad blockers were born to counter intrusive ads. But ads are important for businesses to succeed. So Wladamirit Planat, who wrote the original Adblock Plus in 2006, published a proposal in 2009 for fair adblocking, which eventually developed into the "Acceptable Ads" initiative and the founding of Eyeo. Eyeo owns Adblock Plus, but in parallel wants to bring balance to mobile advertising aiming to create "a sustainable middle ground for online advertising that is beneficial to both user and advertiser".

With the release of Acceptable Ads' latest mobile ad guidelines, now is the time for subscription companies to assess their approach to mobile advertising and consider how to continue to profit from ads while minimizing the impact on the user experience.

Consumers chafe against mobile ads

Recent research suggests that many mobile users have reached their breaking point with intrusive mobile advertising, choosing to employ ad-blocking software rather than be subjected to slow loading times, pop-up windows, malware exposure and other concerns. According to a 2018 Deloitte Global survey, more than 20 percent of mobile users in North America use ad-blocking software in some capacity.

Highly prized demographics, such as the coveted 18-to-34-year-old consumer segment and individuals with high incomes, were found to be more likely to deploy ad blockers. Deloitte Global researchers concluded that these trends would, in all likelihood, continue for the foreseeable future as mobile users attempt to avoid the negative effects of mobile advertising.

These so-called "adlergic" individuals are the focus of Eyeo's "Acceptable Ads Criteria." The company surveyed 2,000 ad-blocking software users to help identify the most disruptive elements of mobile advertising today. It also created an independent body of stakeholders drawn from consumer advocate groups, academia, publishers and digital rights organizations to codify the survey results into a set of mobile advertising guidelines.

The Acceptable Ads Criteria are by no means binding, but they could very well set the benchmark for mobile advertising practices moving forward. It goes without question that browsers using Adblock Plus will adhere to them. Expect other ad blockers to follow suit soon after. As more software companies and businesses adopt these mobile ad standards, user expectations regarding what is acceptable practice will inevitably adapt. Even companies that choose to ignore these recommendations will have to measure themselves against the higher benchmarks set by the industry at large.

Furthermore, while some ad-blocking software manufacturers have built-in loopholes that allow companies to pay a fee to opt out of such ad standards, Adblock Plus does not provide such opportunities.

What are the new mobile advertising recommendations?

The Acceptable Ads Committee's guidelines cover three primary areas: placement, distinction and size. Its survey results suggested that these factors had the greatest impact on the overall mobile user experience.

Placement

Simply put, the first recommendation is to avoid placing ads where they may disrupt the natural flow of content. A major culprit in this case would be an advertisement that lands smack dab in the center of an article, creating a barrier between adjoining paragraphs.

Auto-playing video ads embedded within the body of an article are particularly egregious, frustrating users who just want to get to their content without being bombarded with advertisements. Perhaps the worst offenders are intracontent advertisements that shift the content further down the page as they load, practically ruining the user experience in the process.

Instead, the committee stipulates that mobile ads must be placed either above or below the "Primary Content" or in a sidebar. The message is clear: Mobile ads need to exist around the web page's content, rather than be embedded within.

Distinction

There is a scourge in the mobile advertising world, and its name is the persistent banner. This tactic places a series of ads at the top or bottom of the page, masquerading as links relevant to the Primary Content. What makes a persistent banner "persistent" is the continuous parade of advertisements that roll by as the site visitor scrolls down the page. It's an approach that's both misleading and slightly unscrupulous. No wonder, then, that a 2017 Nielsen Norman Group survey found that persistent banners (both top and bottom varieties) were among the most despised forms of advertising.

To counter such experience-destroying tactics, the Acceptable Ads Committee recommends creating advertisements that are clearly distinguishable from Primary Content, even explicitly marking them as advertising material, if need be.

Size

Unsurprisingly, the committee found that size was a crucial factor in judging how disruptive a mobile ad was to user experience. Mobile devices have relatively small screen sizes, so on-page real estate comes at a premium. Based on its research, the Acceptable Ads Committee devised a set of specific guidelines for mobile ad size:

  • Ads placed above the fold must not exceed 15 percent of the visible screen space.
  • Ads below the fold must not exceed 25 percent of the visible space.
  • The maximum height of ads above the fold should be 200px.
  • The maximum height of sidebar ads should be 350px.
  • The maximum height of below primary content should be 400px.

The main takeaway here is ads should never overwhelm the actual content on the screen and distract the viewer. Mobile users don't want to deal with advertisements that wrestle with the actual content for space on the page.

How will these guidelines impact subscription-based businesses?

As stated above, ad standards like the ones outlined by Eyeo leave wiggle room for companies. They raise user expectations across the board, and any deviation from the norm will leave a bad taste in the mouths of mobile viewers.

There's a more critical issue for subscription companies to consider. Some companies that use a subscription-based delivery model offer an ad-free service to encourage them to move to a paid or premium subscription. Media streaming services, in particular, have leveraged such tactics with great success.

As mobile advertisements become more codified, subscription organizations will find the path they must navigate between stellar user experience and paid subscriber conversion becomes increasingly narrow. The disruptive effect that advertising can have on mobile, digital and OTT platforms remains a sensitive subject for today's users, and will continue to be an important issue as consumers grow more sophisticated and discerning. This particular needle will be difficult to thread but it's one that subscription companies must plan around.

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