"The Changing Landscape of Advertising : from traditional to digital"
DigiWorld Economic Journal n°104
Interview with Tim SCHUMACHER
Chairman & Co-Founder, Eyeo GmbH
Conducted by Florence LE BORGNE - BACHSCHMIDT, IDATE DigiWorld
DW Economic Journal: Eyeo GmbH is the owner and operator of "Adblock Plus", the leading open source software which allows users to block or filter the ads they accept to see, with more than 500 million downloads since 2006. Beyond that, Eyeo aims at making the Internet better for all parties, by encouraging true innovation and non-intrusive ad standards and a better user experience. Could you provide an overview on Eyeo's project?
Tim SCHUMACHER: Eyeo's mission is to empower users for a free web. To do that we offer a wide range of products and services that keep the power with the user and create fair compensation for content creators. For instance, as part of Adblock Plus, we offer Acceptable Ads, which is our compromise to better, more user-friendly ads. We help advertisers and publishers to integrate Acceptable Ads into their websites. In September we launched a new way for medium-sized publishers to whitelist ads more efficiently.
We are also working on an independent Acceptable Ads committee which is planned to be in office early 2017. The committee is going to consist of representatives from different interest groups within online advertising, such as members of the ads industry, nonprofit and consumer groups, and also thought leaders. By making Acceptable Ads independent, we have already been able to spread our vision of granular, nuanced ad blocking to other ad blockers who have adopted it.
We are also going to launch a stable version Flattr Plus shortly which is at the moment in beta test. Flattr Plus is a service through which users can easily reward the content they like. We believe that some users are eager to pay a small amount to support their favourite websites, articles or videos.
The joint vision of our projects is to empower users' rights, while protecting and improving the ability to make money for content creators.
The great paradox of online advertising is that without Internet ads, there is barely any free online content. To what extent do you feel that the general mass understands this paradox, and what is your stance on spreading this knowledge to the users?
Most users agree on the fact that pop-ups, autoplay videos and blinking banners are intrusive. So what can advertisers do to make their ads acceptable for users? Adblock Plus started as a hobby project in 2006 that blocked all ads, but as downloads skyrocketed Adblock Plus wanted to create a more sustainable approach. In 2011 we developed the Acceptable Ads initiative, a novel approach that empowers users while keeping the Internet free. We established Acceptable Ads because we don't believe complete ad blocking is the right way. The web needs advertising, and the purpose of the initiative is to find advertising formats that even ad-blocking users will accept.
In the course of our research we asked thousands of users, we talked to advertisers and created the Acceptable Ads criteria, which users can either activate or deactivate in their extension. Most users actually don't deactivate Acceptable Ads, because they are aware of the fact that advertisements on the web keep their content free.
At a period when the use of big data is key for understanding the consumer, Eyeo also proposes tools enabling users to decide which company they share data with. Various surveys suggest that users (especially the younger generation) are willing to accept some advertising (and thus share their data) in exchange for online contents, as long as these ads are not intrusive and/or annoying. Does the analysis of your software tools users back up such survey suggestions?
We do not collect our users' data, thus we don't have any behavioural data of our users.
We have done a lot of research though, for example a big research with HubSpot. There we found out that 83% of users agree it's just the obnoxious ads they want to avoid, 77% want to filter rather than block.
In September 2016 you announced the Acceptable Ads Platform, which in a nutshell shows users advertising which has been "deemed acceptable", irrespective of installation of Adblock Plus. How do you manage to convince websites' publishers, ad networks and advertisers to join this platform? What guarantee do they have that they will not lose ad revenue or that their ads will actually be seen by users?
The Acceptable Ads platform is for publishers and website owners to easily integrate Acceptable Ads into their pages with just a single tag. Users that have activated Acceptable Ads in their extension will then see these ads. Please note that all other users see the ads the website owner initially integrated, and that this is merely a technically easier way to join the Acceptable Ads initiative – under which the exact same criteria still apply. We have talked to many publishers and advertisers and most are on the user's side, willing to make better ads. As the whole procedure is scalable publishers can only gain revenue with our solution.
In fact, in just 24 hours over 1,000 publishers signed up for it, so we are eager to start beta-testing this new implementation of the pre-existing Acceptable Ads initiative.
Staying on the subject of acceptable ads, what is "acceptable" will likely be different from user to user. How then, can advertisers provide better user experience and higher revenue for publishers? Will the next step be to pay users for accepting to share their data or to see ads?
I don't think users will have to start sharing their data. The next step in finding what "acceptable" is for more people and improving the entire programme in Acceptable Ads Committee. This committee will determine what is acceptable and what is not at the end of this year, and several user groups (nonprofit groups, academics, user agents) will sit on it. So I think we've got that covered.
Otherwise, what we've found is that most users are willing to accept ads which make use of certain criteria, like those we deemed acceptable. These criteria rely on size, placement and labelling regulations.
Apart from these criteria we believe that ads have to be respectable and well integrated into the content. Publishers do not have to collect user data in order to accomplish this task. The key is to make ads that add value for the user.
Over the past few years, uptake of ad blocking on the mobile seems to have grown sharply (as opposed to the fixed). Could you shed any light on why the mobile has suddenly become the mainstream for ad blocking?
I would not call mobile ad blocking mainstream just yet, but it's gaining popularity. The main reason for the increasing popularity is for example intrusiveness of ads, which is especially annoying on the smaller display of mobile devices. Other reasons are saving data; reducing page load speeds; privacy and security. While recent reports claim there are massive numbers of mobile ad-blocking users in Asia, putting the grand total at 419 million worldwide (!) North American and European users do not block ads on their phones in significant numbers. I think this will change in 2017 as people discover ad blocking browsers on their phones and tablets.
In the "big picture" of digital advertising, the giants Google and Facebook dominate the market. How much of an influence do these players have on ad blocking, and what expectations do you have on them going forwards?
Historically, both Google and Facebook have actually been very thoughtful and careful about user experience, one of the key factors which made them strong. Google's founder Larry PAGE for example just recently said as part of an analyst call "Part of it is the industry needs to do better at producing ads that are less annoying and that are quicker to load, and all those things. And I think we need to do a better job of that as an industry.", and we fully agree.
Facebook on the other hand has made some recent strange moves when it announced that it would start trying to circumvent users with ad-blocking software and show them ads. This is an unfortunate move, because it takes a dark path against user choice. But it's also no reason to overreact: cat-and-mouse games in tech have been around as long as spammers have tried to circumvent spam filters. In the long run, we have some trust in Facebook to at some point put the user first again, and stop behaviours like that.
More generally, how do you see the future prospects of digital advertising? Eyeo is fighting against annoying and low quality ads, but do you have the impression that the weight of ad blockers now pushes the ad agencies to be really more innovative? Have you identified any interesting, catchy new formats?
Absolutely! All the recent initiatives, for example IAB's "LEAN Ads" initiative or the "Coalition for Better Ads" which just recently formed at DMEXCO conference and includes many of the best and biggest advertisers and publishers in the world. None of this would have happened if users hadn't ‘voted with their mice' and told corporations that they were fed up with annoying advertising online. So as much as we're proud of helping with this, we really have to thank our users.
Tim SCHUMACHER co-founded and was the longtime CEO of the publicly traded company Sedo AG (sedo.com), which currently has revenues of 130m Euros per year and maintains approximately 350 employees. Since 2012 he has dedicated his professional career to the German start-up scene, acting both as business angel and mentor for young companies with economic potential. His current start-ups, among others, are Eyeo/Adblock Plus, Aklamio, Stuffle and Ecosia.