The Internet is fueled by advertising – display banner ads, sponsored posts and articles, in-app ads, etc. According to eMarketer, the average person spends about 3 hours every day looking at their smartphone screen. With that level of engagement, companies know that ads delivered via mobile devices (including smartphones and tablets) are an important part of their media mix and their efforts to reach the right audience at the right moment.
Knowing the value and potential of mobile display ads, it's little wonder why the recent move by Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) to allow the addition of content-blocking extensions to Safari, has raised both fear and eyebrows. Instead of creating its own ad-blocking features, the company is allowing browser add-ons (available through its App Store) that can be set to block certain cookies, images, pop-ups and other content from being downloaded on the device. While ad-blocking browser plug-ins are already common on PCs, they remain rare on smartphones and tablets – until now.
While there's no such thing as a free lunch, today's consumer has grown used to the idea of accessing whatever they want online at no cost. In fact, many expect apps and other digital content to be free. Free is good but it doesn't keep the teams of creatives and developers paid, their families fed and the lights on, as they develop those engaging digital experiences. Those ads and sponsored-content items create the revenue that supports digital businesses. One might consider it the value exchanged for the content enjoyed. Publishers have significant overhead so they must generate revenue – more specifically, ad revenue.
According to research by PageFair, the adoption rate of ad blockers has grown by 41 percent year over year globally and by 48 percent year over year in the United States in the past 12 months, thanks to the increased availability and ease of installation. They estimate over 198 million active ad block users globally.
While those"pesky" display ads and pop-ups can be annoying to some when not properly executed by marketers and/or publishers, sweeping limitations by Apple and others threaten the concept of a free and open Web. Another trend to watch is the "white listing" (aka "blackmailing," depending on who you ask) of certain brands willing to pay ad block companies for access so their ads will appear while others remain blocked.
With Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) recently announcing "instant articles" and Apple following suit with curated content through Apple News, digital publishers who are still adjusting from the massive shift from more traditional paid media are again forced to get creative in generating enough revenue to remain in the black. The move is strategic by these large tech companies that can still generate revenue from their own advertising networks. Unfortunately, publishers are left to fend for themselves and determine how to produce enough high-quality content to drive direct visits to their own app on iOS or wholly-owned website on Android.
Meanwhile, Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) is hard at work with Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) to create a new kind of web link and storage system, which would allow articles and digital stories to load in a matter of milliseconds, attempting to remain top of mind with publishers who may be tempted by the proprietary platforms being rolled out by Facebook and Apple.
While Apple and Facebook are offering consumers a more streamlined, consistent and stable browsing experience, they minimize the value of publishers when it comes to the continued success of their ecosystems. The idea of a free Web that provides a conduit to real opportunity, successfully supporting small and mid-sized publishers may quickly become a thing of the past, something to reminisce about in a few short years.
Perhaps a case can be made that this is a self-inflicted wound. If the media experiences on mobile were better in both functionality and relevance, perhaps consumers wouldn't mind the ads and Apple wouldn't have ad blocking on its road map. Just as email marketers survived the impact of tougher spam laws,today's agencies and media buyers will, too, overcome these imposed obstacles –opening opportunity for further refinement and precision of our craft.
Commentary by Keith Petri, the VP of strategic partnerships at IgnitionOne, a cloud-based digital marketing technology firm.
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