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Digital advertising is big business. So big, in fact, that it is well on track to become the most dominant form of advertising.

Estimates suggest that spending on digital ads in the U.S. alone will reach a staggering $201 billion by 2023 – more than two-thirds of total spend. And it makes sense. With consumers increasingly shopping online, advertisers continue to ramp up their use of data and technologies to find innovative new ways to reach target audiences.

The Flip Side to Digital Advertising Success

The sheer ubiquity of online advertisements is driving a corollary upswing in the use of another digital technology. Ad blockers are easy-to-install and free-to-use software that consumers can deploy to hide unwanted ads on their screens, and they are gaining huge popularity worldwide. The numbers are hard to determine, but some evidence points to anywhere from 600 million to two billion Internet users having downloaded some form of ad-blocking in the last three years or so – well over 11% of the global internet population. 

Also hard to gauge is the impact on advertising revenue that ad-blockers are having – that is, until now.

Vilma Todri
Vilma Todri, assistant professor of information systems & operations management

A new paper by Vilma Todri, assistant professor of information systems and operations management at Goizueta, sheds stunning light on the effect of ad-blocking on online search and purchasing behaviors among internet users. And what she has found should give advertisers serious pause for thought.

According to her analysis, ad-blockers decrease consumer online spending by an average of 1.45%. Now, assuming that around 615 million internet users have downloaded some kind of ad-blocking software in recent years, the actual impact puts the loss in revenue from digital advertising around the $14.2 billion mark, year over year. And that’s not all. Todri also finds that ad-blocking seems to have the effect of limiting consumer spending disproportionally on certain brands over others. Users who opt out of seeing digital ads tend to continue to purchase mostly those products or services they are already familiar with, and not engage with new brands; they are less likely to use different search channels or visit new e-commerce websites as a result of ad-blocking.

Analyzing Customer Engagement from 300 Million Internet Visits

To get at these insights, Todri analyzed data from a U.S. web behavior dataset spanning a three-year period, from January 2015 to December 2018. She looked at web-wide visits, transaction behaviors and demographic identifiers across a total of 92,000+ users and more than 300 million internet visits. To measure the effect of ad-blocking, Todri matched all of this data with an ad-blocker dataset from the same source – a well-known U.S. measurement and analytics company – which shows that around 10% of users had installed an ad-blocker at some point during this three-year window.

Crunching the numbers, Todri finds that the effect of using ad-blocking software on these users is to reduce their online search engine sessions by 5.6%. They also spend 5.5% less time visiting e-commerce websites. In other words, consumers who opt out of seeing ads end up browsing and shopping significantly less than others. And in terms of what these users are buying, the data shows that they are much less likely to spend on brands they don’t know or have not experienced before (and conversely, more likely to stick to familiar brands.) Digging even deeper, Todri also finds that this negative effect penalizes the brands that invest most heavily in advertising online more that those that don’t. In other words, ad-blockers are hurting those who advertise online most.

Todri’s paper is the first to expose the quantitative, negative impact of ad-blocking on consumer spending. And her findings should be on the radar of any company looking to market its products and services online, she says.

“The data clearly shows that ad-blockers reduce online spending by 1.45%, which amounts to something in the order of $14.2 billion in lost revenue given that about 600 million people around the world have installed this kind of software,” she says. “And the figures suggest that it’s the brands that heavily invest on online advertising who are bearing the brunt of this drop-off in consumer spending.”

Search Behaviors, Interrupted

“Advertisers also need to look at the fact that ad-blockers inhibit search behaviors,” adds Todri. “The figures point to a drop of around 5% when users have installed ad-blockers, which in turn means that they are not discovering and spending on new brands. They’re sticking with what they already know.”

There’s an imperative here for companies to interpret these findings and reflect on what they say about ad-blocking, and also about what constitutes “acceptable advertising practices,” she says.

“It’s reasonable to assume that people who use ad-blockers simply don’t like ads and aren’t influenced by them. Yet the data points to a different conclusion: if consumer purchasing falls after installing ad-blockers, it would suggest that advertising does work – seeing advertisements does drive searching and purchasing behaviors. So taken together, there’s a likely imperative here for advertisers to find new formats in terms of reaching their targets, and to strengthen their organic channels and social presence online.”

Digital advertising clearly does impact search and purchasing behaviors, says Todri, so firms need to get creative while being cognizant of the fact that some consumers find current advertising practices annoying.

Read more about Vilma Todri’s fascinating research into economics and machine learning, digital advertising and strategy, online consumer behavior, and social media.

Áine Doris
Áine is a copywriter and editor with digital communication skills backed by qualifications in journalism, social media and community management and training in web design/usability. She works with business schools and universities and corporate clients including Cisco, Hewlett Packard, DDB, Young & Rubicam and McCann.