People are scared, they don’t understand what digital advertisers do, they’re afraid of losing their privacy, and they don’t really know what to do about it.
And that is fueling the rise of mobile ad blocking.
This, in a nutshell, is what we learned by analyzing an enormous mass of data from 1.3 billion app installs by 150 million people all over the world, and surveying an additional 4,000 smartphone owners. We also learned that while historically Android and iPhone owners have acted in very different ways, more and more their habits are converging — in virtually every nation on the planet.
Confused, Uncertain, Scared
The first thing we learned is that people really don’t know what digital advertisers, and specifically mobile adtech companies, are doing. That can lead to wildly inaccurate views of mobile marketing:
In some cases, that lack of knowledge leads to overconfidence about what is private and what is public. In others, it manifests in fear or even paranoia.
For instance, a fifth of smartphone owners believe that mobile advertisers collect “everything” about them, including keystrokes on their device as they’re tapping out messages. For some, that includes sexual preferences, even porn habits. For others, it’s credit card information, physical addresses, phone calls they take, and emails that they’ve written.
Clearly, there’s a degree of paranoia there and some feel like they are living in George Orwell’s 1984, and the TV — or smartphone — watches them as they watch it.
While people in the industry might snicker at a few of the things some consumers think ad networks are tracking, given that actual capabilities and legal requirements limit them, it’s not hard to understand the fear. Google does target ads to emails in Gmail, but doesn’t “read” your email. Facebook ads can include a Shop Now button, but it doesn’t mean Facebook is sucking up your credit card number. Ad networks can track your hops around the mobile web and apps, and build a profile of who you might be, but it’s anonymized to groups of 5,000 or more, and can vanish in a puff of air with one swipe of a person’s finger on an Android or iOS setting.
Others are over-confident, with about a third of consumers being fairly sure that advertisers collect or track “no information” from them or about them, a belief that is clearly false.
System-wide Settings for Mobile Privacy
Four years ago, Apple introduced “Limit Ad Tracking,” an iOS setting that reduced advertisers’ ability to track mobile users to minimal levels. Advertisers can still measure how many times you’ve seen an ad, so they can do frequency capping, and they can still see when you tap or click an ad, but not much else. In 2013, Google added the feature as well.
When we asked 4,000 smartphone owners if they had enabled the feature, almost a third said yes:
Almost half either said no or that they were not interested, but close to a fifth said they weren’t sure. Add up the not sure and the yes categories, and we get almost half who either said they did enable LAT, or might have but weren’t sure.
However, you should never rely only on what people say. Frequently, they are mistaken.
Fortunately, because TUNE technology is inside 2.2 billion devices around the planet, we have fairly significant ability to measure what is actually happening on a global scale. Our customers include companies who are offering their mobile apps for download, and when those ads are about to show up in user’s apps and sites, our ad network partners need to check devices for the Limit Ad Tracking flag so that they legally and ethically target only on data that users allow.
The reality is that LAT activation on iOS has stayed fairly steady over the seven months of our study, but Android LAT has dipped significantly from a global high of 28.1% to a current level of 19.6%.
Which means that many people who said they had activated the setting were mistaken, and many who were not sure should have been sure.
(Interestingly, in our survey data, there is very little difference between Android and iOS in terms of who has enabled LAT or not. Both Android and iOS users were significantly wrong, but iOS users were much farther off the mark.)
What we also found is that most of those who had activated the Limit Ad Tracking setting typically did it “a long time ago,” likely when the setting first came out, and few had done it recently. Which made us wonder: what made people stop using LAT, and what are they doing now, given the significant level of concern about privacy by some mobile users?
Ad Blocking is the New Ad Limiting
From the data in hand, it was clear that people were concerned about privacy, but that use of Limit Ad Tracking was decreasing quite rapidly. We also knew from a previous study that installs of ad blocking app on mobile were skyrocketing.
The number of available ad blocking apps for mobile is proliferating quickly — a quick query of our app store analytics database and some manual searching found 63 already:
In fact, 25% of mobile users report having installed a mobile ad blocking app or browser, which is higher than the desktop rate in some countries. More interesting, however, is the rate at which smartphone owners are adopting the technology.
While only 2.4% of our almost 4,000 respondents said that they installed an ad blocking app or browser in the previous 4-6 months, 7.8% said they had done so very recently (in either November or December 2015, or in January 2016). That’s a more than three-fold jump.
We can see this same trend in consumer search behavior, via Google Trends:
In fact, if growth rates in ad blocking continue as we’ve seen from Q2 2015 to January 2016, mobile ad blocking will not be a minority behavior for long.
Far from it: mobile users who have installed ad blockers will be in the majority in late 2016, and breach the 80% benchmark in the third quarter of 2017.
It’s important to note, of course, that installing an ad blocking app on a phone does not mean that person is using that app all the time, or even part of the time.
It does mean, however, that many mobile users have the immediate capability to access the mobile web without viewing any ads, or being tracked by advertisers. And, very likely, it means that many are concerned about advertising, privacy, data use, or their mobile user experience.
Understanding the Shift
While we saw the data showcasing the shift, we didn’t understand it. How could the percentage of people using Limit Ad Tracking on Android be dropping so precipitously?
One possible explanation is that users are actually turning Limited Ad Tracking off. In order to believe this, we’d have to also believe that mobile users around the globe:
- Know about the setting
- Understand its purpose
- Can find it
- Are making rational decisions that they’d prefer to have relevant advertising rather than irrelevant advertising, even if it means that some data about their activities is being tracked
That’s a lot to assume. As much as marketers might like this to be true, it’s too much to assume. In fact, our survey data shows the exact opposite.
A much more plausible explanation is the rise of ad blocking on mobile. In this scenario, what’s potentially happening is that:
- Mobile users have some concern about privacy, ads, and performance
- They’re hearing about ad blocking, which on iOS is not only allowed but essentially officially supported
- They’re installing an ad blocker and not looking any further
- The noise around ad blocking is obscuring information about LAT, resulting in decreased awareness
This is far more likely, but it doesn’t fully explain the dropping percentage of LAT adoption, given that the setting is stable and persists over operating system updates. In other words, it makes sense, but there’s no smoking gun, no corpse, and no forensic evidence incontrovertibly proving the proposition.
Until we looked at Android LAT activation rates by operating system version and everything became very, very clear:
Android users do not update their operating systems nearly as much or as fast as iOS users. Sometimes that is simply because due to Google’s different path to market than Apple’s, their carrier or phone manufacturer stands between them and Google’s updates. Sometimes it is because OS updates are very expensive and/or time-consuming in terms of data consumption in the developing world, and sometimes simply because Android users don’t see any need or urgency.
With the above data, it was easy to refine our thinking about what was happening. Suddenly, a number of things become really, really clear:
- If you have an older version of Android, you likely set up your phone before LAT was available, and you haven’t gone back and changed that setting
- If you have a version of Android that was released at or near Google’s launch of Ad ID and LAT, it was new and topical, and you were more likely to turn it on
- If you have a newer version of Android, you likely set up your phone recently, well after Google offered its LAT setting, and either because it wasn’t topical or for other reasons, you did not enable it
- Essentially, LAT has been forgotten by consumers and ad blocking has taken over its position in the popular imagination, so new Android users are turning to ad blocking instead of limit ad tracking.
Good News for Marketers, Caution for Consumers
All of the above is actually good news for marketers: fewer consumers are ticking the box to opt out of ad tracking.
That’s a net positive for advertisers and marketers because it means that instead of ad-spamming and interruption marketing, you can work to tailor your ads and messages to people who might actually want to see them. More relevant advertising means more signal, less noise … and fewer people, over time, who are ad-blind or antagonistic.
Of course, there are clearly stormclouds on the horizon. As our previous report highlighted, ad blocking downloads and activity are at an all-time high. And that does not appear to be a scenario for a successful ad-driven brand business.
In addition, mobile ad blocking can be dangerous for consumers, because it typically works only on the mobile web (where we spend a small fraction of our smartphone time), and versions that work for apps require significant privacy and technical compromises, such as jailbreaking/rooting your phone, and routing all of your internet traffic through a proxy server. So mobile ad blocking does not necessarily provide the privacy protections that it promises.
As a whole, top mobile and web publishers recognize the twin problems: over-aggressive monetization and invasive tracking. Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages are examples of technologies that can fix the first issue.
Consumers will still need to learn more and decide what level of personalization they want to see in advertising, and how much data they want to reveal, to fix the second.
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This post is based on three research reports, all available free from TUNE:
- Ad Blocking App Installs Just Spiked 3X (Here’s What Marketers Need to Know)
- Ads, Tracking, and Privacy: What 1.3B App Installs say about Smartphones and Tracking
- Mobile Ad Blocking: Consumers Won’t Pay Even $1/year to Skip Ads
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Before acting as a mobile economist for TUNE, John built the VB Insight research team at VentureBeat and managed teams creating software for partners like Intel and Disney. In addition, he led technical teams, built social sites and mobile apps, and consulted on mobile, social, and IoT. In 2014, he was named to Folio's top 100 of the media industry's "most innovative entrepreneurs and market shaker-uppers." John lives in British Columbia, Canada with his family, where he coaches baseball and hockey, though not at the same time.