AdBlocking, Search and Social Media – What Pharma Marketers Should do Today

Ad blocking has emerged as a central issue that will affect all publishers and agencies, providing unique challenges to overcome in 2017 and beyond. Working in the healthcare industry, the effects of ad blocking are especially magnified as our target audiences are more specialized and harder to reach than a traditional consumer media audience. And ad blocking doesn’t just affect digital display ads – there is an impact in search and social media as well. Through a series of discussions with media partners and reviews of published studies, CMI/Compas has identified common precursors to ad blocking and how some publishers are looking to combat it. This POV will explore the steps pharma marketers should be taking now to ensure their brands are minimally affected by ad blocking.

Why are people using ad blockers?

Has an ad popped up and blocked your content? A video ad began and you had your volume up? Forced to watch a 30 second ad on YouTube before a video? Had to close a prestitial before you could get to a site? More ads than content on a page? Clicked an ad by mistake? Worried your data is being collected? Concerned you are using up extra data on your mobile plan?

If any of the above situations sound familiar and frustrate you when it comes to advertising, this is what our audiences are going through. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of people each year elect to block ads for a variety of reasons, many which are listed above.

Through a roundtable discussion with some of our partnering publishers, as well as research into current studies and statistics, CMI was able to determine that poor user experience is one of the primary reasons people install ad blocking software. Bombarding website visitors with interstitials, prestitials, floating ads, expanding ads, auto playing video ads, ads with sound, etc. can be frustrating and cause individuals to install ad blocking software. To add to this, while ad blocking is currently more prevalent on desktop, with mobile ads becoming more intrusive, mobile ad blocking is on the rise as well. A note – worldwide, mobile ad blocking is more prevalent than desktop, but in the US it is the opposite.

Who is using ad blockers?

Contrary to popular belief, some studies have found that ad blocking isn’t limited to tech-savvy millennials, but may be similar across the 21-35 and 36-50 age brackets.

Ad blocking is seemingly more prevalent in the consumer market than the professional sphere, as the general consumer marketplace is vulnerable due to the large saturation of ads and overall volume. Pagefair data indicates that over 230 million people use ad blockers on desktop and 380 million use ad blockers on mobile. The average consumer is reacting to online advertisements by proactively finding ways of blocking ads from appearing.

The impact of ad blocking

Once an ad blocker is installed as a response to one website with a poor user experience, it will affect all websites the user visits until they uninstall the ad blocker, or whitelist domains that they feel are “safe” and provide a premium site experience. While ad blocking studies surrounding the healthcare industry are limited, our partners indicate that preliminary data from their sites point toward a similar rate of ad blocking as the typical consumer space.

To add to the complexity of the dynamic world of digital advertising, publishers also expressed concerns over the recent push for better viewability, and how that push towards viewable impressions may have an adverse impact on the levels of ad blocking. Many publishers have made adjustments to their websites and inventories to ensure sufficient levels of viewability for brands, however some of these changes come at the sacrifice of categories outlined above in reasons users are choosing to block ads. While viewability is a big topic – enough for another whitepaper altogether – it’s relevant and important to note here that CMI/Compas has made a serious push toward high viewability standards and that in our view better viewability as an industry will eventually lead to a positive rather than negative user experience that would ultimately benefit many aspects of advertising for both clients and publishers. That said, we realize that is a long road ahead, and have built this whitepaper around what our clients can be doing now to address ad blocking challenges.

The effects of ad blocking on the planning process have been very gradual. There is still enough premium inventory to run digital banners, and supplier partners are not providing inventory on proposals that they cannot fulfill.

Lessening the impact: the steps pharma marketers should take

There will certainly be a larger push from CMI among our supplier partners to go beyond the banner and propose more inventive solutions to ad blocking, such as native ads. Native ads would allow our message to blend in to site content and not be affected by ad blocking. The trade-off is less flexibility for branded appearances, as native ads are more editorially driven.

Examples of native advertising:

As planners, we can also preempt ad blocking issues by applying best practices to some of the more intrusive ads. For example, some prestitials and interstitials will pop up when you enter a site and will only close if prompted. It is best practice to only utilize these units during a launch, or if there is a new creative message that the brand is trying to share. It is also key to only keep these ad units in market for a short period of time, preferably never spanning longer than 3 months on one site. Many supplier partners already apply limitations on these types of buys that limit the frequency per user. These measures may help prevent frustration with users and, in turn, limit ad blocking.

Another way to prevent ad blocking is to communicate with creative agencies about the revisions made to IAB standard specifications, to ensure brands are producing less intrusive ads. The IAB has created its “LEAN” best practices to ensure a clean user experience.  Previously, many agencies wanted to build the most innovative and complex creative with expansion and custom functionality. However, these are the same type of ads that are driving users to ad block, making it important that we remain mindful of user experience when creating assets. It will take a collaborative effort from all parties to ensure a seamless experience for users.

Ad-Blocking in Search

As one of the largest drivers of traffic to product and disease state education sites, paid search and ad blocking has been a hot topic for some time.  With more than 30 billion healthcare related searches taking place each year, the increased adoption of ad blockers could limit the ability to place relevant content directly in front of hand-raising patients and physicians looking for specific information. Your paid search could be blocked by ad blockers, however there’s an interesting upside in two parts: first, organic search/search engine optimization offers an opportunity to overcome ad blocker challenges because it’s a way to ensure your audiences are getting your important messages – since only ads, and not search results – would be blocked. Second, Google and Bing have an “Acceptable Ads” policy in place with Adblock Plus, one of the largest ad blockers on the market. This acceptable ads policy allows certain ads to still be displayed by meeting a criteria for transparency and relevancy, which is already a major factor in paid search rankings. In other words, if a person is viewing content related to your ad, your ad will not be blocked. And as we write this POV Google has announced plans to create their own ad blocker, which is good news for brands who want to continue to reach those hand-raisers.

To ensure marketers are reaching individuals at point-of-care and other important touchpoints, it’s vital to have a full responsive mobile site and a device-focused search strategy.  SEO in particular continues to be critical to make sure brands are appearing in top organic positions for their target keywords.

The Rise of Social Media

Ad blocking is also a challenge in social media marketing (just as pharma brands were finally getting their footing in this medium.) How it affects advertisers and consumers on desktop across various social media platforms – including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – varies.

On Facebook, ads will continue to appear in a user’s newsfeed, however the ad will be grayed out with the text “This Is An Ad” appearing over it. Facebook users will still have the option to hit the black “X” located in the upper right corner to view the ad. Users on Twitter will notice that no sponsored tweets appear within their feed. On YouTube users will not be subjected to an advertisement video before the video they selected.

While ad blocking programs will see an increase in usage, it sparks the conversation of “Content Is King” and how successful content creation will create a strong relationship between brand and audience on social media. Moving forward, brands should not stray away from social advertising as this is something that will continue to evolve in future years, but should focus on having consistent paid and organic messaging to ensure full reach abilities. As always, we recommend a multi-channel approach as the best approach.


As all parties continue to become educated about the growth and evolution of ad-blocking, it will need to be a conscious and combined effort from everyone as there are many moving parts. From the brands, to the agencies, to the publishers, to the consumer, there are steps that everyone will need to take and participate in to minimize the rising impact of ad-blocking.

Although the situation can seem dire, there’s quite a bit that pharma marketers can do to discourage ad blocking. Consider this your checklist: