Facebook’s Key to Conquering the World: Beating the Ad Blockers

As marketers, publishers and users get caught in the crossfire

Facebook is determined to defeat ad blockers. Daniel O'Leary

The most aggressive force in ad-blocking technology is pitted against the world's mightiest social network. The stakes have never been higher for both parties. And there seems no end in sight, as Adblock Plus continues to attack Facebook with the bloody ferocity of a Mongol horde.

Last month, it looked like trouble for Eyeo GmbH, the Cologne, Germany-based maker of the popular ad-blocking software—and tormentor of digital publishers and advertisers everywhere—after Facebook introduced coding that made it impossible to wipe out its desktop display ads. But now, the company is preparing to launch a next-generation version of Adblock Plus (which boasts 100 million users worldwide), making it even more difficult for Facebook to defeat. Or at least it hopes. (Next week, Facebook will find itself on Adblock's turf when the annual digital marketing conference dmexco hits Cologne.)

Facebook has said it is determined to vanquish the ad blockers, working around the clock to bypass their software and ensure its ads are seen by its billion-plus users worldwide. But Adblock and other players including Shine Technologies (whose website proclaims that "ad blocking is a consumer right") are digging in, promising to weaken Facebook's advertising stronghold. "The bottom line is, this doesn't show any signs that it's going to stop anytime soon," says Ben Williams, communications and operations manager at Eyeo GmbH, adding that "there's an infinite number of ways that you can circumvent and work around."

It's just one front in a global attack on Facebook as it chases domination over the worlds of media and advertising—and increasingly bears flesh wounds from an ever-present barrage of slings and arrows from all over the map.

This means war

Facebook got the media world's attention in August when it took a hard-line stance against ad blocking. In putting the ad blockers on notice, it naturally only fired them up. Sure enough, within days, Adblock Plus tweaked its software to break through Facebook's own technology, with Facebook quickly working to seal up the damage.

In all this back-and-forth, Facebook contends that it wants to better understand what kinds of ads consumers like, which, in theory, will help marketers better target their messages. To that end, the social network, aside from updating its software last month, also rolled out new ad-preference tools, benefitting advertisers and consumers by letting users control which ads they see in the news feed. Meanwhile, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his executive team have sent a larger message to ad blockers and those who use them: Digital content cannot be sustained without advertising.

"Part of the way people can get free content is through the advertising, so that's an important thing to figure out, how to make the advertising available to support the free content," explains Brian Boland, Facebook's vp, advertising technology. "At the same time, you can't do that at the expense of people and their experience."

Adds Dave Grimaldi, evp, public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau: "Facebook has threaded a needle that addresses all of the ills that are swirling around this debate. Some people don't like to be targeted so closely, some people do. Others just don't want to be retargeted on the same pair of shoes they've already bought. It seems that this new level of ad preferences addresses all of those things."

But Facebook's anti-ad-blocking mandate also bolsters the argument that it wants nothing less than to rule the interactive experience of us all. If one subscribes to Zuckerberg's vision of the future, the narrative goes, then Facebook will control everything from how we communicate with one another to how we consume news and entertainment to how we watch videos and even access the internet.

And advertising is the underpinning of those grand aspirations. Since 2012, which brought Facebook's historic IPO, its ad revenue has grown from $4.3 billion to around $22.4 billion, per eMarketer.

The battle lines