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How apps may win in the ad-blocking fight

Millennial with smart phone
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With the use of ad blockers on the rise, many media companies are scrambling to find ways to make sure their ads are seen. But since ad blockers are mostly designed to work on browsers, there's one area that has an inherent advantage: apps.

"Most ad-blocking software is focused on browsers and display ads instead of ads shown in apps," a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC. "In our case specifically, ad blockers haven't had as much impact — in part because the bulk of ads shown on/by Facebook are delivered on Facebook and in other apps that integrate with us."

Interactive Advertising Bureau Senior Vice President Scott Cunningham, who is also the general manager of the IAB Tech Lab, said that in its tests of ad blockers, most ads inside apps still appeared despite the installation of ad-blocking technology. While ad blockers could theoretically stop people from getting to websites accessed by clicking on in-app ads, the advertisers still were able to get the benefit of brand recall and awareness just from having their ads displayed.

On websites, though, the censoring is complete, said Cunningham. "Once you install the ad blocker [on the browser] it pretty much shuts everything off."

Part of the reason why apps are immune from ad blocking is because they don't work with third-party sources to display an ad, said Matt Adkisson, president of content compensation company Sourcepoint. Everything is handled in-house.

Ben Williams, Adblock Plus communications and operations director, admitted its service didn't block in-app ads as well as those seen on browser windows. One reason: Blocking ads in apps would force its company to breach consumer privacy.

Perhaps more important is that consumers seem to not want to block ads in-app, Williams said. He believes because consumers use apps with a specific purpose in mind, and are willing to pay for that function whether it's accepting the ad model or paying to remove ads.

"The app function employs a single [action], whereas the browser is seen as a multitool device," he said.

Facebook also points out that it gives users more access to controlling their ad experience, including which information is used for ads.

"Ad blockers are generally not as effective because they attempt to block entire types of content and can interfere with functionality that people want to receive," the spokesperson said. "We believe that control and transparency are the best way to empower people to control their information and their experience."

However, Cunningham said having brands flock to apps for advertising may not be the solution to ad blocking.

"It's a little too soon to tell who wins," he said. "Apps offer the opportunity to continue to put out nice advertising and experiences, and so far our research tells us that can continue on. Will we move to an apps-only consumption? Only time can tell."

No one disputes that ad blockers threaten an independent Internet, and the economic opportunities that digital media can provide for publishers, Cunningham said. It hurts small publishers who can't afford not to sell ads and still create editorial content, he added.

And, apps may not be safe forever. Adkisson said some ad-blocking software companies are trying to work with mobile carriers to block all ads. Any function that relies on mobile data, including apps, won't be immune. As user demand for ad blockers increases, he thinks some carriers maybe tempted to offer these services.

"While you haven't seen those companies push back against ad blocking on the net yet, I think they are going to have to," Adkisson said.