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Digital media is worried readers are burning out on too many ads

Young adult over load of information
C.J. Burton | Getty Images

During Facebook's second-quarter earnings call in late July, Chief Financial Officer Dave Wehner said that the social media network's ad load — or the number of ads on a website or platform — was going to be a "less significant factor in driving overall growth, especially after mid-2017."

In layman's terms: Facebook won't be increasing the number of ads it shows at the same pace as before.

His comments set off a flurry of questions from analysts about ad load, which dominated much of the call.

"The optimal ad load is really a mix of art and science," Wehner said. "We've carefully tracked the impact of ads on the user experience over the last several years. We aren't seeing a cause for concern. We also want to be thoughtful about making sure that each person's overall feed experience has the right balance of organic and ad content, and that factors into how we think about ad load and where that might ultimately be."

Wehner's comments highlight a growing concern among both publishers and marketers alike that some sites are so crammed with ads that they risk turning off users, causing them to leave the service, or use an ad-blocking service.

The digital media audience is growing, and eMarketer projects that marketers will spend $77.37 billion on digital ads in the U.S. alone during 2017. Media companies are welcoming the cash influx, and trying to make ad space for the demand.

"We've come to a point with concepts like ad blocking, where consumers are complaining about digital ad experiences," said Alanna Gombert, general manager of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Tech Lab. "We've come to a point in our industry where we've had to stop and pause at where we are, and fix a few things on the user consumer side."

The IAB helps create digital advertising standards that are used across the industry by publishers like The New York Times and Playboy to YouTube and AOL.

With publishers and technology companies so reliant on advertising revenue, they're cramming pages with marketing, said Farrell McManus, vice president of publishing at paywall and e-commerce platform MPP Global.

"You have to stop cluttering up," McManus said. "It will improve the user experience and it will improve experience for the advertisers." Millennials in particular are likely to abandon a page if it doesn't load within a few seconds, he said.

To be fair, Facebook's comments were meant to help model revenue projections. In fact, the platform has been increasing its ad load over the past few years, and that hasn't shown signs of slowing down user growth. It has credited its ad increase successes to highly targeted ads due to the wealth of insights it has on its users. Thanks to that data, Facebook and Google take the lion's share of digital advertising money, with the two companies taking home between 50 and 70 percent of the total budget, according to media buyers.

But Facebook exists in a world where consumers are increasingly turning to ad blockers. According to the Adobe/PageFair 2015 Ad Blocking Report, U.S. ad blocking grew 48 percent year over year. About 198 million people around the world use ad blockers, which cost publishers about $22 billion in revenue in 2015. While these services have yet to work well on mobile, it clearly shows people are getting frustrated with the number of ads on digital media.

"True, we've always had a lot of advertising, but seeing it within social networks on such a regular cadence is only a few years old," said Erna Alfred Liousas, an analyst with technology and market research firm Forrester. "The increased use of ad blockers and demand for more 'control' over privacy-related issues signals consumer frustration with the intrusion of advertising in channels that were formerly not commercialized."

Gombert's team at the IAB is tasked with coming up with criteria to combat the ad load problem. It's slated to release a scoring system for advertising agencies and publishers in the fourth quarter of this year to aid in determining if the advertising is ruining the user experience. Studies have shown them that users are especially turned off by video ads that don't let them skip, code that stops pages from loading unless you look at the ad and pages that load too long because of large ad files.

Forbes Media, which is working with the IAB, has taken some of these lessons and applied them to its site. It can detect when its readers are using an ad blocker, and lets these people opt into an "ad light" experience with quicker loading ads, no autoplay videos or videos in between paragraphs, and no full-screen ads you have to close to get to the content. The ads that are shown are also a smaller file size, which means the page loads quicker. The ads cost the same for Forbes' marketer clients; the only caveat is brands have to create advertising that fits the "ad light" experience.

As a result, Forbes said these users who agree to this advertising experience look at 40 percent more pages and spend twice as much time on its site as the average viewer.

"It's a multidimensional conversation as everything in digital media is changing," said Mark Howard, chief revenue officer at Forbes Media.