I’ve been doing an informal poll of journalists, media executives, ad tech people and VPs of sales over the last few weeks. Each of these people owe their livelihood to digital advertising and yet the overwhelming majority confessed to using ad blockers. At my own company whose mission is to ensure the future of sustainable quality content, ~55% of the people polled used ad blockers. If the people who can directly connect their salary to ads being on the page are blocking ads, then it is highly unlikely that the current raft of appeals to the public’s moral responsibility will have any success whatsoever. The individual action is difficult to connect to the collective outcome even if you won’t make rent as a result.
If we assume that ad blocking will survive and thrive, the interesting question will be whether in seeking their own unilateral answer to their problems, users find themselves with a web they hardly recognize and one in which the hopes they had for a better experience are confounded by their own actions. In trying to make content access easier, it may get harder; in trying to be more private we may be more transparent; and in trying to keep our content unsullied by advertising we may find them even more intertwined.
Closing the web
Paywalls have been successful for a small few national brands with devoted Superfans and for some local papers with a geographic exclusivity of content. However, most have done little to move the needle for publishers. With the standard paywall set up today around 2% of visitors even see the paywall and around 0.5% of them actually convert. However, the standard dictum of monetise Casualfans indirectly with ads, monetize Superfans directly with subscriptions breaks down in an ad-blocked world. That leads to an increasing rationale for more content to live behind the paywall. Over time you’re likely to see bundling options come about but it does mean that you are dealing with an increasingly closed web.
One of the great things about the web has been that if you could access it then there was equality of that access. If the content that best informs our thinking is increasingly only available to those willing to pay then it has troubling impacts for those living in poverty or countries for whom a $9.95 monthly subscription is out of reach.
Sidebar: Contrary to an oft-espoused opinion, advertising was not the original sin of the web. It was the principal mechanism by which we could ensure equality of access to an open system of global information. A more accurate phrasing would be to say that the original sin of the web was to disconnect the value of ads from the users experience on the page. The data is clear: the better the user experience => the more attention you can capture while an ad may be in view => the greater impact on recall and recognition. Ad-supported pages that prioritise user experience are more effective, but we set up our systems to care about page loads not performance. It’s that early mistake that led us to a web that might be increasingly closed to those who most need it.
The unexpected consequences of a desire for privacy
It’s not just about speed; ad blockers are also handy for those who care about their privacy online. Here’s the problem with that. If publishers can’t make money from ads on their page, then a solution is to make money from ads elsewhere. Specifically, with Facebook Instant Articles or in Apple News where ads are free to roam with a 70/30 split of the takings. If publishers are forced to take refuge with Facebook, then the unilateral actions of those privacy-oriented users lead to the exact opposite of what they wanted. Instead of a private browsing experience, they are forced to access the content they desire in a system that knows more about them than anyone else. In seeking greater privacy, the user becomes wholly transparent.
The scaling challenges of Native Advertising
The final outcome of ad-blocking regularly floated is that publishers will switch to forms of advertising that are not easily distinguished from their normal editorial content. Companies like the New York Times have shown that native advertising can be high quality and this is not the place for that perennial debate. The question is whether native advertising can scale to replace the digital advertising revenues lost. That might be difficult.
Analysts point to Buzzfeed, Forbes, Medium and others that have made content marketing scale. However, almost all that have done so have been platforms where the user sees contributions from a multitude of different voices and thus accepts that brands are as likely to post content as their slightly-racist Uncle Jerry. Publishers that do not pursue a platform strategy and instead aim for a singular voice embodying trust, authority or expertise might well find that native advertising is a piece of the pie, but that users react more negatively to an increasing ratio of native advertising to editorial content than they would with the platforms. As users we may have to ask ourselves whether the frame of the Mona Lisa being covered with Mcdonalds ads is less attractive to us than the idea of a clean frame around a portrait of the Mona Lisa eating a Big Mac.
From all this I’m deriving two maxims:
1) No matter how closely connected to the issue, users will be unable to connect individual actions to global outcomes
2) Users actions to unilaterally create a better web experience will have an equal and opposite effect
It will be interesting to see if either of these hold up over time.