What we break when we fix for Ad Blocking

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.

13 responses to “What we break when we fix for Ad Blocking”

  1. “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.”

    No one is forced to accept the T&C from Apple, Facebook, Google, etc. Don’t use their services if you aren’t prepared to sign away a lot of privacy.

  2. One possible and probably “most” fair solution to subscription bundling, is to have everyone, everywhere, charged a small fee, say 1 to 3 cents(or less) per page visit. The charge would come from isps or telecoms in the form of a monthly deposit plus additional billing for overages from the previous billing cycle. And just like telephone monthly costs, access can be stopped for unpaid bills.

    So a person such as myself, who visits from 50 to 300 pages per day, depending on my self imposed work load, might wind up paying $50 (US) to $300 (US) monthly, a fee that is definitely worth it if I could eliminate advertising, especially the annoying kind that slows the access of information.

    The collector of fees would then pass on the revenue to the sites, keeping an accounting and collection fee for their troubles.

    I don’t know what the advertising revenues that the web generates each month totals, but having 2B users pay an average of even just $50 each per month puts the revenue generated at approximately $1T (US) annually.

    I know it’s not enough for people with delusions of grandeur when it comes to monetizing the web, but it’s certainly enough to pay for the web’s infrastructure, operations, and maintenance.

    Of course additional revenues for site owners can be realized from commissions earned for any of a myriad of click-thru activities or even sales themselves.

    One last benefit is of course, the elimination of paywalls, allowing a more democratic access to all the peoples of the world.

  3. For me the whole problem with online advertising revolves around permission. If I didn’t expressly give it you should not be able to track me.

    I have blocked advertising since long before browser extensions: first with Proxomitron then Privoxy. Sites I regularly visit I would whitelist.

    Why would I deprive site owners of revenue? I didn’t ask them to make a website. You make it how you want, I’ll use it the way I want unless you force the issue.

    There is the annoyance factor – pop-ups, pop-unders, Flash etc. They intrude on the content and take away value from the website. I have nothing against ads – in print they are often more interesting and informative than the actual content. When I read a magazine I pick up on a news stand nobody is tracking me. Nobody is staring over my shoulder saying “A-Ha! he looked at that ad for 15s and with his demographic details that means we should put this other ad on the next page….”

    Secondly due the extensive tracking tools used by websites I now also employ Adblock and Disconnect and sometimes Ghostery.

    Just because I visit a webpage does not mean the owner of the site is automatically entitled to knowing more about me than I do myself. Nowhere in the adservers cookies and scripts is there a form where _I_ agreed to such behaviour. Nor is there on most websites. Can you imagine if there was a pop-up when you first visit a website saying something truthful like “By visiting this site you agree that we can track the living shite out of your online life and monetize the data about you in ways you never dreamed possible. Press I agree to continue”.

    I would rather pay to not be tracked.

    I may soon have to resort to using Tails because nowhere in my general browsing have I given explicit permission to general sites to know who I am. I only give that to a select few sites.

    When the complete and total invasion of my privacy (yes I use Gmail for non private email: go ahead and call me a hypocrite) ends I will stop blocking ads. I might even click on some too.

  4. Some more factors that are being overlooked:

    1. Native ads are rarely truly native anymore – they’re usually ad served in order to get geotargeting, inventory management, and various other things that ad servers do. All AdBlockers break these. (Including those seen on Buzzfeed.)

    2. uBlock and AdBlockPlus target ads with CSS selectors, so if I built an efficient native ad system that rendered plain old HTML/CSS and a tiny bit of efficient js, they would still get blocked. (Yes, even if I call my native ads “div.llama”, eventually someone will add it to the blacklist.)

  5. One stakeholder that nobody talks about in this ad blocking debate is the advertiser. Yes, many of them are large evil companies pushing crap on you with annoying ads, but web advertising has democratized advertising in a huge way. Millions of small businesses reach new customers through advertising networks, probably largely because tracking allows good targeting. Those businesses can’t afford to buy newspaper space or television time. Even if they did they wouldn’t reach the esoteric customer base they cater to.

    Of course, I normally run an ad blocker, so I’m part of the problem too…

  6. “No one is forced to accept the T&C from Apple, Facebook, Google, etc. Don’t use their services if you aren’t prepared to sign away a lot of privacy.”

    That makes about as much sense as an ecclesiastical authority in the day’s of Gutenberg declaring no one needs to be literate and to purchase a bible printed in French or German to go to heaven. True, but absolute balderdash. Such people exist; they’re Linux geeks who think in command-line and enjoy games graphically depicted using ASCII characters. The consolidation of media includes the Internet, meaning until people stop being pathetic, dim-witted consumer schmucks anyone who wants ready access to information will have to choose allegiance to Apple, Google, or Microsoft.

  7. Good grief, Corwin. People use Apple, Google, Microsoft, et al because they want information, sure, but not because they want to those companies to rule their lives. And anyway these day’s it’s not even hard to abandon ad-happy megacorps for services with a little respect for the user.

    Anyway, the long and short of this argument is that, as the user, I’m the one running the browser, I get to say what runs and what doesn’t, and if advertising morphs itself into something slimier because of my blocking behavior, I’ve no doubt we’ll find ways to avoid that too. I’m never going to accept any obligation to swallow somebody else’s paid junk just because they want me to.

  8. @james even if you dont use apple, fb, google, etc (good luck with that by the way) – it doesn’t matter, you’re still in their database as long as any of either your contacts or people you do business with use them. your contacts are automatically uploaded. your pictures are automatically tagged – even if no one tag them, you’re still groupped and compared. if it appears anywhere on the web with your name it will be scanned and tagged.

    thus, you are in their database, its almost guaranteed. Chances that i’m wrong are so remote that it’s not even funny.

  9. Drama, drama, and even more drama, thanks for wasting my time.

    The internet will be just fine if it loses ~70% of its “content” which is a biased lifestyle and subjective crap written by 20-year olds anyway.

    If somebody is serious in what they are doing, they won’t be relying on ads to survive. Internet writing is, sorry to break it for many people, a side activity that has an optional and very small pay attached to it.

    We humans get used to easy living way too quickly. Maybe it’s time to start over and throw out the leeches. I have zero sympathy to the “content creators” that allow blinking GIFs to be shoved on my face when I am trying to read what they have to say.

    Are $20/month too much for you? Then don’t be on the web. End of story.

    You feel the need to pay 20-year olds to spew subjective “articles” that hate on something and adore something else and never give objective arguments — and call that “content creation”? Yes — please don’t be on the web. End of story.

    You think humanity has a moral responsibility towards you? LOL. Nope, don’t be on the web. End of story.

    I know writing is a tough job to be in. But moral appeals change nothing. Children are dying on many places in the world right now. Pleas have been widely published in the past. Learn from this experience. If the people won’t bat an eye for dying children, what makes you think your precious little website will be cared for?

    Sorry if this is too hateful. The ad publishing has gone way too far and seriously needs to be hit in the face. I’m glad that’s finally happening and honestly, it could never arrive on time anyway. This had to happen 10 years ago. Still glad it eventually happened. I am very interested what happens next.

  10. Ads and tracking (illegal surveillance, stalking, data-mining) do NOT belong together. You can have one (ads) without the other (criminal and unconstitutional tracking).

    The current system is broken. Too many lazy people creating way too much blogspam to be taken seriously. If you want to make money on the web, treat it like any other business or die. You find solutions to money problems, attract national and/or local advertisers… and finally… treat your product (simple info page) like something you are proud to show off (to customers and business partners).

  11. Personally, I don’t run any adblockers. What I’m running is SCRIPT blockers, because much of the Web-delivered malware comes in the form of scripts. I selectively enable scripts for native sites (and shut down native-site script access when things get nasty) and leave disabled the scripts from those domains whose name I don’t recognize as being directly associated with the site I’m viewing. A number of sites now mention that “you appear to be running an adblocker”, so I take the time to send them feedback that I’m not. What I tell sites is that they are free to display static ads as part of their content, delivered in the basic HTML with a click link. Also, “like every other medium that shows ads, you as the primary information provider have to take RESPONSIBILITY for your ads. Bad ads, especially malware ads, cause your domain name being includes in my /etc/hosts file pointing to, the Internet version of TV channel-blocking. And multi-media ads require that I OK the display, enforced by my browser. So if ads are important to your business model, use them wisely.” As I see it, it is their choice.

  12. The article has it backwards. It assumes the “content” is a valuable commodity. It isn’t-we have a large surplus. If a site puts up a paywall, I’m gone. Result: the site sentences itself to obscurity. Yes, even the big ones.

  13. “the public’s moral responsibility”

    There’s a strange attitude, that seems to be mostly American, that if you’re doing something that doesn’t generate a profit for someone, you must be doing something immoral.


    If a package of things comes into my home, I don’t have any moral obligation to consume the whole package as a unit. It’s perfectly normal and proper to separate out and discard the parts I don’t want.

    If your business model depends entirely on me being too lazy to discard things I don’t want, then I’m afraid you won’t make any money off of me. I understand that sucks for you, but I _really_ don’t have an obligation to fix your broken business model for you. Sorry.