I spend a good amount of time on forums discussing adblocking technology. But I’ve also spent quite a bit of time discussing adblocking directly with those who block ads.
Here’s the problem as I see it: What’s clear to me is that most of the reasons given for why users block ads are distant seconds to the real reason people block ads. In my experience, most users give little thought to security issues, bandwidth issues, loading-time issues or any of the other (at least partially) justifiable reasons for installing ad blockers. No, they just want “no ads at all” because they don’t like seeing ads.
Just this morning I read a forum post from an adblocker which read: “I just don’t want any ads at all cluttering up my page. I’m not going to click on them anyway. Why is that wrong?”
Publishers are convinced that the answer to this sentiment is something called “Acceptable ads”. Acceptable ads are online ads which meet a rigorous set of criteria. These simpler, more palatable ads are intended to make ad blocking users less likely to block them. In some cases, as with Eeyo’s Adblock Plus, acceptable ads are permitted through the filter altogether.
Acceptable ads are:
- lightweight, [translation: less visually interesting],
- non-intrusive, [translation: less likely to be clicked]
- and have less tracking capacity. [translation: less likely to be well targeted].
In other words, Acceptable ads are a roll-back of the technological-clock to somewhere in the early, unsophisticated days of digital advertising. How will those ads perform in the real world? We have two decades of evidence that tell us visually timid, marginally placed, non-targeted ads will underperform by a wide margin.
Somewhat amazingly, it appears the same industry professionals who spent the last two decades advancing their industry’s technology are remarkably quick to hoist the white flag. Apparently they need to be told that this is a bad idea of cosmic proportions for publishers. (Many of whom are scraping by as it is).
Let’s talk about what everyone seems afraid to talk about:
There’s an entitlement problem out there
We have, out there on the Internet, a generation of people who have never once in their lives paid for news. For them, online content has always been free. From their perspective (and this is no exaggeration) the problem with the Internet is that some unholy liaison of advertisers and publishers is attempting to illicitly profiteer on the back of their otherwise-free web content.
I read comments like these every day: “The web had no ads originally“, and “The web should return to being ad-free like it was when it started“. (Never mind that it was primarily advertising that funded the growth of the modern web, or that the web in the pre-commercialized early 90’s was microscopic and amateurish by comparison).
If you want to solve the problem of adblocking, appeasement is an awful strategy. It simply won’t work.
The level of timidity among advertisers and publishers is eye-opening. One must note that the Web is the largest, fastest growing medium in history… With ads. Have ads hampered its growth? No. They have fueled it.
But today consumers voice their opinion that they would ‘rather’ the web be ad-free, and publishers and advertising networks apparently fall to their knees and beg forgiveness. This is certainly a fascinating moment in business. One would almost conclude that the ad-supported Web was on its last legs and fighting an existential last-battle for survival. “Please don’t exterminate us!”
… Except wait, consumers are consuming more web content than ever. With ads.
I’m sure consumers would like cheaper iPhones too. I don’t see Apple apologizing for premium pricing.
When it comes to ad-blocking, the chosen response of the industry is to kowtow. Despite their technological sophistication, the number of technological countermeasures raised against the threat remains remarkably low.
Where’s the push-back?
There are pundits everywhere comparing the modern “adblocking wars“ to the music industry’s painful transition to the Internet. They preach that the advertising industry must similarly “evolve“. But ad-blocking is not akin to the jarring transition from offline to digital, as happened to the music and film industries. Publishing already made the shift from print to digital long ago. Its online revenue model is now mature and stable. Adblocking is more akin to file sharing. As with file sharing, ad blocking represents complete, unilateral circumvention of the revenue stream by users.
When Napster users took technology into their own hands to create their insanely popular, cost-free, music free-for-all, the industry didn’t respond with white flags, lower prices and apologies. They ramped up their technological (and legal) defenses and confronted the problem head-on.
Technologically speaking it’s not hard to fight adblockers. Yes, it’s an arms race. And no solution will ever be perfect. But it’s a threat that can and must be confronted. There are plenty of sites like BlockAdblock.com that freely distribute the defensive technology to publishers. Just this week, one of Germany’s biggest publishers, Axel Springer blocked ad blockers entirely using similar technology. And there are next-generation ad networks like ClarityRay (now gobbled up by Yahoo!) and PageFair which are rising to confront the challenge by creating unblockable ads.
Still, the publishing industry is largely in “appeasement mode”. They see Adblocking as a social referendum on the advertising and publishing industries — Industries which have “broken a social contract with readers”. Certainly there are no shortage of cases where advertising diminishes the user experience. But this view is overshadowed by a disturbingly omnipresent (and far more basic) demand that content should be both free and ad-free.
Mozilla’s Darren Herman put it this way:
“The rise of ad blocking is akin to a protest movement: a segment of the population is rejecting the bargain of free content in exchange for loaning their attention to ads.”
This is a very generous analogy. When workers protest for higher wages they do not do so by stealing from the till. Nor are decisions made unilaterally. If the standard business-model of ad-supported content is a form of social contract, then let readers vote with non-engagement. But when users unilaterally alter the delivery of digital-media, then we already know everything we need to know: They have not come to the table to “bargain”. They have come to take.
Acceptable to whom?
Which raises the most important question: Why would any user accept “acceptable ads” when they already have a far better deal?
The answer from publishers seems to be, because readers will ultimately be rational and understanding of the needs of publishers, and of the publishing business model.
I’m here to tell you, ‘No, they won’t be’. Ad blocking readers are not taking content conditionally. They are simply taking. It is hopelessly naive to believe that some rational, win/win understanding between readers and publishers exists around the next corner.
In small towns, people may care about their local businesses. The Internet is not one of those places. Assets must be protected.
The technological arms race is not optional.