Ad Blocking: A Binary Solution To A Complex Problem
Blocking ads is akin to stealing music or movies, argues columnist Rob Rasko, but the only way to fight back is to educate consumers.
There is no free lunch. Everything has an inherent cost, whether it’s in time, money or resources. Consumers have the option to decide if the cost of a good or service is worth the exchange of their resources.
The only question is: Who will pay those costs? Web publishing is not exempt from this basic economic law, although the rise in ad blocker use that is quickly gaining momentum is a sure sign that we’ve lost sight of how this fundamental principle works.
The rise in ad blocker use is being driven by two things: First, ad blocking is typically a frictionless experience, seen by consumers as a harmless action. Second, the value exchange between publisher and reader that pays for content has been forgotten.
Consumers have become so accustomed to accessing content on the Web without an explicit financial transaction that most people see content on the Web as being free. I get it — some content is worth a lot, some is worth a little, while some is worth nothing at all.
But online or offline, taking goods or services without paying for them is stealing. Unfortunately, consumers don’t typically see it that way, and as industry leaders, it is our job to educate consumers and let them know that it is.
Stealing content has become effortless, which is likely why so many consumers have a false sense that it isn’t stealing at all. The same mentality applies to thinking that ad blocking isn’t a problem.
If the adoption of ad blockers continues, content publishers — like music publishers over the last decade — will eventually need to find new business models, as content monetization via advertising is their key revenue driver. When you visit a site, that publisher has a right to show you an ad in order stay in business. It’s that simple.
Blocking ads is a choice that consumers shouldn’t be allowed to make — they simply don’t think of it the same way as stealing music or movies … yet.
How We Got Here
Consumers have a valid reason for being frustrated by the current state of online publishing and Web advertising. While native ads have evolved, and sponsored content has begun to provide an arguably more enriching consumer experience, many Web pages today are littered with low-value advertisements that clutter a page and diminish the user’s experience.
There are simply too many things — original content, native ads, recommendation engines, pop-ups, push-downs, overlays — vying for a consumer’s attention.
The experience is further diminished by ads on the page that slow down browsers and eat up mobile data. It also doesn’t help that some non-premium websites may be serving advertisements that are loaded with malware.
But as valid as these arguments are, they do not justify undermining an entire industry’s revenue stream. In my opinion, consumers don’t realize what they are doing.
Where This Is Headed
“Fifteen percent of American Web surfers are currently using ad blocking technologies, and there is no slowing down their adoption,” Sourcepoint’s Matt Adkisson told me.
I sat down to talk about this trend with my friend, Ben Barokas, and his colleagues, Adkisson and Jeroen Seghers. Barokas recently founded Sourcepoint, a company whose mission is to help publishers quantify their monetization challenges and provide them with technology to tackle the issue.
Sourcepoint’s basic premise is that people want to access content and to have as frictionless an experience as possible, but right now, consumers are not getting that. So they have taken matters into their own hands.
According to Adkisson, users have a few options: They can choose not to consume your content at all; they can choose to consume your content somewhere else; or they can try to eliminate the friction they feel. However, users haven’t been warned about the consequences of their actions. No revenue means no more content.
Adkisson forewarned that going out of business is the most anti-consumer outcome of all. That is why the publisher revenue model must be protected at all costs.
“Nobody wants to go back to the old AOL era where we create, share and consume all of our content in one walled garden. We want to give users the ability to customize their user experience while helping the publisher economics,” he said. I couldn’t agree more.
Maybe I’m an optimist, but I see this as a challenge and an opportunity for digital media to improve. As an industry, we have become obsessed with disruption as an end-goal rather than as a means for improving a product or service.
The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of technology, targeting, and audience buying without regard to the impact on the underlying product we’re selling — the content. This issue is finally gaining the attention of publishers and forcing us as a whole to find a better way to generate revenue in a less intrusive way.
As native ads mature, and brands become better at telling stories and creating content that adds value instead of detracting from it, there will be a day when we have a more holistic, less intrusive experience.
So where do we go from here? How does our industry win this latest battle in the fight to be seen by humans?
The truth is, ad blockers will never win this fight. They may have enjoyed a modicum of success and an ongoing surge in popularity, but in the war against advertising, the publishers must win.
They can hire better coders and continue to find new ways to overcome any ad blocker. If the situation became dire, publishers could revert to ads that are hard-coded onto publisher properties, like in print — no data, no dynamic, no bidding, and most importantly, no blocking.
Publishers have an opportunity to take the growth of ad blocking as a sign that they should make their product better, and users ultimately have the choice whether or not they want what publishers are offering. As my friends at Sourcepoint said, “A user does have the right to not see ads. They can simply not go to the site.”