September 17, 2015

Ad Supported

In a few weeks time, iOS 9 will launch with Safari Content Blocker. This technology allows the general public to use content blockers (better known as ad-blockers) on their iPhones. It’s kind of a big deal. Ad-blockers allow users to remove annoying advertisements from web pages in real time. It’s as if the ads don’t exist. A lot of publishers think this spells the end of online content, as publishers will no longer be able to earn enough revenue to support their staff.

I think they’re probably mostly right. Online advertising won’t be a viable business model for long. Many existing publishers will go out of business. It will be a difficult time for many in the industry. But I don’t think the web is going to suffer with a little less content. We’ll do just fine. Online advertising is on its way out as a viable business plan.

But there’s a twist in this story. It’s ad-supported publishers that created the market for the ad-blockers which are spelling their doom. It’s kind of poetic if you think about it.

Loglo

I remember the first time I read Snow Crash and came upon the idea of loglo:

As the sun sets, its red light is supplanted by the light of many neon logos emanating from the franchise ghetto that constitutes this U-Stor-It’s natural habitat. This light, known as loglo, fills in the shadowy corners of the unit with seedy, oversaturated colors.

That passage gave me chills. This wasn’t so much fiction as much as an amplified view of what is already happening. Today, many American freeways are lined with bright, colorful LED advertisements that give the landscape a supernatural coloring. I remember my city once had to issue regulations for brightness after several accidents were caused near a particularly bright ad.

A similar story has been playing out online. The only touch of color and animation on most publisher’s websites are advertisements. The ads are bright, loud, and everything the content is not. They have become so egregious that they often overwhelm articles, creating an environment where content fades into an infinite sea of ads.

Loglo lights the streets of Snow Crash. Content floats upon an ad-sea online.

Annoying

Newspapers have had ads for a long time. They’re usually in black & white (unless the whole page is color) and they sit in their little boxes next to the content. There exist many situations where ads are fine. But online, it’s a different story. Ads expand, pushing your content out of the way, automatically playing video & sound, forcing you to interact with them to continue. All in all, ads have been as annoying as technically possible, and there’s a lot that’s technically possible now. With this technical race comes a severe performance handicap on our computers. Much of our processing power and battery life today is spent rendering ads, not doing the work we set out to do.

Under the surface, they have intruded deep into our personal lives, robbing us of our privacy. Ad networks have built complicated mechanisms to track us and store information about our personal lives. How old are you? Do you own a home? What’s your income? Ad networks collect this type of information and share it — with a fee — to other companies without our consent.

The saddest part is how deceiving ads have become. They deceive in message, claiming the improbable/impossible (one weird trick…), and they deceive in appearance, pretending not to be an ad. There is little quality control in advertisements, and deception is the name of the game in majority. Ads are downright predatory to anyone who isn’t tech-savvy (and even then…).

Publishers play their part too. They constantly seek new ways to inject advertising in & around their content — whether it be turning the entire background into an ad, or disguising advertisements as journalism via native advertising. When users stop paying attention to the low-quality ads, publishers blame the users for “forcing” them to implement more invasive ads. Publishers have complete control over these decisions, and they have decided again and again to turn their environment into a user-hostile one.

FALSE DICHOTOMY

Much of the discussion around ads from publishers has been something along the lines of: we don’t like ads, but we gotta pay the bills and only the annoying ones do that. You will suffer ads, or you will not have content. They call this a compromise, but it is one made for the users without their agreement.

Life finds a way.

Users have been complaining about online ads for decades and publishers have refused to listen. So users fixed the problem themselves. First came pop-up blockers, and now come content-blockers. If you won’t give us a decision, we won’t give you one. You can put ads in your content, we’ll just filter your content.

Publishers forced this hand. Ad-blockers would not be popular today had ads not gotten so bad. Users are so frustrated they will do anything to get rid of them. That is not how your customers should feel about your primary revenue stream.

The customer is always right

I don’t think we’re done with this discussion. Publishers will continue to force a hostile environment on their customers and customers will find a way to get around it. Ad-blockers might be the talking point of today, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see paywalls be the talking point of tomorrow. Hint: we’ve already seen this play out with music & video. I don’t think it’s going to end in publisher’s favor.

And this is kind of the thing: customers always win. Businesses serve at the pleasure of their customers. It is easy to fall into the idea that customers need you as a business owner, but history has proven otherwise. You need your customers, and if you don’t respect that dynamic, you will lose them.

Publishers that listen to their customers will continue to thrive.

This sucks for publishers

I have to sympathize with the publishers. I’m sure a lot of them feel like they’re forced into a corner. There aren’t many good examples of publishers succeeding without annoying ads. It’s easy to come up with an idea for compelling content, much harder to come up with a revenue plan to afford it. Many have been struggling to find a way to pay their employees as piracy, ad-blockers, and crashing ad engagement rates have destroyed their revenue streams. It’s hard to be a publisher today.

But times change. Sometimes your business model becomes invalid as the world changes. This is the nature of The Innovator’s Dilemma — any business who wants to survive must be willing to cannibalize their dying products as the world changes. Preventing death is a losing battle. This sucks for business owners. It means a lot of hard work and often means the end of their business (and the beginning of new ones).

I sympathize with publishers, but I do not feel bad for them. Publishers accelerated the death of their business model by repeatedly refusing to listen to their customers. They will die, and they will have deserved it.

A couple of weeks ago I caved. For the first time in two decades of browsing online, I installed an ad-blocker. The web is a lot more pleasant. I find myself enjoying a lot more articles. My computer feels faster. Battery life seems infinite. My only regret was that I didn’t join in on the ad-blocking bandwagon earlier. For the first time in a long time, I’m able to soak up & appreciate the web. And wasn’t that kind of the point of being a publisher?

If you'd like to keep in touch, I tweet @kneath on Twitter. You're also welcome to send a polite email to kyle@warpspire.com. I don't always get the chance to respond, but email is always the best way to get in touch.

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