#OPSPOV: Blocking Ads to Save Digital Media’s Soul?

Blocking Ads to Save Digital Media's Soul?

What if ad blockers are actually good for digital media and advertising?

Does it sound so weird, especially considering that people from all digital media walks believe viewability makes the space better? It ensures ads are actually seen and will eventually take revenue away from bad actors as it seeps through the programmatic channels.

But ad blockers? Our sworn enemy? Gavin, you been hitting the tech cocktail circuit a bit too hard lately?

Maybe, but listen: I don’t use ad blockers because I believe in the unspoken handshake – the moral agreement that I trade my data and attention for website content. Yes, if you use ad blockers while on an ad-supported site, you’re effectively stealing content – you’re denying the publisher the ability to monetize your visit. 

In an article on the ethics of ad blocking, Tumblr cofounder Marco Arment suggests my belief (my morals!) are misguided. He argues that the implied consent theory suggests users have to view each of the ads and possibly purchase products. I disagree – the trade is for a shot at your attention. It’s the advertiser’s job to actually entice you into looking at the ad. It’s the same rules as print – nobody’s forcing you to look at that full-page ad in the Business section, but the publisher has offered the advertiser the opportunity to reach the reader.

(And yes, Arment created the mobile Safari ad blocker Peace, which rose to the top of the App Store before he abruptly withdrew it.)

The problem is the moral agreement is lacking – it doesn’t offer users a choice in how to pay for their content. This is why many people are intently watching The Washington Post’s experiment blockading ad-block users and telling them to turn off or pay up, a solution I’ve long advocated for. It only brings the consent to light but completes it by adding a choice.

Arment makes another interesting analogy – pop-up/under ads were considered such a menace that eventually browsers themselves began to block them. We probably can trace the rise in ad blockers directly to this low-water mark in advertising. In addition to annoying the hell out of people, pop-ups were (are) notorious for delivering malware, a problem that plagues digital advertising to this day.

But that was a specific format – you could argue browsers are conspiring against digital advertising by enabling ad-blocking extensions, but there isn’t near industry consensus that all digital advertising is bad and needs to be stopped.

At the same time, the digital advertising industry is in a rough patch. As I suggested in a piece on ad ops + UX, Internet users are deluged with video, interstitials, and rich media wherever they go. The Internet is full of crap, reheated content or just mind-numbing clickbait with eye-gouging ad experiences courtesy of exchanges that are raking in the revenue alongside these junk publishers.

Premium publishers are guilty too, figuratively attacking their audiences with an abundance of advertising, even on a per-page basis. To some extent they have to to stay afloat – the pressure on CPMs is continuously downward, so pubs are seeking revenue wherever they can get it, many times at the cost of user experience.

And where does the user stand in all this? Well, what if using an ad blocker is actually a protest – against poor digital advertising?

The biggest criticism of Adobe/PageFair’s “ad blocking costs $21.8 billion in advertising revenue” figure is that it assumes the blocked ads would have sold for market value. If those ads were not blocked, they would have driven down CPMs for everyone. In fact, some have suggested that users with ad blockers are inherently more valuable because their attention is harder to access. Let’s call it psuedo-scarcity.

Here’s the thought – if enough people turn on ad blocking, it will force larger publishers to adopt strategies like WaPo’s “turn off or pay.” Publishers that straight ignore ad-block signals are likely to alienate users and lose audience. But presented with the choice, users will become more selective about where they get content. Theoretically, they will spend their time on higher-quality content with acceptable ad experiences. Publishers with these qualities will win bigger, loyal audiences, which in turn will bring advertisers knocking.

So am I going to install ABP and do my part in bringing the digital media utopia to life?

No. For one thing, Ad Block Plus whitelists content providers who pay a ransom (how a German court didn’t see this as a racket is beyond me), which means certain pubs and advertisers will be able to buy access. Hopefully that will eventually come to bite ABP on its ass as users feel stiffed (“Why am I seeing ads?!?”) and abandon the service. 

But also if presented the choice between turning ad block off, paying a fee (with money?!?) or finding similar content elsewhere, my bet is that the majority of users will just turn ad block off. Giving advertisers the chance to fight for our attention beats shelling out dollars and takes less effort than hunting down alternatives, particularly if it’s a site we trust. (Publisher brand loyalty is still a thing.) It’s kinda like digital media piracy – a lot of us dabbled (or indulged), but as soon as our favorite torrent site went down and price-agreeable solutions appeared (Spotify for music; Netflix and Hulu for movies and TV shows), we shrugged and opened our wallets.

HBO Now for the cord-cutter set is a great example. Yes, I may have watched the first few seasons of “Game of Thrones” through dubious means (which kind of fits the show’s themes, you have to admit), but as soon as HBO introduced its streaming service, I was happy to pay for it. You could say they came to me – I didn’t want cable, but was willing to pay for their content if I could access it in my preferred way.

This means publishers just can’t install “block off or get off” software – they also need to improve the ad experiences on their sites: the amount of ads per page, the type of units and creative allowed, etc. Stuff I detailed in the ad ops + UX piece.

We can shake our heads and say users always complain about advertising, but the rise in ad blocking should signal that their hatred for advertising has grown so strong that larger swaths are taking measures to avoid it. In our chase for revenue, publisher have let our users down by barraging them, harassing them with advertising. The hard part now is figuring out how to maintain or increase revenue while delivering a better ad experience.

But I hear ops likes a challenge…