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Ad blockers: the debate rages on

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 1, 2015
The ad blocker story has entered new phase and one that should get publishers and advertisers rethinking strategy.

The Ad Blocker story rages on but are media learning anything? It's certainly a mixed bag out there. First up I like Doc Searls analysis of how this cottage industry took off, largely as a result of publishers failing to respect 'do not track.' Sears makes the link between ad blocking and 'do not track' powerfully through this graphic drawn from Google Trends:

do not track

Sears then reinforces his argument through the application of Cluetrain principles where he argues:

If we look at this war through the lens of GandhiCon

  1. First they ignore you.
  2. Then they laugh at you.
  3. Then they fight you.
  4. Then you win.

…we’re at GandhiCon3.

It is typical of business, even on the Internet (where everybody has power, and not just the big institutions), to think that ad blocking is a problem that affects only them, and that it’s up to them to fix it. (A new example: Secret Media.)

Actually, it’s up to us. Because we’ll win. Then we’ll find ourselves saying roughly what Cluetrain said for us sixteen years ago:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Deal is the operative verb here. Publishers and companies that advertise have power too, and we need to engage it, not just fight it. (In his speech at the UN today, President Obama had a good one-liner that applies here: “We all have a stake in each other’s success.”)

The question then comes --- what are the outcomes? Sears offers two alternatives, one is that ad blockers evolve to sieve the wheat from the chaff, the other is that 'we' become part of the solution by getting marketers to think past what he describes as 'abuse and coercion' to the point where marketers accept that:

  1. Free customers are far more valuable than captive one
  2. Genuine relationships are worth far more than the kind that is coerced
  3. Volunteered (and truly relevant) personal data is worth far more than the kind that is involuntarily fracked
  4. Expressions of real intent by customers are worth far more than guesswork fed by fracked data

I sense we are a long way away from the second proposition. Here's why.

Nearly all arguments for ad blockers start from the unstated supposition that the stability of ad spending will continue. Ben Thompson for example says:

... all of the brand advertising money on TV will go somewhere; the U.S. has had about the same amount of advertising — between 1.1% and 1.4% of GDP — for as long as we’ve been measuring.

Will it? For as long as no-one questions the status quo, I'm guessing Thompson will be proven correct. The trouble with that is nowhere do I see an explanation for the continuing rumblings of discontent that led to the TiVo and/or Netflix society.

Advertisers do not seem to have woken up to the fact an entire generation of people have voted with their wallets and either time shift ads out of the way or don't see them at all, preferring instead to pay a subscription for the pleasure of uninterrupted programming.

That should not surprise when American TV programming in particular seems to be something that interrupts the adverts rather than being something we can admire as creative art. On the other hand, I hear plenty of people say they look forward to adverts as an art form, perhaps best displayed at Super Bowl, where the game seems wholly incidental to the acres of space occupied by those assessing the ad slots.

Advertisers for their part are characterizing the current ad blocking craze as akin to war. The usual argument put out is that it hurts the smaller publishers who depend on advertising to keep them going. My answer to that is simple: Heh dudes, find a mew business model that works for you. Don't depend on fighting against the individual who has made a choice about how annoying you are. Even so, publishers are waking up to the advert problem, even if they have no real clue how to solve it, beyond making adverts somehow acceptable:

“We need to try and solve the things that are annoying to our audience, whether it’s seeing too many ads or messages that make the page load too slowly or ads that take over the page,” Imburg said. “We need to solve those problems so ads become a feature of sites in the long tail – and not just an annoying way to generate revenue.”

As if to add fuel to the fire, the New York Times put ad blockers to the test in an effort to both discover the impact ads have on the mobile experience and then correlate that to mobile data costs. Here's one result:

[with ad blockers]...many websites loaded faster and felt easier to use. Data is also expensive. We estimated that on an average American cell data plan, each megabyte downloaded over a cell network costs about a penny. Visiting the home page of every day for a month would cost the equivalent of about $9.50 in data usage just for the ads.

Staggering isn't it? Here's a graphic to accompany the assertion:

Ad blockers impact

Interestingly, some sites, like The Guardian, have managed to slim down ad loading times so that performance is barely degraded on mobile devices. But there's a gotcha the NYT authors missed: those ads are still annoying and the only way to get rid of them is by paying for a subscription.Will I do that or 'put up and shut up?' I'm on the fence but am inclined to pay for a superior user experience from content providers I trust to deliver good value.

In the meantime, here is another graphic showing the true cost of running mobile ads.

Infographic: The True Cost of Mobile Ads | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

That may not fulfill Doc Searls ideal of 'free' but it represents a price I may be willing to pay where eI have an informed choice. In the meantime, I suspect the quality titles will try ride both the advertising and subscription horses for as along as they can. I doubt they have any other options at a time when it continues to prove difficult for many titles, including the quality ones, to find a business model that works in the digital age.

In the meantime, I see the rise of uninterruptible pre-roll video ads as the most intrusive and annoying part of what we are subjected to as the next ad blocker battleground.

Before closing out, I'd like to remind readers of the scale of problem. For all the behavioral work, tracking and so on that adtech offers, the outcomes are still incredibly crude. That is a cost that all advertisers and, in the end consumers, have to bear. Is it really worth it?

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