Braving the wrath of big media - how ads get massively disrupted, along with most digital media

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett April 7, 2016
Summary:
The Brave browser could spell the end of digital advertising as we know it. Here's why and why publishers hate them.

brave splash page
I'm not a huge fan of the 'D' word but on this occasion there is good reason to use it.

You've probably never heard about it but there's a new browser in town that promises to blow up the ad media model in a way that is the equivalent of someone dropping a nuclear bomb on the publishing industry. Aptly named Brave has so enraged the big US publishers that 1,200 of them have banded together via the NAA claiming that what Brave does is illegal. For its part  Brave robustly denies any such thing. What's going on?

Brave - who?

Earlier in the year and to almost no fanfare, Brave introduced a browser that actively blocks ads and then offers to replace those ads with its own. At least that's what the publishers claim. The company denies this but has a much more nuanced and intelligent answer to what the publishers are saying. Stick with me because this is worth the ride and I can guarantee you will not find this analysis anywhere else.

It's probably fair to say that no-one other than geeks give a crap about browsers. You get whatever your device or machine offers and mostly that does the trick. The various market shares of Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer and Safari, which once were huge talking points, barely get a mention these days. But what does matter is the rise of ad blockers. Users have clearly voted with their mouse buttons and in some estimates more than 200 million devces are using ad blockers. I do and I encourage others to do so. Check out Ghostery - you can get it for free and it does no harm to your setup.

The adblocker issue

While adblockers are effective, they represent a temporary solution and have to be installed/maintained. The publishing industry hates them for obvious reasons and some titles have implemented anti adblockers.  Forbes is one great example where they whine that ads support journalism and you can't see certain of their content unless you remove your adblocker. I don't look at Forbes anymore. It just isn't worth the hassle. Forbes made the massive mistake of allowing any old garbage onto their site - provided the sponsoring organization ponied up enough for real ads. That led to a whole new level of crap marketing which Forbes did nothing to moderate. Some marketers I know genuinely believed they were getting free access to a publishing platform. Heh ho. I'm aware that Forbes has tried to do something about it but it is too late.

The wider problem is that there is now a proleferation of sites where the main purpose is to serve ads. It's like American football. The play gets in the way of the ads to the extent that some sites are virtually useless. Answers.com springs to mind but there are thousands of these sites.

Then there are the sites that display massive overlays in a desperate effort to grab your attention or which have annoying popups that get in the way of the user experience. My old alma mater ZDNet has been especially egregious in that regard. But then CBS, that title's owners never understood digital publishing from the content perspective. Even Facebook has issues. The amount of ad heavy titles that are promoted is extraordinary. It is no wonder that people have voted with their mouse clicks.

The publishing industry has no easy answer. Personally, I now prefer to pay subscriptions for quality content because I recognize as a business person that free though fresh air may be, it doesn't put food on the table. Like a very few others, I've concluded that there is little point in chasing the mega publishers because their bulk is such tht you can never compete on eyeballs. The only thing you can do is compete on quality and a laser focus. How you monetize then becomes critical. A very few of us have figured this out and we're succeeding in an economy that otherwise is going to hell in a handbasket.

The Brave position

Brave takes an interesting position. It notes that the fundamentals of advertising are broken. It says:

The news industry is in catastrophic decline and has been for years. Brave has a model to change this dire trend by both funneling more ad revenue to publishers and allowing users to pay them directly.

Exactly how this works is not wholly clear but it appears that Brave attempts to separate what it calls 'clean' adverts from the memory and page load hogs that bedevil so many sites. It then serves the 'clean' ads. The net result it claims is a much better experience for the user while the publisher still has an opportunity to earn from ads. Brave takes its cut and offers a cut to the Brave user as compensation for having to still see some ads. The splits are transparent - see image below.

brave

Does this sound reasonable? For the person who is not a part of the media, this looks amazing. I'm going to get paid to watch ads? What a novel idea? Brave says that if users don't want to see any ads then that's fine too. This is massively disruptive for media because at a stroke, Brave shifts the power back into the hands of the user for which they have to do nothing other than use the browser. It is elegant in its simplicity to the point where I am left thinking: why didn't someone else think of this? Maybe they did and we dont know about it. But there's more.

Brave says:

Abusive, excessive, and even dangerous online advertising is driving users to adopt ad blockers en masse, and this is a trend that will not be reversed by legal threats, server-side anti-blocker countermeasures, or harsh language. We note that malware has been distributed on the websites of the New York Times and the BBC recently through the ill-designed, unregulated, and poorly-delegated third-party advertising technology ecosystem.

This is where things get difficult for the ads industry. In essence, Brave is implying that it will be the arbiter of what constitutes safe advertising. That's asking a lot of trust from users who have not seen this browser let alone experienced it. But then it has to be better than what we have today, doesn't it?

Privacy

Now to privacy. Think about Facebook which drops what I call sniffer pixels on your site should you choose to use their ad tracking software on your site. Sneeky? You bet because I can't find anywhere they explicitly say that. How many others might be doing the same? Isn't it better to trust that Brave (or something like it) provides that assurance? Here Brave starts to twist the knife, surfacing a few dirty little secrets about what really goes on:

The privacy point is overlooked in the NAA’s attack on Brave and worth emphasizing. The violation of individual privacy has reached epidemic proportions. The news industry has been an active participant in violating individual readers’ privacy by benefitting from non-consensual third party tracking and ads. Here is the before vs. after Ghostery tracking graph for just one popular site: (see right)

brave copmares sites

I'm with them on this. Some sites I visit have 30-40 trackers and beacons. It's crazy. And performance quickly becomes a nightmare. Speaking for diginomica, we understood early on that ads would provide a layer of 'stuff' we would need to actively manage. As noted elsewhere, ads can have a draining impact on page load times in an environment where Google speed is the benchmark my colleague Phil Wainewright reminds me of each time I want to bring in an enhancement.

As a publisher you don't have a lot of control over what the ad networks are sending so you have to optimize around them. This is an expensive task requiring almost continual tweaking. It is part of the reason that companies like New Relic exist with their performance sniffers. In Brave's world, the cost of delivery starts to fall. Isn't that a huge potential benefit? I think so.

Does it work?

The real test comes in using Brave. Does it do what it says on the tin. Yes - and then some. I tested Brave on all the popular sites with which readers are likely to be familiar: Huffington Post, WSJ, Washington Post, NYT, BusinessInsider, The Verge, VentureBeat and even Forbes. Without exception they all performed much better using Brave although they looked a bit odd when stripped of ads. Part of the reason is that Brave is a very light weight browser with almost no bells and whistles. That's OK. I don't necessarily want or need a pile of add-ons.

Ominous threats

All of which begs the question - will Brave succeed? I have no idea. One thing is for sure, it will need to enlist the help of Silicon Valley's media megaphone because for better or worse, that's how things get started. The problem is that without hard nosed discussions, there is very little incentive for any of them to come along for the ride while clinging onto an old skool ad based model. Buzzfeed would be the obvious target for Brave but are they prepared to take on such a well funded media orgnization and if so, then how will they offer them a compelling value proposition? Interestingly, BuzzFeed is not one of the signatories to the NAA letter. I have a few ideas but it's not my call. Privacy and citizens rights advocates would be another port of call.

In the meantime, Brave quite correctly points out where we're at:

Make no mistake: this NAA letter is the first shot fired in a war on all ad-blockers, not just on Brave. Though the NAA never reached out to us before firing this shot, we would be happy to sit down with them for an opportunity to discuss how the Brave solution can be a win-win for our users and the publishers they browse. We will fight alongside all citizens of the Internet who deserve and demand a better deal than they are getting from today's increasingly abusive approach to Web advertising.

And...if you are an ad buyer or marketer you might want to think about the implications. Browsers have come and gone over the years and while there may be big obstacles in front of Brave, they have a shot at making this work. Put another way, I am typing this via a Brave browser, I've installed it on my cell phone, I'll be encouraging my team to adopt and if I had the opportunity and wherewithall - I'd back them in a heartbeat. Not because I am altruistic but because Brave is addressing a pressing need in a novel and interesting way that proposes a fundamentally better business model for the media industry. I'm all for that.

End Note - in watching the two sides I am reminded of a certain ride share company that has had its share of legal troubles. Ahem.