Death by Advertisement
I used an ad blocker for awhile, and the fundamental truth is it made the internet better for me. Videos loaded faster. Concentrating on content was vastly simpler. I never had to hunt for an obtusely placed X when some unwanted slab of advertising scooted across my screen obscuring my view. To be honest, I really want to go back to using an ad blocker.
Ad-blocking isn’t really about money for readers. It’s about barriers. It’s about hassle and distraction and annoyance. Ads are designed to try and get your attention for at least part of the time you spend on a site. Ads are intentionally disruptive to the experience you are having, and because the technology exists to eliminate disruption, it’s no surprise that people chose to use that technology. It’s no different from any other medium: When a commercial comes on when I’m listening to a radio, what do I do? I check if another station is playing a song I like instead. If an ad comes on the TV, I get up and go to the bathroom. Is the fact that I choose not to consume those ads some breach of my responsibility as a viewer or listener? I think not.
Of course, ad-blocking is to websites and content makers what used games are to game publishers. It’s not really arguable that people are stealing the content — though I am willing to bet more than a few people might give it the old college try — but neither are they directing dollars to the content makers. Whatever benefit the reader/viewer gains, the content creator loses.
The rules around how companies can make money from online content are in a consistent state of flux driven by changing technology and changing attitudes. And grudgingly, furiously and with great pain, it will likely fall to the website makers to find another solution beside — or at least in tandem with — advertising. In the process, we will lose a lot of voices. Heck, we already have, with the recent closures of GameSpy and 1UP.
Still, I can’t help but wonder how many people visited forums or news sites, and shook their head sadly at the closure of these long veterans of gaming content with their ad blockers on. I’m not going to be the one to say that those who did are implicated in the end of those establishments. There are, after all, a lot of moving parts to those kinds of decisions. But, I’m willing to bet declining ad revenue for any reason, regardless of traffic, probably didn’t help.
I’m not asking for sympathy here. Like every area of media and content production, the past two decades have insisted on incredible agility from makers of content. And frankly, people have been good at rewarding those outlets, services or providers who do prove able to roll with the changing of the times.
Not surprisingly, stealing — or being perceived as having stolen content — is not the go-to response for most people. And before I venture too perilously close to using labels like “piracy” and “stealing” content, that’s not what we’re really talking about here. We are talking more about finding a common ground on the generally accepted social agreement that makers of content deserve to be rewarded for what they create. The tough part is that now the consumers are also loudly stating that, while they are willing to reward, they aren’t going to just reward everyone regardless of quality or value, and they want to do the rewarding on their own terms.
The difference for online versus traditional media is not just that an individual can opt out of consuming the advertisement. The online reader can opt out of being served the advertisement altogether. The user doesn’t make a reactive choice (I don’t want this ad, I’m going to pause my DVR). The user is ahead of the game entirely.
Interestingly, this doesn’t hurt advertisers all that much, because they can monitor who sees what and basically say to a content creator that they are only going to pay for the people who actually saw their ad, so there’s no skin off their back. They only pay out for who actually receives their advertisement, which in some ways is actually better than other media, like television.
So, the content creator pays for it in the end. Which is a bit funny, because the person who has the most control over what draws a potential customer has the least control over what that person does once they are on the site, at least from an advertising point of view. Which, regardless of whether you think ads are great or not, is an unfortunate deal for the person doing all the work.
It may, however, come as a surprise — given that I have put this all in that context — that I don’t necessarily think this is all a bad thing either. Odds are that any innovative solutions that websites begin to put together to resolve this displeasure will actually result in a direct transaction between creator and receiver of content. Ads, after all, are acting only as a middleman that adds nothing of value to the transaction, and as much as you dislike being served ads, content creators don’t like having to distribute advertising for products that can be seen as endorsement of those products.
On top of that, there is a real opportunity here for innovative voices and outlets, if they’re based more on a firm connection and collaboration with their readers, to step into the void. Inevitably on a broader scale, the source of funding influences the funded, and you see this trend in the way that, as a collective, content creators seem to shift toward creating content that supports the advertising model. That’s not to say that every or any particular creator of content is explicitly trying to write words that deliver a marketing message, but that, as an aggregate, attracting and keeping advertisers happy with the content they are advertising on is a consideration.
If the direct customer is the source of funds and support, well then the only goal is making those readers feel like they are getting value. I speak with some authority on this.
As a site that doesn’t run a lot of ads, we don’t really have a dog in this fight. We’ve figured out an alternative model that we’re pretty happy with, and I think it keeps us honest to our roots. I also recognize that it’s an extraordinarily limited model that only works under a few conditions, and building a long-term answer is no simple task.
What you think about ad-blocking probably has a lot to do with where you are on the chain. Established outlets with high traffic probably hate it. Smaller outlets, or places that generate success as much through good-will and community as through fat checks from advertisers, probably take a more tempered view. Readers obviously love it, and advertisers — as long as they get enough ads in front of enough eyes across the spectrum of sites they work with — may not like it but aren’t openly in revolt the way they are around DVR.
That tells me this isn’t a moral issue; it’s a business one. And though I choose not to use ad-blocking, I really don’t find myself faulting those who do. What I hope is that its use becomes a force for innovation, not over-reaction.