Free online content is not always free. If you read an article on Forbes or watch a popular video on YouTube, then that is bought and paid for by somebody, even if that somebody is not you.
We live in an age in which consumers do not want to have to pay for every single piece of content, which, considering the volume we go through, makes sense. But content creators spend tens, hundreds, thousands of hours on their material, and they deserve to be compensated fairly, right? Enter online advertising.
Ads require all parties involved to pay something. The advertisers themselves pay, well, money. Content creators pay by ceding space from their website, time from their video, or some other valuable real estate. The only price that consumers have to pay is attention. And it’s this last group where issues are beginning to arise. Why?
Because people hate ads. According to a Gallup poll, only 32% of Americans viewed advertising and public relations favorably. Slightly better than the federal government, perhaps, but 6% less than even utility companies.
The Internet Advertising Bureau breaks down the main reasons users are turning to ad blockers:
Far and away, the largest issue for people is the negative effect that ads have on user experience. Ads slow down web browsing, get in the way of accessing the desired content, and distract users. The conflict lies in completely opposing goals: advertisers want to grab consumers’ attention as effectively as possible, and consumers want to avoid having their attention interrupted. Unsurprisingly, the most reviled ads are those that try hardest to be noticed, such as banner ads, animated ads, and auto-playing videos.
So how do people handle these unwanted ads? They block them. According to PageFair’s 2015 Ad Blocking Report, there were 198 million active ad blocker users worldwide, with a growth rate that would put the current number over a quarter of a billion.
The people most likely to use ad blockers are primarily – you guessed it – Millenials, and well-to-do Millennials at that. Unfortunately for advertisers, those most likely to block their ads are exactly the high value targets they’re trying to reach.
At this time, the majority of sites simply let ad blockers be, with no countermeasures or even a mention. But many are fighting back. Sites like Forbes and The Washington Post have blocked users from accessing their site if an ad blocker is running, and Yahoo has denied its ad blocking users access to email accounts. These moves might seem drastic, but they demonstrate just how much pain these sites are feeling over revenue lost to ad blockers, a financial toll that continues to rise.
At this point, the effectiveness of a zero tolerance policy with ad blockers is uncertain. The strategy runs the risk that users may simply boycott the site, but that might not necessarily be such a danger. The number of Forbes.com users increased to 43 million in November of last year, up from 38 million in October. However, this policy may lead to an arms race between publishers and consumers, who will almost certainly find ways around sites’ defenses, if they haven’t already.
Other websites are testing alternative approaches to the problem. Some kindly ask to be whitelisted, in exchange for a small fee. The banner on the right, for example, is OkCupid’s attempt to recover at least a portion of its lost revenue.
It’s a very interesting, and potentially popular tool to deter ad blocking. An increasing number of websites have employed this method, as well as the tone. Consumers, for the most part, really do seem to care that people are properly compensated for their hard work, and can be willing to meet content creators on this middle ground.
Unfortunately, this method breaks down with scale. What if every site adopted this model? What if, every time you followed a link, you got a cheery welcome page asking for a dollar? The reason we have ads in the first place is because of people’s unwillingness to pay for content. This model may suffice for the present, in which only a fraction of people use ad blockers, and OkCupid would rather take $5 than nothing at all. But if the number of visitors using ad blockers goes up, will their current business model be sustainable? It seems unlikely.
Some have taken the Jewish mother approach, displaying a guilt-inducing request for users to disable ad blockers on their site. And their appeals are very fair. As Ken Fisher of Ars Technica put it,
“Imagine running a restaurant where 40% of the people who came and ate didn’t pay. In a way, that’s what ad blocking is doing to us…I think in some ways the Internet and its vast anonymity feeds into a culture where many people do not think about the people, the families, the careers that go into producing a website.”
How can advertisers and content distributors ameliorate this problem? The first step is to make ads consumer friendly. If they want to prevent ad blockers, then unobtrusive ads and good UX are necessary.
Mark Howard, chief revenue officer of Forbes Media, has recognized the need to meet users halfway:
“For us, is there an experience we can offer that they’ll whitelist us? It’s not all or nothing.”
Such an experience would require the website to police its ads. Forbes has begun testing an “ad-light” experience – which leaves out autoplay videos and animated ads – as a reward for users who turn off ad blockers.
One promising method is native advertising, which, when done well, a) can’t be eliminated by ad blockers, and b) is much less jarring to the user experience. Examples of native advertising include branded posts – a popular form of content on Buzzfeed – and interactive content, which can actually be pleasing to users. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s definitely a start.
But ad blockers serve another function beyond annoyance-reduction, which is to protect users from malicious programs. Almost a third of respondents to the Internet Advertising Bureau’s poll cited privacy as a concern that led them to block ads.
If this seems unnecessary for mainstream sites, think again: in an embarrassing incident, Forbes asked people to turn off ad blockers, and users who complied were immediately hit with malware from an ad on the page. This is yet more evidence that if you want users to trust you enough to turn off ad blockers, you have to be worthy of that trust.
Okay, so we’ve examined the effects of ad blockers on standard web pages. But mobile ads are safe, right? Don’t be so sure. New applications for mobile users allow them to block the very same ads on their phones. Even Apple has okayed this development, allowing ad blockers into its app store. Within days, three of the top five apps in the store were ad blockers.
The implications of ad blockers are a little frightening for the health of many industries. Kristine Coratti Kelly, The Washington Post’s spokesperson, explains why:
“Many people already receive our journalism for free online, and in the long run, without income via subscriptions or advertising, we won’t be able to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us.”
And that is the rub. Ad blockers, like pirating, depend on the assumption that only a fraction of people are circumventing the system that compensates producers. But if ad blockers continue to grow, as they are projected to do, then publications and other sites with ad-based revenue generation are going to have to make cuts on quality in order to deal with their reduced resources. People don’t like ads, but it’s probably safe to say that they would like it less if their favorite websites went down the tubes, as Ken Fisher cautions:
“People talk about how annoying advertisements are, but I’ll tell you what: it’s a lot more annoying and frustrating to have to cut staff and cut benefits because a huge portion of readers block ads.”
If this situation is to have a happy ending, then websites and users need to find a middle ground upon which ads can be tolerated, or alternative revenue streams can be introduced.