It happened a few days ago, just as it happens nearly every day when I read the news: I clicked on a story about drone regulations and, instead of a story, I was greeted by a loud, unrelated video that I couldn’t stop. Eventually it ran its course, and I was able to read the story, but I also resolved not to visit that site again.
Unfortunately, intrusive ads are far too common, as are ads that serve malware, slow down peoples’ Internet connections or soak up expensive mobile bandwidth. Because of this, users are installing ad blockers on their computers and mobile devices that keep out all advertising, not just intrusive or annoying ads. Understanding why they do this is pretty easy.
It’s also common when I go to a Web site that I wait. And wait. And wait. The reason for the wait isn’t because of the Web site content, but rather because ads load too slowly. Sometimes the sites use Flash content, which I’ve disabled. And, in many cases, the Web pages I’m trying to read are coded so they won’t load until the ads load, which may be forever—which, again, is a strong incentive to block ads.
Despite the fact that there are some very good reasons to reject online advertising, it exists for some very good reasons as well. The most important is that it’s about the only way to pay for content that appears on the Web site. Without ads, you’d have no content. And yes, if you look next to this column on eWEEK, you’ll see ads. Those ads are how I get paid.
So it’s understandable that the Newspaper Association of America has gone on a campaign to prevent the use of ad blockers. After all, the association estimates that more than 10 percent of all ads on the Internet are blocked. In addition, the NAA has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission challenging the use of some ad blockers.
Perhaps more notable, David Chavern, CEO of the NAA, declared in an opinion column in January that “Ad blocking threatens democracy.” Really? So I called Chavern.
“That might have been a little bit of hyperbole in the headline,” Chavern said when I spoke with him. But he pointed out that the idea of free access to news was being threatened by the declining revenues that news organizations receive from their online advertising. He maintained that this is a threat to access to news by everyone.
But in his opinion piece and in other public statements, Chavern and the NAA seem to be blaming their own readers for their revenue shortfall because of ad blockers.
But in fact, it appears to be the publishers and their advertisers that are cannibalizing their own readership. Those advertisers have been allowed to run poorly crafted, intrusive ads without fear of retribution.
The publishers have allowed this in an effort to maximize their own revenues, forgetting the golden rule of advertising supported publishing: It’s the audience that is the product being sold, not the publication. If you lose your audience because they grow to hate your advertising, then you lose your publication.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which is an advocacy and technical standards group for the digital advertising industry, has published what it calls its L.E.A.N. initiative. In this case, the acronym stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad Choice Supported and Non-Invasive. This is backed up with a scoring system that lets publishers decide whether the ads they allow are up to snuff.
Web Publishers Must Address Reasons Why Readers Install Ad Blockers
“The digital ad environment has to get a whole lot better,” Chavern explained. “Some ads are super-derivative of TV that junk up people’s experience.” He thinks the advertising environment online is going to get a lot better.
But he also noted that in some cases the use of ad blockers isn’t delivering to users what they think they’re getting. A prime issue for the NAA is what’s called “Paid Whitelisting,” which lets some ads through while blocking others.
The problem is that with paid whitelisting, the ads that get through are the ads from companies that paid the ad blocking company to allow their ads through, not necessarily the ads the end user asked for. The NAA says this is a deceptive business practice, and that’s the substance of the action filed with the FTC.
Of course, not all ad blockers use paid whitelisting. Some simply block all ads. And, in some cases, users disable certain objectionable technologies such as Flash. But the problem here is that the blame is being put on the ad blocking software and, by extension, the end user.
So let’s try to boil this down to its basics: Publishers and ad companies need to understand that their revenue woes aren’t the audience’s problem. They are the problem of the Web publishers that accept the ads and serve them up to their readers. To get a handle on their declining revenues, they need to find a way to get their audiences to view or read the ads willingly, because they’re interesting or entertaining. Forcing the audience to view ads is not the path to success.
The Washington Post has faced this problem straight on, and it asserts it’s having less of a problem with ad blockers than many others. “You have to understand what ad blockers do to your business,” said Jed Hartman, chief revenue officer for The Washington Post, “and you have to understand why there’s demand for ad blockers.” Hartman said there needs to be a plan for both and that it’s essential companies balance user experience with revenue, leaning toward the user experience.
“The ecosystem was leaning heavily towards revenue,” Hartman explained. “Our owner [Amazon’s Jeff Bezos] is focused on the user and advertising is focused on user experience.” Because of that, Hartman said that the company researched why a Washington Post user would use an ad blocker. The result is that the Post was able to clean up its ad experience as a way to discourage the demand for ad blockers. “You have to keep your side of the street clean,” he said. “You have to treat your audience well.”
The real answer is one of respect. Publishers and advertisers must get the real economics of their relationship with their audience into the proper perspective if they plan to stay afloat on advertising. This means they must respect the sensibilities of their audience for their long-term good. If they don’t, all of the anti-ad blocker moves won’t mean a thing.
I know from experience that it works—I still smile every time I see Mean Joe Green toss that jersey in the Coke ads or when I see a diminutive Darth Vader start a Volkswagen, or when I see a Clydesdale colt trying to catch up. But creating that positive reader experience means respecting the audience enough to make ads they actually want to watch or read. And you can’t do that by forcing it to happen.