Ars Technica penned an interesting article this weekend on ad blocking and how it impacts an outfit like theirs. This spawned discussions of varying quality ranging from thoughtful discourse on the problems of client-side ad implementations, all the way to “WTF FUCK ADVERTISING”.
I’ve been in the advertising game in some capacity for nearly a decade now, so I have a bit of a small- to medium-size publisher perspective in all this. Ad blocking has been around for the majority of that time, and that we’re still in a battle about it is interesting to me.
It turns out monetizing entire new mediums is difficult.
Hey, let’s start with users. A large — and vocal — chunk of users block ads. There’s three reasons:
The ads, on a technical level, suck.
This covers a slew of ads ranging from poorly-designed ads (audio, graphically substandard, attention-grabbing, invasive) to resource-intensive ads (otherwise known as the “Flash is garbage” movement). In other words, people block ads because they fear ads may otherwise impact their productivity.
The ads, on a targeting level, suck.
This covers everything from low-brow ads (“LOSE WEIGHT FAST!”) to adult ads to ads that just don’t interest people on a broad level. Personally, I don’t even mind ads that aren’t targeted to me if the ad themselves are well-done; even though I might not be in the market for a BMW, it’s nice to see a well-designed, full-page ad for one of their cars.
Some are freeloaders.
A small group of ad blockers literally won’t care and will block regardless.
As advertising-funded site owners, I’m going to argue the first and last are irrelevant for us. The freeloaders you can’t deal with regardless (see: file sharing), and those that block from a technical standpoint are going to be extremely difficult to please, for the simple reason that we’ve hammered it into their subconscious for years that advertising consists of invasive content. Even if Ars, for example, promises no popups, no Flash, no audio, and no interstitials, users just don’t think that way. Ads change over time. This page view may be different than the next. It’s easy to block, so might as well block than risk having something jump out at you down the line.
Instead, targeting is a far better option. This includes typical content relevancy (a la AdSense), but it also includes better, high-brow ads. It’s the same reason people watch the Super Bowl commercials instead of flipping away: ads are just better then. Far easier to watch. The problem, of course, is that these two areas are extremely hard to make work.
If you’re a small- to medium-sized publisher (even, say, up to Ars-sized), finding advertising is both difficult to do and a pain in the ass to do so. Handling billing, making schedules, monetizing every page view, setting up default chains… just the baseline concepts are a grind to deal with, and every hour you spend reworking ads you take away from doing the stuff you really enjoy doing: namely, working on your site and creating something new.
The path of least friction is to outsource to 3rd party networks. Google, Tribal Fusion, Amazon, whomever. It’s far easier than doing direct sales, and they ensure that you can monetize your entire traffic stack from top to bottom. But that’s exactly the reason people block: the ads you get are usually shitty, irrelevant, and a pain to deal with. That’s the core of the problem: the path of least resistance is the path of most suck.
There’s ways to get around this. Google AdSense, for example, is far less invasive, but you’re still gambling on the quality of text results to be contextual and not low-brow, and that’s a risky gamble. Ideally, networks like The Deck and BuySellAds start taking over as the easiest thing to implement. I run BuySellAds on Good-Tutorials and, though it doesn’t offer me enough of a breadth of advertisers to run them exclusively, it does consistently run ads that are topical, neatly-designed, and more clickable than anything else currently.
I don’t think this is going to happen. If the last decade was instructive (which it should have been), it’s taught us that site owners are scum or otherwise don’t care enough to make advertising an effective long-term revenue model. I doubt advertising is going to completely collapse, of course, but between ad blocking, the user’s natural avoidance inclination, and the general decreasing effectiveness of advertising, things aren’t going to get better. And the problem with ad blockers is that the online advertising industry has been so messed-up for so long that honest publishers like Ars get slotted into the same grouping as your Viagra vendor and they feel the squeeze financially because of it.