The Ad-blocking Brouha: A Solution

Unless you were focused on one of the millions of things more important, you may have noticed that the release of iOS 9 has caused a bit of consternation in the online publishing community. To many, the support of “content blockers” in Apple’s new mobile OS represents an existential threat to the livelihoods of those sites that make a great deal of their revenues by serving ads.

Battle lines have been drawn with the debate forming on two sides:

1) Those who believe that ad-blocking is a form of theft. Proponents of this position think that, because the intention is to consume the content anyway, implementing ad-blocking prevents viewing the ads that subsidize the content.

2) Those who think that ad-blocking is a natural response to the degradation of the user experience of many content-focused websites. Their position is that users have absolutely no way to opt-out of, or have any say in, the pervasive ad-serving and user tracking that is such a big part of the Web now. As far as they are concerned, today’s Web landscape as it regards ads is fundamentally broken and the publishers and ad networks have brought this fate on themselves.

Where do I stand on the debate? Definitely in the second category. Web publishers do not have a fundamental right to make money in any specific way and ad-blockers are simply a market response. Though I’m no fan of Capitalism, I do generally regard free markets as useful components of society, particularly one such as ours in which consumerism is so prevalent.

Markets are not perfect though and, sometimes, you have to take the bad with the good. There was a similar situation with the music industry awhile back when audio compression technology and file sharing destroyed its distribution model. People debated the moral and ethical viability of stealing music but my thinking is, that if you are going to be a part of a system in which disruptions and distortions of that nature are possible, then you have to take the bitter with the sweet. In the end, there was no way to shove music piracy back into the Pandora’s Box and the music industry was forced to adapt. Likewise, I think railing against ad-blocking will do absolutely nothing to change the new reality.

Using the innovation expressed in The Currency Paradox, ensuring a vibrant and lucrative online publishing and writing environment is actually pretty easy. However, since we don’t exist in that world, let’s see how online publishers and ad networks can adapt without resorting to methods that are even more hostile to their audience.

The first thing I want to point out is that the bulk of the content monetized by ads is as terrible as both the ads and the techniques used to serve them. A world with a lot less low-quality content on the World Wide Web is far from a terrible thing so, if ad-blockers introduce a bit more Darwinism into the mix, that won’t bother me a bit.

Another thing I would like to point out is that some content is naturally monetizable while some isn’t. For example, I like to read about cars online; there have to be tens of thousands of articles about specific models on the Web. Not once have I accessed an article that also pulled up ads on the local deals in my area for that specific model (at least that I can recall) and definitely not one that made that information part of the user experience. If anything, this simple technique, that could reduce purchasing friction, has been superseded by “native advertising,” the concept of presenting ads as editorial content. At least for “objects,” both physical and virtual, native advertising is overkill. Technology that allows relevant comparison or purchasing information to appear contextually in “object” content would likely be far more effective even from a simple marketing aspect by bringing a sense of immediacy to the content.

However, rather than “object” content, in which an object is the focus, there is also what I call “idea” content. This type of content has traditionally been difficult to monetize because most ideas tend not to scale well in mindshare. Building an audience can be a very long and arduous process. Once an audience of any significant size is built, the key to growth is generally finding a way to effectively monetize it. Online advertising has enabled monetization of this content but it was never a natural fit. I almost never click ads featured in unrelated content and I’m pretty sure the numbers support that almost no one else does either.

So, what type of business model can you create that can subsidize “idea” based content effectively? Some people think micropayments may be the way. My thinking is that, when you ask people to pay for things, even with very small amounts of money, you significantly reduce your potential audience. That may not be a bad thing as long as you can get enough people to pay but that has traditionally been difficult.

What got me thinking about this in a different way is Pinterest. It’s a site where people “pin” ideas and objects they enjoy into what amounts to a virtual scrapbook. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get any better than that when it comes to potential advertising. For this particular site, advertisers get the advantage of intention. The user is already telling the advertisers exactly what they want, it’s just a matter of reducing purchasing friction.

And that’s where I’m going with this post… intention. Instead of flooding the Web with visual noise, my thinking is that advertisers should be attempting to gain the intention of consumers versus just gaining their attention. The way that I would do this is by paying the reader of the advertisement instead of paying the online publisher for posting the advertisement. Well, how would the publisher or writer make money then? Simple, the reader then uses the money they make from reading advertisements to pay for the content in which they are interested.

The big question for many would be “how would this work?”. Oddly enough, there is already somewhat of a real world example of the model… fashion magazines, particularly Vogue. A great deal of the content in Vogue is advertisements, which actually works for its audience. I can’t say this for certain but I think the advertisements in Vogue are particularly useful to its readers, so much so that they are part of the experience. “Native” advertising works much on the same concept. Now what if readers were paid to read a site’s native advertising or “advertorials” and use the money they make to buy the editorial or “idea” articles they want to read?

This can be done in at least a couple of ways:

1) “mixed” sites that feature combinations of “object” advertising in which items are explored or reviewed and relevant data is provided contextually to reduce purchasing friction, native advertising that pays readers, and editorial and “idea” content for which the user pays either with the money they make from reading the native advertising or out-of-pocket;

2) whole sites actually built around advertising content. In other words, whole online magazines on a variety of subject matters that will pay readers to view them. The advantage of this approach is that advertisers can have an entirely controlled platform with guaranteed eyes. The advertisements become the content experience. The credits can then be used to pay for content on other sites.

Loathe as I am to say this, this could be the killer app for Bitcoin, though I think its volatility will likely impede this. In any case, the advertisers pay for guaranteed eyes rather than “impressions” which are almost universally ignored.

So my thinking is that a combination of advertising designed as content, Google Now-style contextual information for “object” content (which would allow online publishers to directly monetize their content), and micropayments directly to readers (which represents a better value for ad networks as they would be paying for guaranteed views) will be far better than the current system. Another plus is that, if people have to pay for the content they read, they will likely be more discerning and much of the “chaff” on the Internet will disappear.

Now you may be thinking “what if people hoard the money they make from viewing ads?”. The simple solution is caps on the amount they can accumulate and/or time windows for use of credits. Got other questions? Feel free to contact me or leave a Comment.

This is kind of a rough draft of an idea and I’m aware that all of these things have been recommended in some way before. What I’m advancing is thinking of a new ad model using these elements in a wholistic fashion. The game changing element is for ad networks to pay readers rather than the publishers at least in some instances. With great content, the money from the readers will flow back to the publishers in an efficient way.

There you go. Now let me know what you think.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s