In case the hysteria over ad-blocking software wasn’t already at a fever pitch, Apple’s new iOS version is now in the wild—complete with built-in support for ad blocking—and several ad blockers are topping the most-installed list. Is this an apocalypse for publishers, especially small ones? And if it is, does installing and using an ad blocker make you as a user complicit in the destruction of independent media?
That’s the sense you might get from reading some of the coverage of the ad-blocking phenomenon, including a piece at The Verge (which is owned by Vox Media) entitled “Welcome to Hell: Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook and the Slow Death of the Web.”
In the post, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel argues—with some justification—that ad blocking in Safari is just a new front in an ongoing battle between giant platforms, each of whom wants to dominate the advertising and content landscape of the future. So Apple (AAPL) is trying to go after the Google (GOOG) ad network monopoly, and Facebook (FB) is trying to develop its own monopoly on socially-driven content.
“The collateral damage of that war is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.”
In the comments on the Verge post, a reader argues that using an ad-blocking program is ethically akin to software piracy. This argument says that by reading something without loading the advertising that pays for the content, a reader is effectively breaching an implied moral contract with the publisher, and essentially stealing that publication’s content.
Does this theory hold any water? Not really. Marco Arment, co-founder of Tumblr and creator of Instapaper (which strips out ads when a user saves the article) argued in a recent post that no implicit contract exists, because readers aren’t given enough information about what a site is doing to make an informed choice (Arment has also created an ad blocker that is now a top choice in the Apple app store).
“The implied-contract theory is invalid: People aren’t agreeing to write a blank check and give up reasonable expectations of privacy by clicking a link. They can’t even know what the cost of visiting a page will be until they’ve already visited it and paid the price.”
The idea that readers are somehow morally obligated to look at advertising becomes absurd if we apply it to almost any other medium. Are readers who only look at one or two sections of a newspaper—and never the ads—stealing that content? Are people who use PVRs to fast-forward through the ads on television committing a theft of some kind? Would it be better if publishers sued readers for not looking at ads?
As tech analyst Ben Thompson pointed out in a recent edition of his Stratechery newsletter—and as media theorist Clay Shirky has also noted in the past—advertising became the financial foundation for journalism and media because of the way the media industry was structured at the time. Newspapers and TV programs were the only way to reach large numbers of potential consumers.
That’s no longer the case, thanks to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and dozens more you’ve probably never heard of, but your children use every day. As a result, most publishers are increasingly irrelevant to advertisers, which means that they are forced to rely on the most desperate or cheap forms of popup displays, click-farming, and so on. Is that your fault as a reader? Hardly. Says Thompson:
“Publishers and ad networks are locked in a dysfunctional relationship that doesn’t serve readers or advertisers, and it’s only a matter of time until advertisers—which again, care only about reaching potential customers, wherever they may be—desert the whole mess entirely for new, more efficient and effective advertising options that put them directly in front of the people they care about.”
It’s true that this phenomenon is pushing publishers towards large platforms like Facebook, which then control what content gets seen and by whom, and also control the levers of the advertising associated with that content. But will somehow forcing or bullying readers into watching low-value display ads solve that problem? No.
Submitting to Facebook isn’t the only strategy. Some sites focused on niche topics can probably make a go of it via subscriptions and other revenue models. Others, such as Vox Media, Mashable, and BuzzFeed, are betting on native advertising as a better way of appealing to readers and getting around the barriers set up by ad blockers. Some think micropayments via “iTunes for news” apps like Blendle might work.
To get at the heart of Patel’s point, there will undoubtedly be publishers and sites that can’t survive in this world because they are too small for Facebook or Apple to care about, and they can’t afford the in-house studios that BuzzFeed and Mashable have to create native advertising. Maybe some of them will find a home on more open platforms like Medium, which is working on its own solutions.
What is unlikely to fly as a long-term strategy is begging readers to load all of the 50 or so trackers and ad-loaders and popups and banners, each of which might make a publisher three cents per thousand clicks, if they are lucky. That business is in a death spiral, and yelling about ad blockers isn’t going to change that. Evolution is a messy business, but it goes on regardless. Adapt or die.