Advertising Corrupts: Why Ad-Blockers Are The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Publishers
Apple recently integrated ad-blocking capabilities into iOS9. This triggered a spate of articles predicting the end of the world as we know it. The only question was whether the ending was a comedy or a tragedy.
I'm here to tell you: this ad-blocking business is the best thing ever. Empowering consumers to limit ad inventory will force publishers to declare their true colors. It will blunt the incentive to flood the Web with click-bait. Ad rates will rise as inventory drops. And legitimate publishers will be able focus on providing compelling content.
Advertising revenue corrupts the incentives of publishers. The proliferation of click-bait is a great example of this, but there are plenty of others. The reason is obvious, once you think about it. If your main source of revenue is advertising, your primary customers are advertisers. The consumers of your content are secondary. Put another way, all these so-called content companies are not in the content business, they're in the ad business. (And if you're upset that people are blocking ads, that's a pretty good indicator that you're in the ad business.)
People Already Pay For Content
Advertising companies that are presently disguised as publishers may indeed face a difficult transition. They'll need to either produce more compelling content or become better ad platforms. Is that really so much to ask? We have lots of legitimate content businesses already. Netflix. E-books. Spotify. HBO. We have good evidence that supports the idea that consumers will pay for content.
The Valley Of A Thousand Echoes
Some argue that we also have good evidence that they won't. They point to the slow death of traditional news outlets. But the decline of the news industry began long before the Internet. And, anyway, by the time they began to fail, newspapers consisted almost entirely of commodity content from wire-services, with a little local spice thrown in.
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of ad-supported publishers produce indistinguishable content. Even if ad-blockers wipe out 90% of the industry, no one would notice. And, besides which, it's not like things are that rosy to begin with.
Is This Any Way To Live?
Publishers that are trying to produce unique content are drowning in all the noise created by ad platforms masquerading as publishers. They all end up chasing the same ad dollars, just with lower profit margins. Which means the only way to survive is to raise a lot of money, find a major backer, or get acquired. And even that is often not enough.
Is this any way to live? No, of course not. So let's please not pretend that ad-blockers are the end of some sort of gilded age of content.
Publishers worry about where their traffic will come from, but this is a separate concern. If anything, reducing the blind rush for eyeballs will make social media syndication platforms less valuable to publishers. For an advertiser, there's no difference between a loyal reader, sitting down with their morning latté to enjoy their favorite blog, and a bored feed-grazer doing a thirty-second drive-by. But if you're selling content, loyal readers are the only way you're going to make money. Facebook, Twitter, and other mass distribution platforms are too indiscriminate to be much help to you, unless you've already built an audience on those platforms that matches the profile of that loyal reader.
My theory is that content producers have been in the wrong business for so long now, they've got Stockholm Syndrome. Ad-blockers pose the question: are you really in the content business? Or are you in the ad business? Are you an expert in creating an experience for your audience? Or are you an expert in serving up ads?
Free At Last
If you're really in it for your audience, you're celebrating the rise of ad-blocking. You're free at last to focus on your audience. Sure, maybe you need to improve the quality of your content, but that's what you've wanted to do for a long time. You just couldn't afford to, because your ad revenues wouldn't support it. So you tried to grow your audience, which meant focusing on quick, bite-sized chunks of content. And that felt wrong. That wasn't why you got into this.
And guess what? You were right.
Are You Good Enough?
That felt wrong because it was wrong. Get your audience to pay you. Here's the bad news, though. If they won't, you may not be good enough to make a living writing or podcasting or YouTubing or whatever it is you're doing. That's a harsh reality, but it's the same reality that novelists, musicians, film-makers, among others, live in already. And, regardless of your ability, the bottom line is that there's no way your content is going to be worse as a consequence of your audience and customers becoming one and the same.
Asking For Money
Okay, you say, I've embraced this new world, but how do we get people to pay? It's going to take time to develop the kind of content our audience will pay for. And the best practices for migrating our audience to paid content aren't clear yet. And how do we promote our content if it's behind a pay-wall? And so on.
You should probably ask industry experts, at least those that are embracing an ad-free future. Or ask (and study) people who've already gotten people to pay for their content.
My advice, which is probably worth what you're paying for it:<small> See what I did there?</small>
Ad revenue isn't going to dry up overnight. But begin migrating now to a paid model.
You need to either take a temporary pay cut or raise some money. Your margins are going to take a hit while you begin producing more differentiated content.
Content strategy is going to be more important than ever. You need to know your audience well enough to give them something they can't get anywhere else.
Don't rely on a pure paywall strategy. Search engines aren't going anywhere (and they're your friend, not your enemy). And you want people to share your content. There are plenty of alternatives, ranging from e-zines to expanded subscriber content to just asking your audience for money.
Regardless, if you want to be in the content business (and not the ad business), figuring this out is part of your job.
Learn To Love The Blockers
Of course, ad-blocking is here, whether we like it or not. But, personally?
I love it.
Update: I'm not intending here to take a position against Internet advertising, per se, nor am I against publishers using ads to augment an audience-focused business model. How ad platforms will need to evolve in response to the rise of ad-blockers is also an interesting topic by itself. My focus here is on advertiser-centric publishing models and how publishers will need to evolve.