Adblocking is unlike any other threat to digital media in that it forces publishers to argue that audience choice should be curtailed.
For years, publishers have acknowledged that digital distribution has given audiences greater choice in what they consume than ever before. Most have responded in kind by greatly increasing the number of platforms on which their articles and videos appear, but that’s all been in service of increasing their revenue from audiences.
But that increase in choice apparently hits a wall when it comes to something that might cost the publisher money. Despite arguments that adblocking is ethical and acknowledgements that publishers are partly to blame for the conditions that led to widespread uptake of adblocking tools, some publishers are drawing a line in the sand and blocking users of adblock from the site.
But is that just another phase in the arms race between publishers and users? Or is it the first step towards reeducating users that worthwhile content needs to be paid for? In this edition of TMB Smackdown, City A.M.’s digital editor Emma Haslett and AdBlock Plus’ Ben Williams put forward their own arguments…
Emma Haslett, digital editor, City A.M.
Other than its brilliant, high-brow and generally extremely insightful content, City A.M. is notable for two reasons.
Firstly, we invented the phrase “Walkie Scorchie”. Secondly, back in October we became the first UK newspaper to introduce an ad-blocker blocker. Try to access our site with ad blocker switched on, and you’ll be met with a bunch of blurred-out lines, alongside a message asking you to switch it off.
That hasn’t gone down brilliantly with all of our readers. Here’s an email I received from someone who identifies him/herself simply as “J”:
“I don’t give a rat’s fart how you get your income, I want to see the content I clicked on that link to see, not some blurred out lines because you capitulated to advertisers wanting visitors to your site to actually look at the adverts they put up there. That’s not how it works.”
Charming. Unfortunately for J, that is actually how it works. In any other industry, you’d expect to exchange money for goods and services – why, when it comes to digital content, do people think they can get it both advert-less and for free?
Before you launch into the paywall argument, consider this: like the NHS, City A.M. is, and has always been, free at the point of consumption. For 10 years our newspaper has used an ad-funded model – so when it came to monetising our website, the idea of erecting a paywall seemed… weird.
And to put it bluntly, right now other models don’t really work. Paywalls have been, for many, ineffective: the Telegraph’s is easier to get around than Mossack Fonseca’s security gate, while the Sun has ditched its version altogether.
And while Buzzfeed’s native content idea seemed great in theory, in reality it’s not quite as lucrative as everyone in the industry hoped. Last month the company slashed its forecasts after 2015 revenues only hit $170m, compared with expectations of $250m (although let’s look on the bright side, guys! It generated $170m! From digital content! Respect!).
As an industry, we’ve raised users’ expectations by giving them a lot for free in the past – we shouldn’t be surprised they’re now getting sassy about the idea of giving something in return.
But they’re going to have to get used to paying for it somehow. And until someone has a better idea, our inelegantly-named-but-surprisingly-effective ad-blocker blocker will remain in situ. Sorry about that, J.
Ben Williams, PR, Eyeo [AdBlock Plus]
Well, there are two things potentially meant by that lovely neologism, “ad blocker blocker,” the one being when publishers decide to erect blockades in front of their sites that prevent ad-blocking users entry and the other being a type of technology that allows publishers to reinsert ads that were previously blocked. The former represents an experiment that a handful of publishers have attempted, and which thus far has had little noticeable success, while the latter is downright, and quite aggressively, anti-user.
Let’s take apart the first. Publishers like Forbes and Wired in the US, City AM in the UK and the German tabloid Bild have built blockades barring entry to their sites for users of ad-blocking technology. These barriers prevent users of such software from seeing the content on the page. Users are presented with three choices: turn off your ad blocker for that particular site; pay a monthly fee for fewer ads; or get out.
Apart from the fact that this approach is possibly illegal, there are of course fundamental concerns publishers must grapple with regarding how they choose to engage with their readers. Most are well aware of the risks involved in forcing users into a corner, but can justify the potential pitfalls by the experimental, short-term goals they are setting. But what if the audiences are permanently disaffected because of the experiment? What if those that have left never revisit?
While this may be unanswerable without a bit more passage of time, the real question for the publishing world is far more basic – is the experiment actually working, like now?
Well, probably not. Apparently, many visitors are just leaving the blockade-builders’ sites. Of those listed above, each one save City AM took a nosedive in visitors at or shortly after they instituted their blockade. The first to try such an approach, Germany’s Bild, took a traffic dive in October and only recently came up for air – six months later in April. Other sources back this up: according to the highly respected German online traffic monitor AGOF, Bild surrendered its top spot to Focus just two months after locking out ad block users.
But beyond mere numbers, is this a smart way to engage with users? From the day the Web began it has allowed users unprecedented control over their experiences on it – so it would seem at the very least questionable to engage with your users in a fashion so counter to Web history.
Part of the control that ad blockers return to users is being able to protect your privacy online by blocking trackers. Protecting your computer from malware is another – something Forbes learned all too well after it asked users to turn off ad blockers then served them ads laden with malware.
Whereas this may just be a temporary experiment for some, moving counter to the Web’s history of user control is the modus operandi of the folks in the second group, the purveyors of anti-user tech. These technology providers offer publishers the possibility to reinsert ads that consumers have blocked.
They are essentially saying to users: “Blocking that ad, eh? Uh, sorry, we know better … How do you like this one.”
The thing is though, it’s nothing new. Circumventers have been around as long as we have, so 10 years at least, and they keep insisting on one more round of this cat-and-mouse game.
While anti-user tech might seem at best misguided, the publishers who have built walls, I think, are legitimately interested in learning more about their audience. The results thus far, however, seem to suggest that working in line with users is a better approach than working against them. Actually, we’ve recently seen Google signal that they want to institute better ad standards to respond to users who have chosen to block ads.
Now, I might say that there will still be plenty of intrusive ads out there to block, and thus lots of ad blocker demand. That’s likely true, but if more ad-makers adopt such a stance, it could indeed mean fewer downloads of Adblock Plus (and they pay my salary!). You might think I’d complain about such a possibility, but how could I? The users would have spoken and industry would have responded with them rather than scrambling to work against them.
Who’s right, readers? Let us know in the comments below!