A little bit on ads

September 21st, 2015

I am not all that eager to jump into the recent discussion on ads and ad blocking. Over the last near decade, however, I’ve mentioned advertising a few times here on my blog so I decided to go back and curate a few pull-quotes that help to show my opinion on the subject.

Here are the topics I’m going to briefly cover by using my own words from the past:

  • Ads could have been served better if advertisers followed a few rules
  • Ad networks that start out altruistic very rarely stay that way
  • Companies that rely on advertising dollars will do crazy things

First, how advertisers could have kept themselves as unobtrusive as possible, still been valuable, and possibly avoided this sledgehammer blocking technique.

Me, in 2008:

So I’ve come up with the following rules for how I display my ads, maybe they’ll work, may they won’t.

Ads display to the following people:

… that come from a search engine (i.e. Google, Yahoo)
… people that have not commented on my site

Pretty simple set of rules really. I have never, ever tried to boost this site’s traffic beyond just my writing so my site doesn’t get an enormous amount of traffic and as such I don’t really expect to make a ton of money off of displaying ads. But I figured by using these two simple rules, I’d be keeping the experience exactly the same for people that either come to my site often or participate in the conversations.

The jest is this; by only showing ads to those that may end up clicking on them, and not to those that clearly won’t, you reduce the obtrusiveness of your ads dramatically.

What you end up needing are two very different sets of ad inventory for a single publication. Branding ads that are tastefully shown to your subscriber base and CPC ads that are as tasteful as possible shown to those that scurry in off the web.

Second, even if you start an ad network for the sole reason to create tasteful ads you will likely find that model to be unsustainable in the longterm. 

Me, in 2012

The business of advertising is a numbers game. When well-meaning, tasteful, and respectable people start out trying to change the world of advertising they typically look at those numbers as they should – they look at them as people. People that don’t want to be swindled or bothered or nagged. People that are at the current web page they are viewing because they really like the blog post they are reading, the newspaper column they are reading, or the video they are watching. People that actually do not like advertising.

And:

If an ad network can bring in brand new advertisers every few months then they needn’t worry about having repeat advertisers. So they needn’t deliver on value. “Your campaign wasn’t all that great but thanks for trying.” And then they simply move onto the next company with $5,000 to spend. The problem is eventually the black books of the individuals running the network will run out of companies to call. Then they have to deliver. Every single month.

Essentially, if an altruistic ad network can deliver value for ads over the longterm with repeat customers it will stay in business. But this rarely, rarely happens because most brands need to see a return (or clicks) for their ads and unobtrusive ads simply do not work as well.

There are very, very few exceptions to the above (The Deck being a notable, yet very small, one*). And perhaps this recent shift towards ad blocking will breed all new ideas and what I’ve written here will be proven wrong. I’d love to be wrong.

Third, companies that rely on advertising dollars will do crazy things because their customers become the advertisers and they eventually forget about the user (see: Twitter). 

Me, in 2013:

Advertising as a sole business model can cause companies to do crazy things. Their customer is the advertisers (large, global brands with millions to spend) and their product is us (their users). They will do just about anything to get us to stay on their site as long as possible. We might think; “Yeah, but I love Twitter. I love Facebook.” I’m sure we do. I love Twitter. They hope we do. They work really hard and spend a lot of money to ensure that we do.

I hate to pick on Twitter but they are a prime example. If Twitter didn’t have an ad model you would see a completely different product unfold. You’d also get far less emails from them. Twitter is an even greater offender of my Inbox than LinkedIn now. Oy.

All of these pull-quotes do not necessarily create a cohesive thought or argument against advertising. Sorry about that. But perhaps it explains that I believe, for the most part, advertising is a difficult business to create value in without giving up tastefulness.

All of this being said, advertising has made possible an Internet full of “free” information. Rather than paying for information with our dollars we’re paying for it with our attention, our personal data, and our habits being exploited by companies with something to sell us. The amount of money some companies need to generate to do what they do, such as news or media companies, could not exist in their current form without advertising because subscription models couldn’t sustain their budgets.

So perhaps we should be happy that advertisers have paid so much money for all of us to have the Internet that we do? Or, perhaps, we would be happy with less “free” stuff online and be willing to pay more out of pocket? I don’t know. But I think the recent push to block all ads may yield some movement towards a more balanced approach to advertising in the future. We’ll see.

* I say small because the entire network generates around $270,000 a month. For larger publications this can be the cost of a single ad campaign/inventory placement.