Ad blocking is one of the more controversial features of Apple’s new iOS release. Apple prefers to call it “content blocking”, but it’s mostly intended to block all those pesky website ads that nag us every day.
Publishers are, of course, totally freaked out at the prospect of their content being consumed without monetizing the accompanying ads. And although ad blockers have been around for quite awhile, they’ve become a front-page story because Apple now makes it so easy to eliminate ads in their Safari browser.
To assess the impact of ad blockers in web browsers I think it’s worth studying the evolution of a similar medium: Television. TV started with totally free, over-the-air broadcasts. Advertisers subsidized those shows and everyone was happy.
Then cable arrived and an interesting thing happened: Most of us were willing to actually pay for all those free channels. Why? Two reasons: Better reception and more channels, although not the hundreds of channels available today. I remember our family’s first cable connection back in the early 1970’s. We went from three fuzzy stations to approximately 12 crisp, clear ones. That wasn’t a huge increase but it was important enough for my parents to sign up for a monthly payment.
Today we have cable, satellite, etc., with ad-subsidized channels, pay channels and that wonderful technology known as the DVR; each of these have their own business models. But with website content the business models still appear to be stuck in the early cable TV era.
On the web we have access to both free, ad-subsidized content as well as content behind paywalls. As ad blockers become more mainstream it forces publishers to make a strategic choice with their free content. Some will continue what they’ve always done: offering free content and now accepting the fact that more reading is taking place without the benefit of ad impression income. Others will push more of their content behind a paywall, reducing consumption but enjoying a false sense of contentment knowing that they aren’t being gamed by the ad-blocking crowd.
Others will embrace something in between. Their content will still be free and ad-subsidized, but in order to access it readers will have to agree to view the accompanying ads. Call it the “ad blocker blocker”. Technology will be developed to display the content only if the ads are also displayed. In fact, you could argue certain mobile apps and video pre-roll ads without skip/fast-forward buttons are examples of how this is happening today; perhaps we’ll see more publishers push their free content off the web and into mobile apps where ad blocking isn’t quite as easy. Yes, solutions will be developed to override this model as well, taking the cat-and-mouse game to a whole new level. But for the free ride to continue, mechanisms like this will have to emerge to ensure content creators and publishers have the revenue stream to keep producing.
It’s an evolution and only the strong and efficient will survive. But it’s also an important step leading to what I believe will be a future with deeper content engagement. After all, if readers find your ads so irritating, doesn’t that say something about your website experience? The ad-blocking movement should be a wakeup call for publishers everywhere, forcing them to do something radical: make the advertising experience more engaging and less annoying for readers.