New Zealand Marketing - - Contents - BEN FAHY Editor


Block vot­ing.

Back in the early days of the in­ter­net, pop-up ads started, well, pop­ping up. Orig­i­nally, they were seen as a way for ad­ver­tis­ers to fight against the early stages of ban­ner blind­ness and get in front of users with­out be­ing di­rectly at­tached to a web­site. But read­ers found them in­tru­sive and an­noy­ing and, even­tu­ally, tech­nol­ogy was de­vel­oped to block them.

One of the men who in­vented pop-ups, Ethan Zuck­er­man, even­tu­ally apol­o­gised for his hideous cre­ation and, in a great story in The At­lantic, ad­mit­ted they were one of the most hated tools in advertising. Ref­er­enc­ing Ron Carlson’s story about good in­ten­tions gone awry, ‘What We Wanted to Do’, he talks about the “orig­i­nal sin” of choos­ing advertising as the de­fault busi­ness model for the in­ter­net, which cel­e­brated its 25th birth­day last year.

Op­ti­mists be­lieve tech­nol­ogy has a way of cor­rect­ing it­self when things go too far; that the wis­dom of the crowd means so­ci­ety will even­tu­ally reach some sort of happy equi­lib­rium. It hap­pened with pop­ups. And it also seems to be in play with the rise of ad block­ing soft­ware. There are now more than 200 mil­lion Ad Block Plus users around the world and, ac­cord­ing to a study by Pagefair, New Zealand’s pen­e­tra­tion is 22 per­cent. Glob­ally, that num­ber is grow­ing at a rate of 41 per­cent per year and pub­lish­ers, ad­ver­tis­ers and web de­vel­op­ers are cry­ing foul over the lost bil­lions of ad rev­enue. They claim it breaks the long-held pact of ‘we’ll give you the con­tent for free and, in ex­change, you’ll look at the ads’. But as Marco Ar­ment wrote in a piece about the ethics of ad block­ing: “Ads have al­ways been a hope­ful gam­ble, not re­quired con­sump­tion. Be­fore the web, peo­ple changed chan­nels or got up dur­ing TV com­mer­cials, or skipped right over ads in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines.”

Online ads are dif­fer­ent, how­ever. They are of­ten low-qual­ity, an­noy­ing or mis­lead­ing; they col­lect data and build up a pic­ture of our be­hav­iour, of­ten with­out con­sent; and they also sig­nif­i­cantly de­crease the per­for­mance of a web­site. Most mod­ern media com­pa­nies rely on online advertising rev­enue to keep the lights on. And the track­ers they use are not all ne­far­i­ous. But, as Zuck­er­man says, where does it all end? “The next step is ob­vi­ous: We need more data so we can make our tar­geted ads ap­pear to be more ef­fec­tive. To com­pen­sate us for our ex­pe­ri­ence of con­tin­ual sur­veil­lance, many web­sites prom­ise per­son­al­i­sa­tion of con­tent to match our in­ter­ests and tastes (by giv­ing plat­forms in­for­ma­tion on our in­ter­ests, we are, of course, gen­er­at­ing more ad tar­get­ing in­for­ma­tion).”

In­creas­ingly, that’s a price users don’t seem pre­pared to pay. And just like the pop-up ads of yore, tech­nol­ogy is of­fer­ing a so­lu­tion, with ad block­ing soft­ware now be­ing en­dorsed by the likes of Mozilla, Google and, with the up­com­ing launch of IOS 9, Ap­ple.

So are the evils of online advertising wor­thy of such dras­tic ac­tion from con­sumers? Or is it another un­fair stake in the heart of pub­lish­ers al­ready deal­ing with a dig­i­tally-inspired ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis?

Ar­ment be­lieves we will look back on these web ex­cesses and in­va­sions of pri­vacy with em­bar­rass­ment. And as a re­cent op-ed in The New York Times said, con­sumers should have the op­tion of pay­ing online ser­vices like Google, Face­book, In­sta­gram and Twit­ter to not be treated like a prod­uct (in­ter­est­ingly, the re­verse is al­ready true, be­cause some com­pa­nies are able to pay ad­block­ers to get their ads through). There are pos­i­tive signs that there are other po­ten­tial busi­ness mod­els for con­tent mak­ers and op­tions for users who want to sup­port them, whether it’s more taste­ful, use­ful na­tive ads and spon­sor­ships; im­proved mi­cro­pay­ment tech­nol­ogy; the abil­ity to pay mu­sic stream­ing ser­vices to go ad-free; the in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of SVOD ser­vices that let sub­scribers watch ad-free con­tent on their terms; and, as part of a very meta experiment by Google, the abil­ity to bid against ad­ver­tis­ers to re­move online ads. Here, the NBR re­cently took the bold step of re­mov­ing some dis­play ads from its site so that it could fo­cus on cre­at­ing a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence for read­ers and gen­er­ate more rev­enue from them (and, due to scarcity, charge more for the re­main­ing ad spa­ces).

Advertising will never die. But history shows the in­tru­sive forms of it will if users kick up enough of a stink.

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