Commentary

Freedom Isn't Free

Saul Hansell this week blogged on the NYT site about "advertisements expanding to cover pages of major sites all over the Web these days." "Big, intrusive, bash-you-on-the-head sorts of advertisements" he called them. This set off the usual blather in the comments section about how "I'm going to use ad blockers to avoid seeing them" and the even more expected "How could any respectable site think of such a thing?"

Fear not, I am not going to make you suffer through another version of the "No More Internet Free Lunch" lecture (although it WILL be on the final exam, I assure you.) But I am going to wonder why this noisy crowd that hates all forms of online advertising isn't picketing up and down 6th Avenue ranting at the broadcast networks for "taking over my screen" for ads and not just for 15 or 30 seconds, but for three or four minutes at a time at least four times an hour? And that doesn't count the promo craplets that run on the screen during the programming.

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Where were these outraged voices when newspapers (bless their dying little hearts) started taking over 9/10th of each page with display ads for department stores? Not a lot of "screen real estate" left on those pages for news was there? Why weren't there riots when these fine folks settled into their $10 seats for the 7:15 start of a movie, only to suffer through the screen being "taken over" for the next 8 to 12 minutes with ads? How about those September issues of magazines that are (at least used to be) 80% ads? Where was the outrage of having to flip past spread after spread of "full screen takeovers" to find the first edit story?

When people sit down at their PCs a strange sense of entitlement overcomes them. They think they are entitled to free content. Free apps. Free movies. Free music. Free research that 20 years ago they would have paid hundreds of dollars for to get in a week - that now takes 15 minutes. Not that the internet is free. The ISPs are doing everything possible to make it more expensive to deliver service at speeds which would be considered an insult and a rip off in most other developed countries. But that only covers the hardware to pump the Web into your home, not the billions of pages of news, entertainment, games, porn, etc. that are available within a few clicks.

That misplaced sense of entitlement doesn't end with "I want it now and I want it free." Everyone thinks that because they have a Facebook page or a blog or a website that they have fractional ownership of the Web. And in that tiny little bit of electronic real estate they can post pretty much whatever they want regardless of who else it may harm, injure or insult. Or, in most cases, bore to tears. Twenty years ago were these folks all writing annoying letters to the editor of their local pager to opine they way they do online now? Or did they hire film makers to chronicle their sad little lives and play the results on a betamax loop running on a 26 in TV in their front yard for all the neighbors to watch? Being invited over to someone's home to watch a carrousel of 250 slides they took in Venice was an open invitation to drop a couple of Quaaludes and down a pint of gin before the lights were dimmed.

I don't care if the internet is a lean forward medium (or it is lean backwards, I can never keep it straight), there is no excuse for everybody to think that it is all about them and that marketers have no role to play in their little digital worlds. As much as Google would like to believe it, the world of online advertising is not going to start and end with little search-based text ads. "Big, intrusive, bash-you-on-the-head sorts of advertisements" are on their way and if you don't watch them, then don't get pissy when all the major content providers start asking you for $15 a month to access what you used to think was your birthright to get free. Five cents to update that MySpace page, please. That'll be 50 cents to watch that video my friend. Nice to see you, see us $2 to read that review.

You will beg for the return of an ad supported Internet.

11 comments about "Freedom Isn't Free".
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  1. Brian Mays from NewsOK.com, May 15, 2009 at 9:25 a.m.

    I think the points made in this article are very relevant. I will be passing this on to quite a few people, both business colleagues and personal friends.

    I've often preached to friends who complain about ads that they should probably suck it up and accept them unless they're willing to pay for the content.

  2. Uwe Hook from BatesHook, May 15, 2009 at 11:05 a.m.

    You're missing a big piece of the puzzle: Do these ads perform? With CTR averages of 0.1%, rampant banner blindness and growing ADD of all of us, I would argue no. Instead of rethinking the whole concept of display ads (How about delivering valuable and content-rich experiences? Just a thought.) the industry takes out the big hammer and tries to hit the user over the head with it. We've been there before with floating ads, pop-ups etc. and, guess what, it still didn't work.

    To suck it up and endure ads is not a sustainable path for marketing. To deliver creative and interesting experiences is the way to go. Waterboarding people into consuming advertising and, ultimately, buying your product might have worked 20 years ago. Because of the freedom of communication and choices the Internet provides, these tactics should be put in a museum.

  3. Brian Mays from NewsOK.com, May 15, 2009 at 12:37 p.m.

    Uwe Hook, you make great points about performance and content of ads, which is the drum I have beat at our office for awhile.

    But the fine point still remains that if users want a site's content enough they might need to be prepared to jump through hoops and pay with time and tolerance and not complain...or pony up cash. :-)

  4. Jeff Bach from Quietwater Media, May 15, 2009 at 3 p.m.

    The generation of whiners who think everything should be free are the same one who failed economics three times in their sixth year of college. My third grader understands that you don't get something for nothing. Free is a terrible business model for all but the two or three portal sites that actually get enough eyeballs to be significant. For the 99.999% of the rest of the internet, ad-supported sites are not money makers.

    On another note, Martha Stewart Living today announced that they are testing a pay to view system for their online video content. Change is happening and is long overdue in my opinion.

    Now if an easy to use micropayment system could just appear and remove the last bit of friction from this ecosystem we would be good to go. Paypal? Google Checkout? the world awaits your micropayment system!
    Jeff Bach

  5. Lance Fisher, May 15, 2009 at 4:37 p.m.

    Man, that was a lot of work to get an account to comment here. For a more thoughtful comment, please papal me $1. Thanks.

  6. John Capone from Whalebone, May 15, 2009 at 5:16 p.m.

    Lance, Nah, we just want your two cents worth.

  7. Bob Wan Qi Kim, May 15, 2009 at 5:54 p.m.

    George, Beautifully put. Clearly explained. But I think You didn't go far enough. The crisis doesn't stop at the end user. We 1990s dot commers who created a free loader culture. And NOW, we want to monetize? I've written up an entire rebuttal to your point at my posterous by the same name. http://bit.ly/NxQME

    I look forward to your comments there.

  8. Bob Wan Qi Kim, May 15, 2009 at 6:07 p.m.

    Disagreed. My rebuttal explains why http://bit.ly/KCnnC

  9. Malcolm Rasala, May 16, 2009 at 1:34 a.m.

    So George Simpson and all the anti-free brigade want to pay. Google will be delighted. Hey Google boys invoice George and his buddies every time they use you. Lets see how principled they really are then!

  10. Louis LaValle, May 16, 2009 at 11:34 a.m.

    I think of a similar paradox. When you go to a restaurant and order a meal, every now and then you'll get that person that starts eating the meal, finishes a big portion of it and then quickly calls over the server or host complaining that the meat was undercooked or the dish wasn't "quit right."

    The result is a new sense of being "owed" something. The half-eaten meal should now be free and a scenario unfolds similar to what's being addressed above: sense of entitlement. They feel that because they're eating at a restaurant, the restaurant's role is to satisfy their personal intended need, rather than a larger mass of individuals. If the restaurant fails, shame on them. They should somehow be owed back their perhaps one-time commitment to them. What's really going on here is people's lack to accept loss or risk - a cake and eat it too mentality. You take a chance every time you pay for a meal that it might not be quit as good as mom's home cooked meal. If your satisfaction isn't reached, you move one. Never go back to that place again. Same goes for an online site. Sign-up, try the service and make a decision whether to stay or go. You don't have the right, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE SERVICE IS FREE, to be a picker and chooser. Don't like a site with too many ads? Find another site without them.

  11. Mamoun Masarweh from Loylogic Middle East, June 12, 2009 at 7:04 p.m.

    NOt bad idea

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