Don't Let Viewers Renege On The Social Contract

Web users who block ads are running afoul of a social contract. Publishers who run bait-and-switch content are running afoul of the same contract. How might we clean all that up? 

Maybe it's time to withhold the goodies from consumers who try to get something for nothing. Recent research suggests that users are not aware that ads are the price they pay for “free” content … but awareness is something we are eminently qualified to fix.

A 10-year-old knows that content has a price. The question we are asking ourselves is how to fight ad blocking, but maybe we should be asking how good content needs to be. There are plenty of models.

Facebook's growth seems to continue unabated, but ad blockers don't work there. You might think people would abandon Facebook if they hate ads so much, but they don't. Maybe the content is worth it. The phenomenon of ad blocking is not some kind of massive existential revulsion from the horrors of advertising; it's a telltale, a canary in the mine, and a signal that consumers don't want ads. Duh. They never did, but that does not imply disaster for good publishers. It implies we have the value equation wrong.



Enter the Anti-Ad-Blocker. This technology, used correctly, can rebalance the equation.

It is possible for a publisher to create a JavaScript that can detect ad blocking, and obscure all or part of the content. That same script can also put up a message that says: “Hey if you want our content, turn off ad blocking, ads are how we pay for this stuff.” Or offer a subscription. It takes a little courage to do this, but why wouldn’t you? By definition the only people to decline the deal are non-revenue visitors anyway. It's time to step up. 

What would happen if all publishers ran anti-blockers? The IAB should provide a standard script and message to be universally implemented, and we would find out.

Anti-ad blocking software is completely sane. It fights fire with fire. It says in effect, “if you don't do your part, we won't do our part”. Turnabout is fair play. I am pretty sure I would turn off my ad blocker just to read about “10 celebrity fashion failures that ruined their careers” … which is a pretty low bar. Maybe after that site turned out to be a hot mess, I would tell my ad blocker to remember it.

In the universal anti-ad blocker scenario, consumers who want to renege on the deal won't get the content. Maybe they will find it somewhere else. I hope for their sake it is trustworthy. Maybe consumers will learn that content that stands up for itself is worth the small price of seeing an ad.

Whatever the economic consequence, if you have faith that consumers will indeed accept advertising in return for content that matters to them, the anti-ad blocker is a fair method of holding consumers accountable to their part of the deal.

Ad blocking, if met with a measured response from the publishing industry might help the Web become more like the economic system the old-timers envisioned, an electronic civilization where a standard of care becomes law and shapes values.

The deal, once explicit, motivates advertisers to meet real consumer needs instead of shooting pixels machine-gun style. It helps good publishers make more, and acts as an antibody in the ecosystem weeding out species that game the system without creating real value.

I wouldn't want to be the first site to implement the rule … there are too many alternatives for the consumer at the moment, but if most publishers act in concert, consumers might find surfing with an ad blocker to be a frustrating experience. This seems like a reasonable consequence for those who take their free lunch for granted.


1 comment about "Don't Let Viewers Renege On The Social Contract".
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  1. Tom Cunniff from Tom Cunniff, September 13, 2015 at 11:18 a.m.

    Love the idea, and it should be done.

    A challenge for publishers is that there's a kind of 80/20 rule in effect -- 80% of content is utterly generic, and only 20% has something unique to offer. I may be too generous with that 20% number, but since there's no 95/5 rule, I'm going with it :-)

    Facebook is a bit different because the content is generic to everybody except the viewer: we've all seen photos of babies before, but it's different when it's your friend's newborn. 

    Personally I believe the right solution for digital is *less* content accompanied by fewer ads. But I doubt the industry will ever adopt that idea. Today the Huffington Post alone gins up 1,900 posts per day. And as the AI at companies like Narrative Science learns how to create click-bait I imagine a future in which the vast majority of content (and the ads that go with it) goes unseen, unshared, un-anything.

    Maybe that's inevitable, and we should just make cocktails and let the machines sort it out. But it's kind of dystopian. Or maybe I'm just so old that I remember when content mattered :-)

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