Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Adblocking could be the saviour of high quality journalism

Reading the latest news, adblocking is heralded as the harbinger of the online apocalypse.

Many internet users have decided that they don't like to be tracked and profiled.

They don't like to be irritatingly diverted from the article that they're trying to read.

They don't like auto-play videos.

They don't like ads for things they've already bought, following them around the internet.

And they especially don't like their mobile data allowance being chewed up by advertising.

All of this means that the user base of adblocking software is on an upward trajectory and publishers are starting to worry.



According to PageFair, 21% of UK internet users use an adblocker. Amongst younger, tech-savvy audiences, the rate of blocking is much higher.

For publishers, this is a serious problem, because they get paid per thousand eyeballs viewing ads on their webpages.

For example, if I visit The Guardian, I see this


That banner at the top is generating a small amount of money per visitor for The Guardian.

With a blocker? Poof! It's gone. The page resizes into the gap and you'd never even know it had been there. The Guardian gets no money at all for my visit.

As an aside, Ghostery gives me a list of every tracker that's logging my visit to The Guardian and many of these will subsequently try to follow me around the web and see where else I go.

It's quite a big list...



That's FIFTY EIGHT separate trackers, just from a single visit to The Guardian homepage. No wonder some users want to opt out.

So adblocking continues on its upward trajectory, gains increasing penetration into mobile devices, and in the near future hits and then passes 50% of all users. All of our national newspapers go bust. It's inevitable, right?

Well no, actually, I don't think so.

I think adblocking could be very good for high quality journalism, but there'll be some short-term pain before we get there.

First a little bit of technical info...

Adverts are fairly easy for users to block, due to the way that they're bought and sold and embedded onto web pages. When you visit a newspaper's website, it loads the article you want to read from its own server and makes a request to some other server(s) for adverts. If you keep a big list of the servers that are used to deliver advertising, you can block them in your browser. The article loads and the adverts don't. Simple.

Now imagine the adblocking rate is 100% of internet users. What happens?

Any user, visiting any website, sees no third party adverts at all and publishers get no money.

But advertisers still want to talk to the The Guardian's readers. Of course they do, The Guardian's readers spend a long time staring at those pages and they're an educated bunch, with disposable income. Advertisers like people with disposable incomes and will work quite hard to get their brands in front of them.

Advertisers also no longer have an option to place their ads programmatically - splattering them across the web on loads of different sites and trying to follow individual users around - because as soon as they try to do that, the adblockers kick in and their messages disappear.

Suddenly, there are big online advertising budgets available, but no way to spend them programatically across lots of smaller websites.

So newspapers start selling advertising space the old fashioned way. They agree to place adverts on their site - delivered from their own servers, woven into articles and much tougher to block - and they agree a price to do it.

They might even negotiate that deal on the telephone. How quaint.

It's a model that looks a lot more like the traditional way of selling advertising space. Individually struck, higher value deals with large companies, rather than automated small-ads scattered across the web.

Why doesn't that already happen? Well sometimes it does, but currently, large proportions of online advertising budgets are used to buy programmatically. If you've got a choice between negotiations with individual newspapers, or bunging some cash at an ad exchange on the promise that the exchange will find your exact target audience wherever they are on the web and show them your ad, then of course you'll pick the automated route.

Adblocking takes away the automated route. Users don't like the tracking it entails and in increasing numbers, they're opting themselves out.

If you can't track and follow an individual user onto sites where its cheap to advertise, then you're going to have to buy your audiences in bulk, in the places where they congregate.

Adblocking doesn't leave an internet barren of advertising. It leaves large websites, with high quality audiences, in an incredibly strong position to negotiate their own deals.

For newspapers, it removes a huge number smaller websites from their competitive set and puts them back in the much stronger position that they used to enjoy.

Adblocking at scale would redirect online budgets towards those sites that can guarantee large, desirable audiences for advertisers. It could be the saviour of high quality journalism.

4 comments:

Shann Biglione said...

I like the idea, but I think it is naive to believe the problem with quality journalism stems from ad targeting. Quality journalism suffers because people really don't care much about it and the vast majority is perfectly content with getting their news for free somewhere else. They also are happier and happier to get the information from non verified sources as long as it helps their thirst for sensationalism and confirmation bias. I think the opinion you put forward that targeting will help journalism is noble, but misguided at best.

The reason ad serving has been used is not just for targeting purposes: it allows better creative, it allows better measures of frequency over sites, it allows for better easier ways to launch, manage and track a campaign, and most important of all: it allows a much better control over fraudulent impressions. In China we are still fighting to get it, not because we need programmatic, but because a majority of impressions are faked by publishers. If they are paid on a CPM basis, they will make sure that CPM is reached. As a matter of fact, if you want to look at the failure of the medicine you suggest, just look at China where most advertising is still publisher served and programmatic still nascent.

Besides, how long will it be before ad blockers find solutions to ads served by the publishers?

Secondly, you make it sound like the purpose of programmatic buying is to not have to buy inventory on "good sites", and this is absolutely not the way I've experienced it. As a matter of fact, a lot of the "good sites" rejected it because they wanted to sell inventory directly. It failed. The idea of programmatic is that we can serve a more relevant creative, that we can much better control our frequency, that we can optimize on the go the WHOLE campaign to serve the better ads (rather than resending the best one to every publisher) and that we can minimize wastage (so that advertising a women product on The Guardian doesn't reach men).

You paint a very half empty picture of programmatic, when in fact it holds the promise of better options in the future, both for publishers who won't need useless sales forces (who can only sell to the people they know) and for consumers who can be served: creative that is more relevant to them, and with much better control over the frequency.

The key questions are two fold:
1/ how can we better the inventory so that programmatic is not about being seen on shady websites (no advertiser is interested in that).
2/ how can the tech be less intrusive, because yes, receiving 48 trackers on one page isn't sustainable and provides all the right justifications for users to use ad blockers.

The real problem of our industry is not programmatic, it's the foundation of how we have sold advertising: page impressions and clicks. These two metrics, whether you do it in programmatic ways or not, are going the heart of the problem. We probably didn't think of it back in the days, but it is driving our industry to the ground because they are both the easiest to fake and the least meaningful to track. They make clickbait work better, they make the replication of content and pages more profitable, they make intrusive format look better on reports and so on. We need to move away from these metrics, both because they are useless to the effectiveness of advertising, and also because they are driving quality to the ground. They reward the bad, and undermine the good.

So tech problem of the intrusive tracking aside, I suggest we stop looking at programmatic as a scapegoat for all our ills, and instead pay attention to the root of the problem. Advertising online is built on shitty foundations, whether served targeted or not.

Neil Charles said...

Agree with almost everything in your last two paragraphs!

On your other points, I do think that programmatic is a significant part of the problem. For publishers, programmatic advertising devalues the impact of having a large, affluent audience all in one place at the same time. Advertisers don't care that they're all in one place at the same time because it's cheaper to chase those same people individually, across the web.

It's interesting that China isn't programmatic in the same way as Europe - I didn't know that. However, seeing programmatic as a solution to fraudulent impressions is unlikely to succeed based on the European & US experience. The fraud comes from a new source, but it's still an enormous issue.

Estimates seem to be settling down onto around half of all ad impressions not actually being viewed by a human being
https://moz.com/blog/online-advertising-fraud

I do realise that I'm painting a "half empty" picture as you put it, but that picture is driven by audience behaviour. Globally, 198 million people are now blocking ads and that number is growing at 41%, year on year. In the UK, 21% of the population blocks ads and it's growing at over 80% year on year.
http://blog.pagefair.com/2015/ad-blocking-report/

Whatever the benefits of serving ads programmatically - and I can see that there are benefits - a rapidly increasing number of people simply don't see any ads served in that way.

Shann Biglione said...

Hi Neil!

To follow on some of your comments:

"Advertisers don't care that they're all in one place at the same time because it's cheaper to chase those same people individually, across the web."
Yes and no. Advertisers like being able to buy as many of those audiences as possible, but they also like to buy on the reputable websites. Very often they will complement direct buys with programmatic buys. I have never, ever encountered a client who didn't care about where their ad was being seen. It's the very reason programmatic has struggled to grow for a while. Private Marketplaces are, on that front, a way to reward the right publishers with higher prices, although this entirely depends on the brand and the negotiation, I concede.

"However, seeing programmatic as a solution to fraudulent impressions is unlikely to succeed based on the European & US experience."
Absolutely agree, the issue of bot traffic is incredibly massive and puts the whole value of digital engagement into question. That being said there are two levels of fraud: the one where bots will generate the views, and the ones where publishers will count impressions that don't exist (the one I referenced). I didn't claim that programmatic is the solution to the latter - third party ad serving is (and programmatic happens to require it). Your solution lands back on publisher ad serving, and it is a problem because we know it can quickly create trust issues. I battle this in China on an ongoing basis. I doubt advertisers will ever want this to change back. So I would be careful, third party ad serving cannot be the enemy. Programmatic is just one of the ways to use it.

"I do realise that I'm painting a "half empty" picture as you put it, but that picture is driven by audience behaviour."
The question is what are they rejecting? Is it really the concept of programmatic? Is it the tracking ecosystem that screws their browsing behaviour? Is it advertising as a whole? (in which no solution will do, they will just use technology that cuts both programmatic and non programmatic). My guess is that different people will have different opinions on what is the most important, but ultimately I'd put my money on most people simply not wanting to see ads.
What it will do in the short term is driver further growth of native formats, which I think could backfire as well as they can often be ads parading as content, and lack scalability (meaning only the super big publishers will make money out of it).

"Whatever the benefits of serving ads programmatically - and I can see that there are benefits - a rapidly increasing number of people simply don't see any ads served in that way."
Well, to be clear, they don't see any ads served in any way. Not just the programmatic way. Or am I missing something? (I might well be).

Thanks for the insightful discussion! I do believe you have a point, and these are concerns we all need to evaluate and think about if we don't want to hit the wall. On my end I just want to make sure we're not throwing the baby with the bathwater - I'm just not too sure yet what the baby is. :)

Neil Charles said...

Worth clarifying a couple of things I think. Some of my phrasing is a bit loose and it's not helping.

"Advertisers don't care". Of course they do! I accept that. What I mean is that advertisers are currently accepting the quality trade off. They "care", but they're still running ads in low quality locations despite that.

I've used "programmatic" and "third party ad-serving" interchangeably in some places. The post is about third party ad-serving, with programmatic being a significant part of that (and a part which leads to many of the issues I discussed - tracking, fraud etc.)

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Interesting to note that issues with publishers pumping their circulation numbers were around long before web ads and impression tracking!


"What it will do in the short term is driver further growth of native formats, which I think could backfire as well as they can often be ads parading as content, and lack scalability (meaning only the super big publishers will make money out of it)."

That's EXACTLY where I'm coming from. It lacks scale and only the big publishers can do it, but if all other routes are adblocked...

Thanks, really enjoyed your thought-provoking comments.