In the late 1990s the pop-up ad was invented by mistake. But it worked. It worked so well that pop-up ads were soon everywhere. One pop-up became two, then five, and then you couldn’t open your browser without being hit by 50 at once.
These ads became so invasive that we couldn’t read the content we went to see; these ads ruined the user experience by bogging down our computers. And these ads were lazy, publishers could get income without builing a business model so they added more and more until we hit a breaking point.
Users wanted a better experience so they fought back with tools: plug-ins were created to block pop-up adds. And those plug-ins became so popular they were embedded in browsers. And then browser makers turned them on by default.
When Microsoft made pop-up blockers the default in IE in 2004, everyone thought web publishers were screwed — how’s anyone going to make money? But the web didn’t die. Instead new ad formats appeared, specifically native ads and programmatic advertising.
Does this all sound familiar? That’s because we’re at the beginning of the next upheaval.
Today’s ads are invasive
Programmatic advertising has no respect for people. It relies on tracking audiences around the web through multiple systems for identity reconcilation and auctioning your data to highest bidder. It feels gross.
Ad networks track your browsing behaviour across multiple sites; profile building software builds up your persona: age, sex, location, geography, income, education, and social status. And then advertisers buy your attention in real-time based on the above criteria.
Sadly, most complaints about these ads come from performance. It takes a long time for many networks to compile all that data about you. Complaints for creepiness focus on retargeting, which is based on a far more simple principle: show this ad to anyone who looked at this product.
Today’s ads make us lazy
If you built your new media empire in the last few years on programmatic advertising, stop whining. You’re building a business. If your revenue model relies on a few snippets of code that can be blocked with a software update, you’re not building a very good business.
It’s truly incredible that anyone from an indepedent blogger to The New York Times can use the same ad networks, their revenue restricted only by pageviews. It democratizes the process of monetization, meaning anyone can make a living on the web and we have more voices sharing more content. This is awesome.
On the other hand, publishers stopped thinking about their business model. Publishers stopped asking where do ads fit in our layout? What is the frequency of our ads? What is our relationship with our advertisers? Are we drunk on pixels?
Publishers forgot how to sell. In the booming days of print, The New York Times and Condé Nast would have had amazing in-house sales teams selling placements perfectly paired with seasonality and content. For example, the regular Tiffany’s placement in The New York Times print edition was engineered for contrast. Full-page ads were impactful, expensive, and rare. The ads were tailored to the section they were displayed.
Today’s ads don’t work
Outside of retargeting ad campaigns, which seem to find universal success, programmatic advertising is ineffective for finding net-new customers.
Vanity metrics, like impressions, are frequently used to validate ad sales. Those metrics aren’t about success, so we ended with race-to-the-bottom pricing. Banner blindness is a thing so we keep adding more bullshit.
Engagement rates decline, which makes prices decline, and instead of rethinking ads we throw more ads on the screen to make up the lost dollars for publishers. And soon The New York Times look like Times Square.
We’ve had ad blockers for a few years, but the hysteria unfolding now is because Apple has included support for third-party content blockers in the app store. People feel their livelihoods are threatened (they are.)
It’s easy to blame Apple when you go out of business, but reality is that you’re both in business because of you serve customers. Apple is doing a better job serving them.
Ad blockers, like pop-up blockers, are inevitable. You have until ad blocking is on by default to redefine your business model.
My old friend
You’ll note I’ve only addressed programmatic advertising above, the target of ad blockers. That’s because native ads are the solution. They’re not new — in fact, they’re based on tactics advertisers and publishers have been doing for over 70 years, starting with advertorials (a word added to the dictonary in 1946).
On the web, independent pioneers like John Gruber of the excellent Daring Fireball have proven that with quality, consistent work you can make a living solely on native ads; newer independent publications like The Great Discontent, Mac Stories, and large ones even Allrecipes, are able to sustain full-time staff with minimal native ads.
For every one of these publications their ad format is designed into their user experience. The format changes for each site and device. Their ads are sold at a premium. They’re targeted to interests rather than to individuals.
But like all things there’s a dark side. Lines are easily crossed, paid product placements aren’t clear, and embedded advertising relationships are not disclosed (you can see this on Vine and YouTube).
What is dead may never die
The future for publishers is going to be hard. They have to learn to sell again. Publishers have to differentiate on content and experience, something they cared about deeply in print and never brought to the web. Between the CMS and programmatic ads we forgot how to design.
Publishers: you can be Uber, or you can be protesting taxi drivers. Programmatic advertising will die a slow death but you don’t have to.
Privacy advocates: now is your chance to build the ad platform you want to see ads from. Vote with your talent.
If you don’t, the cold-war will move from client-side scripting and cookies to server-side precompiled code, unique device detection, and invasive network-level integration. These will be more nefarious, difficult to be aware of and nearly impossible to regulate.
So let’s stop complaining and build the future we want to live in. Or go through this again in ten years with the next-generation of shitty web ads.