I hate ads. I hate them so much that I’ve banished them from my life. It’s always a shock to see ads when I borrow someone else’s browser, as Adblock Plus long ago gifted me an ad-free online life.
Striking back, companies like Hulu are determined to force us to watch insipid, often irrelevant ads just to watch old Saturday Night Live skits (“I’ve gotta have more cowbell!“). Other sites blow incredible stores of time, talent and energy—resources that could go toward product or feature development—on trying to get more traffic and ad clicks.
For years, online advertising has been the primary way to finance the Web, and that remains true, even for newer Web companies. That’s a shame, because they’re jumping on a bandwagon that’s old and broken.
A Waste Of Brain Power
Far too many of today’s biggest, most richly funded Web entrepreneurs are obsessed with advertising. Pinterest? Advertising. Ditto everyone else you can think of, including Snapchat—no matter how it attempts to style itself differently.
A recent Businessweek cover story on Snapchat reported CEO Evan Spiegel’s “incredibly secretive” business plan, declaring it a “major turning point” for his company. Two sentences later, readers feasted their eyes on the big reveal:
After starting to run select video ads earlier this year, Snapchat is about to begin soliciting other big advertisers with some new numbers that assert its audience is bigger, younger, and more obsessive than anything on television.
Who would have guessed? Advertising. But not just any advertising. Spiegel’s approach is different (he believes). Instead of “creepy” ads that follow a user around the Web, or other targeted ads, Snapchat will lead with—wait for it!—full-screen video ads. “In its sales document to advertisers,” the article reports, “Snapchat claims its users are nine times more likely to watch an entire ad because they don’t have to rotate their phone.”
Ads may be good for Snapchat’s bottom line, as well as those of Google, Facebook, and other online services that provide cool services for free, or the pretense of free. But just because advertising lines the tech industry’s pockets, that doesn’t mean it’s actually good for business.
Former Facebook and current Cloudera executive Jeff Hammerbacher once declared, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” He was right, but perhaps even he didn’t appreciate just how stuck we’d become in this model.
When Things Don’t Click
Some (like 37signal’s David Heinemeier Hansson) argue that ad-based business models, often focused more on generating eyeballs than cash, can’t sustain a real business. Responding to an article that bemoaned social platform company Ning’s inability to match sustainable business with traffic growth, DHH ridicules the notion:
Are you kidding me? The company has blown through $120MM of VC funding over six years, built up massive traffic, yet just had to slash and burn, and you’re saying that “traffic growth is no longer good enough”. How the hell was it ever good enough? Ning’s problem is not a lack of eyeballs but its inability to turn them into cash money to pay the bills. Getting more of something that’s a net-negative is not going to make up for it.
But the bigger issue may actually dovetail with financial success. While Google’s intent-based search meshes well with advertising, most business models don’t.
Consider Facebook. In theory, the social giant learns about us through our interactions with each other on its network, so it can display appropriate updates or ads. In practice, its algorithms were designed to serve us things that they think will keep us clicking.
In other words, we get the optimal experience—for Facebook, that is. But not necessarily for us. The company says it’s all for our own good, as we’d be overwhelmed by information if we got a straight list of friends’ posts dumped on our feeds. But I’ve missed my family’s posts too often, frequently in favor of shared links from acquaintances, to believe that. As for Facebook’s stabs at advertising, those can be pretty hit or miss.
Since Facebook doesn’t charge me for its services, I am, in fact, the product. I know that. But fortunately, unlike most users, I’m not a “paying” product, thanks to Adblock Plus.
Maybe A Digital Trade War’s Just What We Need
As it becomes easier to install ad-blocking software like Adblock Plus, we may see its global users grow significantly above the estimated 200 million users today. On the one hand, this could create short-term pain for users, as The Economist writes:
If lots of mobile subscribers did switch [ad-blocking] on, it would give European carriers what they have long sought: some way of charging giant American online firms for the strain those firms put on their mobile networks. Google and Facebook, say, might have to pay the likes of Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica to get on to their whitelists.
If that happened, the online firms would surely fight back. If an operator were, say, to block the ads on Google’s search service, Google could retaliate by trying to stop that operator’s subscribers from accessing their Gmail accounts. Such a tit-for-tat is not as far-fetched as it may seem: Google closed its news-aggregation service in Spain after a new law required it to pay for using excerpts of publishers’ content. If the mobile firms are not careful, they could start the world’s first digital trade war.
But that might not be a bad thing. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people start blocking intrusive ads, the Web would figure out new ways to fund itself.
Already Google is experimenting with a Contributor program, which lets users contribute cash in lieu of gaping at ads. Baked into the cost of Internet service, something like this could work. Those who don’t want to pay $10 per month can continue to field advertisements. Meanwhile, I (and I suspect others) would gladly pay for an ad-free existence. Absolutely.
Or maybe we’d find other ways to earn our keep. The problem is that the old advertising model so consumes us, we don’t even try to innovate and find alternatives. Given enough ad-blocking, however, we just might realize that there’s life after advertising.
Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock