The Problem is the Advertising, Not the Ad Blocker Lauren Nelson | June 30th, 2016

Media companies and publishers are mad. Like, really mad. Well, maybe more nervous than mad, but certainly angry enough to sound a lot like digital geriatrics shaking their fists at the ad blocking kids running up and down their site.

Their agitation is understandable. After all, the clever little extensions that give the rest of us a faster, cleaner, less irritating web experience are eating away at ROI for advertisers and revenue for publishers. They’re begging us to turn them off. Some have guilt trip popups to cajole the visitor into making an exception to their ad free browsing experience for them. Some wall off their content from those who refuse to see the ads. Just earlier this month, New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson said they were moving toward a similar approach, defending the move by declaring, “No one who refuses to contribute to the creation of high quality journalism has the right to consume it.”

Now, Thompson has a point. High quality journalism provides a public service, but it also costs money to produce, and ads have long been part of the funding mix. But attacking ad blockers as the problem instead of considering that the model itself might be broken is where he gets it wrong.

Thompson admitted that publishers have sort of screwed the pooch in the way they’ve gone about selling advertising space: it’s been too cluttered, too loud, too obnoxious. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. As we’ve written in the past, even when those ad blockers are switched off, more than 70% of visitors tune out the ads anyway. The fact of the matter is that traditional digital advertising space, whether ad blockers are a thing or not, is simply not as valuable as it used to be. Thompson and others in his camp are taking up arms for an already lost cause.

But there are other reasons this grandstanding is ill advised. Ad blockers aren’t just cleaning up the ad-saturated aesthetic of a website. They also can cut load times by as much as half on some websites, which matters a lot when shorter load times can halve your bounce rate and increase your conversions by more than 25%. In other words, by standing by an already faltering business model in the name of revenue protection, these companies may unwittingly be sacrificing more durable revenue streams in the long term.

The call to action from Thompson also ignores one of the biggest benefits of ad blockers: protection from infection. As the Columbia Journalism Review explains:

Thompson did not say one word in his keynote address about the significant security benefits of ad blockers, which is ironic, because his paper was one of several news organizations that served its users ransomware—a particularly vicious form of malware that encrypts the contents of your computer and forces you to pay the perpetrators a ransom in bitcoin to unlock it—through its ad networks just a few months ago. Several major news sites—including the Times, the BBC, and AOL—had their ad networks hijacked by criminal hackers who attempted to install ransomware on readers’ computers.

Advertising networks have served malware onto the computers of unwitting news readers over and over in the past couple years. Ads on Forbes, for example, attacked their readers in January, right after the magazine forced readers to disable ad-blocking software to view its popular annual “30 Under 30” feature. As Engadget reported, “visitors were immediately served with pop-under malware, primed to infect their computers, and likely silently steal passwords, personal data and banking information.” It wasn’t the first time this had happened at Forbes, either. And it’s not just in the US. A couple months ago, almost every major news site in the Netherlands served malware through its ads to its users.

You can bet this problem is only going to get worse. According to a 2015 study, malware served by advertising networks tripled between June 2015 and February 2015. So the longer people wait to install an ad blocker, the more vulnerable they become.

In other words, Thompson is missing the forest for the trees, as are the advertisers lining up behind him. As they cling to the vestiges of a failing model, they ignore the user experience and ask their audience to put themselves at risk. That’s not exactly sound business practice.

Instead of attacking ad blockers, we should be focusing on how to connect marketers and their audiences in ways that are less obtrusive and precarious. Find ways to join the conversation instead of speaking over it. Native advertising. Co-sponsored content. Webinars. The possibilities are limitless.

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