Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ad Blocker Exceptions Are the New Online Tip Jar

Seth Godin often has insightful things to say, and his article, "Ads Are the New Online Tip Jar", makes an interesting point: surfers ought to reconsider their refusal to click on ads if they want to assure the survival of the web sites they count on.

Godin didn't delve into the demographic aspects, but I'll bet the most defiant non-clickers are among the smartest audiences. And the smartest audiences, naturally, patronize the smartest web sites. So their refusal to click will eventually result in fewer smart sites and more dumb ones. There's room on the Internet for a very
long tail indeed, but if that tail turns out to be fatally dominated by the advertising-adverse, online media might eventually skew nearly as mainstream as VHF.

But anyway...

There's an underlying dynamic at work, and understanding it requires a long view. It's only been in the last century that audiences have found themselves awash in free content and entertainment. Before the dawn of radio, one had to pay. The modern media advertising model, for all the harm done via its insidious hypnosis (e.g. persuading people to consume on basis of emotions rather than intrinsic quality), has at least resulted in a gratis deluge of useful content.

To consumers, the Internet seems like simply more of that - more content streaming their way and vying for their attention. In fact, audiences feel they're doing a favor to a web site by surfing in and bestowing the honor of their eyeballs. Even if they've paid nary a cent, and there are no advertisements at all, they nonetheless deem themselves customers. Decades of advertising-supported media has convinced them that their presence and receptivity is their support.

It surprised me greatly when a small number of Chowhound participants would rage and seethe on the rare occasions when we'd ask users to chip in, via honor system, to help pay our four-figures-per-month server bill. It took some time for me to understand the mindset: even when audiences don't pay a cent, and don't view ads, and are therefore no more than kindly feted guests, they nonetheless feel like customers because they've been conditioned to believe that their presence is their support. And self-perceived "customers" bridle at the notion that they ought to give still more.

Audiences never really grokked that their free content was never free; that it was all about the advertising. When technology evolved to evade that advertising (i.e. TIVO), they gleefully took to it, failing to think through the deeper value equations. And, conditioned as they've been for the past century to feel like entitled customers as they've enjoyed useful free content, they brought their sense of entitlement with them to the Internet, where they staunchly refuse to support even those non-commercial sites they most love. It's worse than Godin says. No, they don't pay, and they don't click. But it's not just that they fail to take action to help; they proactively subvert support for those resources by using software add-ons to block the ads!

It's human nature: I don't like ads. And I don't like paying. So I try to avoid both. End of calculation. Anyway, the notion of payback to a content source from its audience seems outrageous. Hey, I'm visiting your web site, right? I am supporting you!

The solution of urging ad clicking is problematic. It would result in click dilution (advertisers expect to pay only for clicks from consumers who are genuinely interested, i.e. "hot prospects"). But ad blockers are another thing. I made what I thought was a strong and clear case for users to create blocker exceptions for their favorite web sites (e.g. Chowhound) 

It'd help if the developers of ad blocking software would make it easier to create site exceptions on the fly. And there needs to evolve a viable model for paying for ad views, in lieu of click-throughs (the Internet started with such a model, but it was dumped too hastily). For one thing, I'm surprised there haven't been more underwriting sponsorships, ala "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", on the Web...

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