What’s after online advertising?

It seems like the awareness of ad blockers has reached some kind of tipping point. For a technology that has been available for browsers in some form or another for years, they’ve recently been getting a lot of heat.

No more so than from the people over at The Next Web, who took the argument to a whole new level of stupid by comparing the use of ad blockers to speeding. Yep, actual speeding on the actual road in an actual car. Despite the fact that one of them is responsible for thousands of deaths a year and is against the law, whilst the other – well – isn’t.

Crass and clumsy analogies aside, this strikes me as a rather duplicitous stand for anyone writing for The Next Web – or any publication born from the internet era – to take. News and journalism has been disrupted by digital technologies before, which resulted in the model that has allowed places like TNW to make a living at the expense of traditional printed publications. To bite that particular hand now that another technological disruption is reaching mass awareness shouldn’t generate much sympathy.

Technology disrupts business models. We all need to accept this and get over it. Napster messed with the record labels, but it was Apple that benefitted through the creation of iTunes. Legal streaming music services such as Spotify changed the model again. Apple didn’t complain that streaming was taking away their revenue, didn’t suggest that streaming music was immoral and unfair; they went and created Apple Music.

So this is the challenge. Go work out what the new business model is. Create content I’d be willing to pay for. Whatever it is you think will work. But don’t expect me to stop blocking in-browser ads any time soon.

I’m not rejecting all advertising. I’m just saying that advertising that can be blocked by an ad blocker will be. It is trivial, needless and gets in the way of the content I am trying to view. Or to paraphrase Martin Weigel, “advertising is incidental to ordinary, everyday life” (as an aside this presentation is excellent and you should read it). Most people don’t want to interact with advertising, however good you make it. And when people have the choice, they tend to choose not to watch advertising. That isn’t because most advertising is bad. It’s because most people don’t care. They want to watch a video of their friend’s cat getting a bath, not watch the pre-roll advert that precedes it on YouTube. They want to get online to finish researching their French homework, not watch the full-screen takeover that they have to close before they can reach it. In real life, advertising is not important.

And the Net has grown up and been created without the need for advertising. Content can come from anywhere, be distributed by anyone. This is infrastructure designed without the need for advertising, and one which continues to evolve without the need of it. Or as Phil put it, “I don’t want more engaging adverts. I don’t even want less annoying adverts. I want them out of my face completely. I didn’t “opt in” to receive them.”

So saying the solution is better advertising is a form of protectionism. It’s a set of people who don’t want to look outside of the business model they’re already happy with (whether that’s because they don’t see it, or because they don’t want to see it is irrelevant). It often feels to me like people do this:

It’s the same with people who think we’ve now harnessed technology, that it’s now there just waiting to do our bidding. There’s this implicit suggestion that we’ve reached the plateau after the climb, without the realisation that this is just the base camp of the actual mountain we’re going to climb.

Whatever new model takes over, advertising online is surely reaching its end game. Display advertising is invasive, unwelcome, doesn’t work and any numbers it can generate are often fraudulent. This isn’t to say that advertising will die out or stop. Search advertising at the very least is based on direct shown intent – it is an answer I might be looking for, even if it is paying to be there – and I’m rather looking forward to a renaissance of print and local radio advertising. But technology disrupted offline publishing, and now it’s disrupting publishing online. Just as advertising provided a model for publications to evolve out of their bricks and mortar forebearers, we now need to look for the business model that will trigger the next evolution.