There are lots of business on the web. One type of those is a website that sells products or services. Those websites employ people who work on the site, incur server costs, material costs, etc. The products and services they provide are useful to people, and they pay for them. Business. Cool.
Those websites need customers. They need people to come to those sites. There are all sorts of ways to do that. Word of mouth. SEO. Wear a costume and wave a sign at traffic. Some more effective than others. The most effective, generally is to do marketing and, as a subset of that, do advertising. Web advertising, in particular, as potential customers are just a click away.
Where do you do that advertising? Enter another type of business on the web: the publication.
Publications have very similar costs as product and service websites. They employ people who work on the site, incur server costs, material costs, etc. They just typically don’t sell anything directly to the people visiting the site. They give away what they produce for free. Thus they tend to have higher traffic and a larger audience. Their customers aren’t the visitors themselves. Their customers are the product and service websites. Their product is audience.
The two have the same risks: not selling enough product to cover costs.
The two coexist nicely. It’s an ecosystem. There is plenty of gray area here (e.g. publications that sell things, product sites where the product is DIY publication). But everything fits together as a supply and demand, largely self-correcting ecosystem.
I think that’s pretty dang great! Or at least, it can be.
So why are products and services generally (generally) revered as proper, honest businesses – and advertising generally seen as slimy? Shouldn’t advertising be seen as a necessary, useful, equal partner in this ecosystem? Celebrated in the same way?
The Troubles with Advertising
The reason we don’t celebrate both sides of this ecosystem, I believe, is these three troublesome issues:
- Advertising is often obnoxious.
- Advertising feels like it could be dangerous.
- Advertising can feel like a breach of trust.
Popups, pop unders, unwanted sound, awkward placements, barriers to content, ads covering 90% of the screen. Obnoxiousness we’ve all experienced. As a whole, it doesn’t seem to be getting better. The ecosystem is at a point where it’s incentivizing obnoxious. We don’t celebrate obnoxious.
Danger is another concern. People are, rightfully, more and more concerned about their privacy online. Is this ad following me? How does it know I like William Burroughs? What other kind of data is it collecting on me and what is being done with that data? Oh god there is camera on this monitor pointed right at my face. Of course something that creepy isn’t being celebrated.
Breach of trust might even be the worst one. Money is clearly changing hands. Doesn’t that compel a publication to always write favorably of the advertiser? How do I know what is honest and what isn’t?
Small scale solutions
I don’t think I’m the person with the ideas to fix the web advertising problems. But I think the three issues from above can be fought against in pretty obvious ways:
Don’t be obnoxious with ads. Don’t block content, don’t overwhelm, don’t open other windows, make sound and other multimedia opt-in (if used at all). Pretty obvious stuff. The publication has control here. An ad can be prominent without being obnoxious.
Be clear about what is advertising and what isn’t. Perhaps you can’t fight the advertisers influence. So rather than try, or say you can, be clear about disclosure. Any time you write about another company that has advertised with you, mention it. When something is an ad, say so. When content is sponsored, be clear about that.
The reason this can work on a small scale is that these things can make the ads more valuable. A prominent and non-obnoxious ad doesn’t erode the reputation of either the advertiser or publisher, and is more valuable. A simple ad for a company you personally endorse is more valuable.
I think its even (weirdly) more effective when you say “Hey, this company is a sponsor, but I love them!” than when you say “I love this company!” without the sponsorship disclosure. The honesty is more valuable.
I fit into this picture
This website is a part of this ecosystem. This website is largely a publication and I sell ads. (The Lodge is a product, and a vital part of the business, but not as large a part as advertising.)
On this tiny slice of the web, I attempt to address all those problems. I have prominent ads and (you can be the judge) but I try and make them non-obnoxious. The ads are just images, text, and links. The only third-party JS is BuySellAds who are very publicly incentivized to keep that clean. I’ve looked at the JS and its responsible for inserting images, text, and links like any other ad. I have sponsored posts that are always clearly marked as sponsors.
Everyone can adapt
As a publisher, you can start being more trustworthy with your ads. You can start being less obnoxious. You can gather feedback from your audience on what they think along the way. You can measure effectiveness.
As an advertiser, you can choose to advertise in clean ways. You can find sites that align with your thinking. You can have policies about what you will and won’t do to ensure you don’t cross any bad boundaries.
As a consumer, you can avoid companies that run obnoxious ads. You can avoid publications that run obnoxious ads. You can tell companies when they are being obnoxious. You can tell companies when you heard of them from well done advertising.
I don’t know if we’re going to make any big institutional change here, but I find comforting that it’s possible to exist within a strong mini advertising ecosystem that does the right stuff.
I, like many other people, use AdBlocker for the very reasons you have outlined above. That and increasing page load-times. There are several sites I have white-listed as I use them extensively and they rely on ad-revenue alone.
If ads became much less obnoxious, irritating and outlandish then I would get rid of AdBlocker. As it stands, YouTube annoys me the most.
yeah, youtube is horrible with adverts, i use adblocker as well, but i recently stopped using it after i found out a alot of websites depends on the ad revenue.
Along with using ads responsibly, I would add that writing honestly is equally important. Because earning money from ads depends so much on getting traffic, I’ve seen way too many sites turn their content into garbage via linkbait titles and articles riddled with keywords.
I think we’re nearing a crossroads where publishers will be supported financially in other new ways. Currently, there are handful of methods used to earn money from releasing good, free content and all have their drawbacks. I recently jotted down some thoughts on the subject that I think you’d find useful (you even got a mention near the end): http://www.adrianpelletier.com/2015/01/30/thoughts-on-supporting-the-web-community/
Another big issue that you don’t mention is that a lot of ads are for things or from companies that I do not want to have any sort of positive relationship with. In fact, there are a lot of things in the world that I strongly oppose. It’s quite difficult to be asked to perceive ads simply as business when they are for things or from organizations that seem positively nihilistic in their essence. Cigarettes. Soda targeted to children. Proprietary software. Racism, bad religion, money-hungry con men, those who’d rather trick us into wanting things rather than do honest work. I think that it’s more than just my “personal choice” when it comes to these things — I think I have something of a duty to actively oppose them. And yet, here they are, taking up public space, polluting our landscapes, lobbying to make laws benefitting them at our expense, being willing to literally poison us to make a buck. There is absolutely no way for the cigarette companies to create an ad that is not obnoxious.
I refuse, on principle, to purchase anything from anyone who spends money on advertising – rather than being a good enough service/product to be heard about from word-of-mouth alone. As such, I want nothing to do with their advertisements and use an AdBlocker.
I know many websites run on Ads alone as their revenue model. I have no qualms with donating to help with server costs/maintenance. Most websites I visit have this as an option, so it isn’t a problem. Most every site I visit daily runs entirely on donations or charging for additional features/services (eg: Github) – and as long as they provide a service that people WANT to use, they’ll be able to survive on donations or their services, as they have for years.
So you’ve never bought anything? I can’t imagine any company that sells any product to have never spent any money on some form of advertising.
I hate to break it to you, but I have to, on principle, tell you that you’re very much lying to yourself. That is, unless you have stolen and/or built every single thing you own. :)
Also, are you the real Ron Swanson?
I am not lying. There are plenty of businesses that have only gotten around by word of mouth alone – many are local/mom&pop shops who get business based on the merit of their work rather than the depth of their pockets to expand their reach.
What company built the device you are using? Who provides your internet connection? And where did you buy your last meal?
Advertising isn’t a declaration that a company’s product isn’t good enough. More often than not it’s entirely the opposite. It’s a company saying: hey look over here, the stuff I make is awesome and I want you to come and buy it from me! After all in the end it’s the consumer’s choice to consume and they can choose who to consume from.
Advertising, when done right, can be an engaging and useful experience for the end user and I applaud Chris for making the point that there are definitely better ways to do it. Sadly, the internet is full of bad examples of intrusive, mischievous, misdirected or simply ugly adverts. So lets try and make it a better part of our online experience and get the message to the ad-creators and publishers how to do it right.
what’s the impact of such advertising to the companies involved?
From a publishing standpoint responsible advertisement usage and placement in your product be it web / print / digital can be beneficial to all parties involved in the content. User / Advertiser / Publisher
I know we live in a DVR society so fast forwarding and ad skipping is an important function of how we live .
Most people talk about superbowl ads for their creativeness but i rarely find that on web ads unless they are the supreme takeover style on the big-name sites.
Editorially – i agree with the author you don’t want your site to turn in the ad junk-store. Find some balance for what works for your site and keeps users engaged – most ad servers track plenty and you should find out quickly what is working for you.
I think you missed the most important thing regarding the ads problem: context.
For example, if I’m on a news site, or a blog like this one, I’m not looking for ads. They get in my way of doing what I want to do, which is to read news.
An ad in context, however, can work. If I’m on a photography website, and besides a photo it is shown with which camera it was taken, with a link to purchase it, that is advertising that makes sense. If I search for a product in Google, and gets sponsored links, that can work too, after all, I was really looking for a product anyway. If I’m browsing a map to plan for a travel destination, and it shows travel agency ads, that makes sense. All of these examples are in-context ads. They are strongly related to what the user was already doing.
That is a real problem, however ads can be effective if properly use. http://theblackfridaysales.ca