F*ck Ads, Kill Paywalls, Marry Patronizing
By Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)
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Ads have always been a compromise: Look at this thing because it’s what lets the thing you actually want to see exist in the first place.
By their very nature, advertisements are something for you to endure until your previously scheduled life resumes.
No matter how clever or cute or beautiful, no matter how native the content feels, ads are guns to the head of the puppy that is your more preferred content:
So three months ago, when Apple announced a new class of “content-blocking extensions” for its new operating systems that would allow developers to create extensions for Safari that could “block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups, and other content,” people were understandably pumped. Especially when the developer of a popular ad-blocker called Crystal reported that pages were loading nearly four times faster with its software enabled, using half as much bandwidth, all while blocking third-party scripts that would compromise privacy. Plus, no more ads to endure! No more guns to no more puppies’ heads!
But seeing as this is the internet in 2015 and everything moves at the speed of now, a well-reasoned backlash has already come roaring in.
Because, as many a blogger pointed out, when you block ads, you’re not actually getting rid of the guy with the gun. You’re just telling him you don’t care if he shoots the puppy. And you’re not bluffing. You’re looking him dead in the eye and not blinking as you click ‘block ads’ and puppy blood gets all over that jean jacket you’ve been waiting all summer to wear.
(I swear I didn’t plan on making this article so full of hypothetical puppy blood when I started…)
But that’s exactly why Marco Arment, the developer of ad-blocker Peace, pulled it from digital shelves.
In the short while Peace was available — for $2.99 in the app store — it shot up to the #1 slot for paid apps in the US. And Arment defended his industry-altering software by saying:
The ‘implied contract’ theory that we’ve agreed to view ads in exchange for free content is void because we can’t review the terms first — as soon as we follow a link, our browsers load, execute, transfer, and track everything embedded by the publisher. Our data, battery life, time, and privacy are taken by a blank check with no recourse. It’s like ordering from a restaurant menu with no prices, then being forced to pay whatever the restaurant demands at the end of the meal.
And the responding rallying cry from the audience — those people who everyone is trying to manipulate with all these ads in the first place — has been understatedly simple but frustratingly complex:
Adapt or die.
As self-sustaining blogger John Gruber put it: “The coming reckoning for publishers is not ‘because of Apple.’ It’s because of the choices the publishers themselves made, years ago, to allow themselves to become dependent on user-hostile ad networks that slow down the web, waste precious device battery life, and invade our privacy.”
Nonetheless, more and more publishing platforms began to rally against the technology, citing that ad revenue is the only thing keeping them afloat in an already turbulent time for the media industry.
And eventually, even the man making bank off the new add-blocking craze changed his mind and his tune:
Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.
… Ad-blocking is a kind of war — a first-world, low-stakes, both-sides-are-fortunate-to-have-this-kind-of-problem war, but a war nonetheless, with damage hitting both sides. I see war in the Tao Te Ching sense: it should be avoided when possible; when that isn’t possible, war should be entered solemnly, not celebrated.
Adapt or die.
But the subscription/paywall model isn’t working either. Even for the big guys.
According to the Reuters Institute 2015 Digital News Report, only 11% of Americans reported to have paid for online news in any capacity. The New York Times — the newspaper everyone who reads newspapers reads — recently announced that only ~40% of their revenue comes from subscriptions.
To quote The Awl’s Casey Johnston: “In other words, even the most important and widely respected newspaper in the world is nowhere close to being healthily monetized, especially not by the small number of people who pay for it.”
And while it seems a little mind-boggling that people will actively pay money for an ad blocker but won’t pay the institutions that are responsible for the content in the first place…
The fact is, we live in a capitalistic society (that probably should be more democratically socialistic) and the market is totally allowed to go back to their favorite response:
Adapt or die.
But what do you do when you’re a media company and you can’t use ads, but you can’t get people to pay publishers directly, but there’s still an audience for quality content, but you can’t afford to pay quality writers enough for their quality work?
If you’re short-sighted, you go hard in native advertising, sometimes so insidiously that people don’t even know the difference between content and ad. Or you invest in direct posts to social platforms like Facebook, where more and more people are getting their news and entertainment each day. Because then it’s not Vox who’s delivering you those annoying ads, it’s Facebook; and what are ya gonna do, delete your account over some personally-invasive ad for hair removal gel? Get real.
But deep down, those moves are just different forms of compromise, no matter how ideal the brand alignment or how seamless the user experience.
Eventually, we are going to reach a hard truth that many audiences might not be ready to hear but damn well need to:
We have to start skipping all these middle men and support the content-creators directly.
Too many great writers are getting sucked down the tube with all these fallible, failing business models. And that’s why the Kickstarters of the world and the Patreons of the world are gaining so much traction. In a world where the 1,000 Fan Theory is an actual attainable reality for an enterprising few, it’s only inevitable that more and more audience dollars will find their way past lecherous third-parties like ad agencies and publishing platforms as audiences become more and more cognizant of where their money is actually going.
However, until then, there’s Patronizing.
But what is this Patronizing thing Random Nerds writers keep talking about and pushing you to use?
Well, to quote myself, it’s the primary revenue stream that keeps the lights on over here at Random Nerds — but I also happen to think it’s the financial model of the future.
Right now, almost all other media outlets in the world work like this:
- Users are able to access content from a website for free.
- That content is put together by a writer who is paid a predetermined, finite amount by that site’s parenting company.
- That company gets the money to pay that writer by selling ad-space (or even whole articles) to a bankrolling third-party, who is betting the invasive shittiness of their ads will be forgiven in exchange for access to that site’s ‘free’ content.
- The more users that view that content (and thus that third-party’s shitty ads), the more money the website’s company makes off their ad-spending bankrollers.
Seems kind of inefficient, huh? Might lead to an influx of view-courting clickbait, right?
It’s also pretty damn unfair to that writer who actually came up with the content in the first place, since they’re the ones driving all these financial transactions.
Here’s the model we at Random Nerds have proposed:
- You, the user, are still able to access content for free.
- That content is still put together by a writer who is paid actual money in exchange for their work by us (the company).
- However, instead of that being the end of the financial arrangement, we’ve made a deal with our writers that all profits gained from their content within 90 days of its posting will be split 49/49 between them and us (the other 2% goes to a predetermined charity that we’ll choose each month).
- That ad-space and that bankrolling third-party who doesn’t really care about you are left out of the equation entirely.
Now the only problem with this model, and the reason it’s not currently in vogue, is that it foregoes the financial reliability of selling your soul to the advertising devil or asking you to pledge your unwavering financial devotion.
Instead, it relies on you discerning quality for yourself and supporting it justly.
I know it may feel weird and a bit (ahem) patronizing at first to tell someone who worked their ass off on a piece that you think they deserve a whopping $1 extra for their trouble, but trust me, those $1’s add up. Just ask anyone who’s had a Kickstarter project funded.
To put it in perspective, think about the best article you’ve ever read online, one that really affected you.
Most likely, the writer of that article was paid somewhere between $75 and $250 for it, if they were paid at all. Even if millions of other people were just as affected as you by their words, that $75-$250 is all they will ever receive in exchange for their life-changing words. And even if you’ve promised to pay $5.99 a month to the publishing platform that employs the writer, there’s nothing to reward that writer specifically for their superior work. They will continue to get the $75-$250 they received, from here until eternity. Or until a younger, doe-eyed writer willing to work for less comes along.
So fuck ads, kill ad blockers, and marry Patronizing.
Adapt or die.
Thank you for reading! If you liked what you read, you could Recommend it…