Here’s an update on the adblock/malware thing Forbes has been dealing with
I can still remember the angst at Newsweek in the mid-80s as slumping ad pages ate away at the size of each issue. The business side grumbled about lackluster covers. Editors, myself included, ridiculed sales guys (we could call them that back then) for their martini lunches with soft-shell crabs. On elevators, we made nice to each other before exiting to different floors that neither side would dare set foot on. The newsroom’s collective view: “There’s nothing wrong that another ad page won’t fix.” Of course, the issues — cable TV news, satellite transmission, the ban on tobacco ads — ran deeper than the Big 3 newsweeklies would admit, which partly explains why only one really remains today. Also instrumental to their fate was traditional media’s Church vs. State divide. It prevented any kind of sincere cooperation.
Fast-forward to life at FORBES today and the challenge gripping our industry: ad blocking. The biggest woe of every media era, this time it appears to be ad blocking, always seems more intractable and sensitive than what came before. Our experimental move in the final days of 2015 to ask visitors to turn off their blockers in exchange for an ad-light experience sent our newsroom into a tizzy. Many veteran journalists, a cynical lot trained to believe ads infect consumer thinking, were definitely not happy. Nor were many product people, contributors and others. Each insisted there must be another way around the issue. A new breed of journalist with youthful readers weaned on “free content” and the belief that ads can infect computers got caught up in the test’s social media crossfire.
Emotions are running high. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, many industry participants, particularly marketers and their ad agencies, expressed admiration for our ad blocker test, a first step in our thinking (see below). Most publishers have done or said little about a building dilemma that threatens the industry’s digital revenues. Of course, dissenters are far more prevalent and vocal. I must have read 1,000 tweets and comments and dozens of emails since my post on our test. Given that 45 million Web users across the U.S. — and nearly 200 million worldwide — have downloaded ad-blocking software, the negativity is hardly surprising.
On Twitter, many focused on one particular tweet (see below). It was retweeted 1,800 times with 1,000 likes and referenced a pop under that appeared after Forbes.com content was unblocked that could potentially lead to malware. The individual who documented the event told us he’s been unable to replicate it since. Nor have we been able to verify it, though we’re investigating our ad server logs for clues. Knowing the day, hour, minute and second the incident occurred makes it possible for us to conduct detailed forensics. For instance, we can identify all domains serving ads at that very second to the impacted screen, a post about Fallout 4 by one of our gaming contributors that’s accumulated 500,000 page views. That means looking through 10 to 20 GB of data. As we do that, the user told us in a phone call this week that he continues to unblock Forbes.com without further incident. Interestingly, the only other site he white lists for content and ads besides FORBES is Reddit.
Here are few representative tweets sparked by our test:
And here’s a comment from my post, one of many thoughtful remarks I’ve read: (FORBES has not verified the commenter’s numbers):
I must confess I have been using ad blockers as soon as the extension became available in Firefox and haven’t stopped using them since. The reason? That reason is as viable then as it is now: loading times of pages are ridiculously much lower then with the ads and my reading experience is not disturbed by ‘in-your-face-marketing-tricks’. And there is the problem. It feels like companies using these obtrusive kind of campaigns are trying to trick me. It is not that I do not understand a lot of websites rely on the income from advertisement, but there are not that many sites that take the ‘usability’ of their pages in account while using advertisement.
Take Forbes for that matter. This article was sent to me and first started up in an adblock-free IE page. And it took the page almost 30 seconds to become fully loaded. I copied the link to an adblock-free Chrome page and got about the same loading time. Then I started it up in adblock-modus which made the page load almost instantly. 19 elements were blocked during this process and furthermore 33 cookies were found by visiting this site. That is, in my humble opinion, completely ridiculous!
On the workstation I use at the office I do not have the luxury of choosing extensions like the ad-blockers. And browsing the internet there reminds me every time why I started using them at home.
I do support the rise of websites that offer an advert-free environment for a small fee and I would consider white-listing those sites that use adverts that do not interfere with my experience, but until that moment has truly arrived I will continue to use my ad-blocked browsers.
The road traveled by the media industry, especially publishers, ad agencies and marketers, to get us where we are is no surprise. First came so-called “Original Sin” — giving away digital content for free. Then, the very first ad banner. Then, trillions more, in one format or another. The story line is one business pressure after the next, many leading to “just one more ad.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with advertising. Consumers benefit from the information marketers provide. In fact, the emergence of native content from marketers offers a new way for consumers to connect with brands if they choose. And, if the creative from ad agencies is intriguing enough, consumers often launch an ad virally across the social Web with as much fervor as they do the best editorial content.
In reading and listening to the dialogue generated by our test, the path to rapid consumer adoption of ad blocking software is equally clear:
1) Ad Clutter: Without digital subscriber revenue, traditional media publishers and startups alike are serving more display ads in every shape, size and color. Many jump up and down. Some pop out of nowhere. More and more they appear at the top of both desktop and mobile screens, pushing editorial far down the page. Native ads and content delivered through ad servers (FORBES BrandVoice content is published through the content management system used by our staffers and contributors) can worsen the barrage. And let’s not forget video pre-rolls.
2) Ad Networks: They’ve become the villain for many tech-savvy Web users. Using sophisticated ad technology, the promise of ad networks is to target readers with relevant ads (often that’s true, often it’s not). They do so by following readers cross the Web to determine their interests. Scary to many, ad networks, especially those engaged in programmatic trading, have been known to be carriers of malicious software that can infect computers.
3) Privacy and Security: It’s the top issue across the social Web. There are many unscrupulous players out there who try to work the seams of ad networks. Plus, the cookies, or trackers, used to target consumers to collect information is troubling to many.
4) Bandwidth: Lots of ads on a page, rich media ads, trackers and more can slow down page load times. All that eats up data. Here’s another comment from my last post: “I almost felt sorry about ad serving companies/websites, including FORBES, for a split second… I got pissed off again remembering the endless traffic consumed by stupid irrelevant ads that serve me no purpose other than wasting my bandwidth, for which, by the way, I’m paying for.”
5) Generational: To quote a 20-something commenter on my post: “In terms of mindset, my generation has an unfortunate (but understandable) association of ads with malware due to the prevalence of adware infecting computers when we were growing up. Though it’s been mostly quashed (I think) the stigma remains and I have no idea what can been done about it.”
6) Transparency: Again, tech-savvy consumers would be far more comfortable with some visibility into what’s going on under the hood with cookies and trackers. Another commenter from my post: “I’d be more inclined to refine my ad blocker if there was some transparency about what these “providers” are doing… Which ads are provided by which provider?… Overall, I don’t mind the ads, but would like more control over my privacy.”
7) Content Trends: With consumer migration to smartphones, stories are getting shorter and more concise, but the pressure remains to jam ads into the smaller screen real estate. Frequently, that means content spread over multiple pages (also known as pagination) and an increase in the number of ads.
Now for some data points from Google Analytics and Dart for Publishers that we’ve collected since we began the test on Dec. 17:
– Nearly 44% of our test pool, or a total of 1.6 million visitors, has turned off ad blockers or white listed FORBES content and ads. That’s about 100,000 a day who have turned off their blockers since I reported a total number of 903,000.
– The number of viewable ads on pages consumed by those who turned off their blockers is 9.3% more than the sitewide average for those who never used blockers.
– The dwell time, or the time spent on pages, by those who turned off their blockers was twice the amount of non-ad block users. They spent three more minutes on screens.
– The clickthrough rate on ads by those turning off ad blockers remained above the industry average.
– We delivered 29 million ad impressions since Dec. 17 that would otherwise have never been seen.
We very much understand there is a ways to go — with the test, other things we have in the works and newer ideas that may come along. We’re working with audience members, staffers and contributors to solve some testing issues. I’m communicating with contributors who are part of our audience-incentive plan. They’re particularly concerned about the test’s impact on traffic. So far this month, overall traffic is right up there with our best months. Although moving forward, it’s the so-called “quality of the audience” that may be of most importance.
With all the debate, from the quick-to-judge to the thoughtful, FORBES staffers do understand the challenges of ad blocking require a we’re-in-this-together mentality. That’s how they felt five years ago, too, when we launched our contributor and BrandVoice native ad models to widespread industry criticism. Today, how we work together in our new Jersey City office on current challenges, from ad blockers to ad viewability, couldn’t be any more different than my Newsweek days. A common stairwell links the sales, technology and product teams — and the newsroom, too. Ad hoc discussions occur frequently and many are engaged to varying degrees in our ad blocker experiment, which is aimed at testing various ad-light experiences to determine user response and revenue implications.
I’m the chief product officer of a traditional media company that’s spent five plus years bravely moving into the future. That means I must think and act like an editor, technologist, publisher, salesperson, marketer, evangelist and much more. And, I need to do so as a player inside a media industrial complex comprised of consumers, ad agencies, marketers, journalists, public relations people and software programmers, each of which has hardened its position. Om Malik, a former FORBES reporter and industry voice with 1.5 million Twitter followers, was quick to pounce with this tweet:
He followed shorty after with this tweet:
I know Om to be a highly trained and well-respected reporter, but he never did call us to get our take.
Last month, FORBES hit an inflection point: smartphone visitors to our site surpassed desktop visitors for the first time. We have aggressive plans in 2016 — effectively to start over again after years of success — to rebuild a newsroom and business for the mobile era. The lessons learned from our continuing ad blocking experience — encapsulated by the seven points above — will inform much of what we do. It reminds me of Matt Damon’s reflection in his new movie, The Martian: “You do the math. You solve a problem. And then you solve another. And then another. Solve enough and you stay alive.” Eventually, Damon’s character, Watney, got himself home. “Home” for us is providing the best possible consumer experience that also works as a business. Having shed the unproductive media traits of yesteryear, we want to solve our challenges one by one by one.