Subscriptions won’t fix online advertising

Everyone hates ads, but content can’t survive without revenue. AdBlock is increasingly cutting into profit margins of websites that rely on advertising, and the problem doesn’t look to be going away. These websites are desperately looking to innovate in how their bring in revenue.

Individual site subscriptions

A few sites have tried launching their own ad-free services; for example, WIRED is launching a service where readers can pay $4/month for ad-free browsing. It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t scale. Maybe some readers will subscribe to one or two sites they really like, but very few modern web users limit their browsing to just one or two sites. People today are clicking all sorts of links on their social media news feeds or in emails from friends or what have you; I’d wager the average user visits dozens of ad-reliant websites in any given week.

Even if a majority of ad blocker users get onboard with these site subscription programs (which seems very unlikely), it won’t solve the problem. These users won’t have a subscription on the majority of the websites they visit, and so they’ll still block ads on most websites.

Ad blockers remove almost all ads across all websites. AdBlock users aren’t gonna be happy with a solution that only turns off ads on a handful of sites; we need a much broader solution.

Automatic micropayments

Here’s an idea: if you’re someone who doesn’t like ads, you have the ability to opt into a program where you get charged whatever fraction of a penny some website would have made off your pageview, and you get billed monthly or something. I know some people hate the idea of every webpage they visit costing them money, but if it were automatic and cheap and easy, would it really be so bad?

Ad network subscription

Okay okay, maybe micropayments won’t work so well; I can already imagine the hordes of pitchforks on Reddit. Let’s try again…

Google runs Doubleclick, one of the biggest ad networks on the web. Just like they’ve done with YouTube Red, Google could have a premium service for Doubleclick. Pay $7/month, and never see adverts on websites that have Google-powered ads. That way, you’re not paying for every individual page you visit — you just pay the same flat monthly rate, regardless if you visit 10 pages or 10,000 pages. They’d probably have to throw in some other features to convince people to pony up (maybe some sort of Google Fiber tie-in, I don’t know), but perhaps it’s a possibility?

A real solution: Just make ads less terrible

All of the ideas I’ve talked about thus far require the public to pay for any and all content that view on the web. It seems rather unlikely that either idea could achieve mass adoption. I think there’s actually a much more reasonable solution: make ads suck less!

AdBlock Plus joined with Reddit, Stack Exchange, and others to create the Acceptable Ads Manifesto. You can read the whole thing at acceptableads.org, but the basic idea is: it’s okay if websites have advertisements, but they can’t be disruptive or annoying. Get rid of the auto-playing audio, get rid of the obnoxious animations, get rid of the “wait five seconds” and pop-overs and pop-unders and all the junk. You can have ads without pissing off your reader, and your reader will be happy to turn off their ad blocker.

Does this sound too perfect? Yeah, well there’s one big issue: publishers aren’t getting on board. Those initial signing parties signed on a few years ago when the Acceptable Ads Manifesto launched, and there has been zero momentum since then. I think the issue is that it’s hard to be the first adopter. Any news site that tries to be the first to do this is going to be taking massive cuts to their ad revenue. Advertisers aren’t going to pay as much money for an ad that is less flashy and noticeable.

I don’t think this is impossible, but we need some big brave pioneers. If some big-name websites/publishers gave acceptable ads a shot and found that it actually worked for getting users to allow their ads, I think other sites would follow. And that’s crucial: we need a lot of publishers banding together to force the ad industry to adapt. The ad industry is going to want to pay less for less-flashy advertisements, but if no one is buying the obnoxious ads, then publishers will have the leverage to make advertisers pay handsomely for the acceptable ads.

So please, news sites, I’m begging you: think about trying acceptable ads? The initial revenue cut will hurt, but in the long term, I think acceptable ads policies will be better for everyone.

[discuss on Hacker News]