“Turn off your Adblocker” is a Mistake

Websites should fix their ads before asking users to take risks

I applaud Forbes.com for being one of the first to take a stand and do something to protect their ad revenue. When I was at Root Markets in 2006, Forbes and the New York Times were two of the first publishers with whom we tested our unique approach to online advertising (that was ultimately a failure, but more about that some other time). Forbe’s initiative to block adblockers, however, is a big mistake and here are the three reasons why:

  1. The “Circle of Trust” is still too big. The problem isn’t that websites like Forbes can’t trust their partners. It’s that they can’t trust who their partners choose to trust. As my friend Don Marti points out, even Google is serving malware through its ads. I’ve written several other items about this problem, but let me be clear for publishers: If you’re asking consumers to turn off adblockers that currently may protect them from malware that your ad partners may serve, the onus is more than ever on YOU to be absolutely sure that you won’t serve them that malware. This means that you need to take down all third-party ad tags/javascript because you simply cannot be sure they’re not going to serve bad code. Realize too the following important aspect of this issue:

2. The Adblocking Prisoner’s Dilemma. Forbes’ Lewis Dvorkin shared the following statistics about their recent ad blocking test, asking a subset of their users to turn off their adblockers in order to continue reading Forbes’ content:

Source: Lewis Dvorkin, Forbes.com
Multiple places to read the same story…

The Prisoner’s Dilemma in this case refers to the situation that faces the majority of website publishers, in my opinion. If every site could block ad blockers, all publishers would be better off. But in a world of multiple sources for the same story, users can easily hit the back button or choose a different source for a story, from aggregators like Techmeme. This means that websites that “defect” and don’t block adblockers, will potentially see more users for commodity content than their brethren that block adblockers.

To me the important numbers I’d want from the Forbes test are the ones in yellow below, to see retention rates of those users in these groups compared to the average Forbes.com visitor:

Yellow numbers — what are they?

3. Consumers may tell their friends about you. Look at the tweet I started this piece with. Over 4,400 retweets and counting. If the average retweet gets (let’s say) 100 impressions, that’s 440,000 people from one tweet alone who now may think twice before clicking a Forbes.com link on social media or elsewhere, if they are adblock users. They don’t think the website will respect their adblocking wishes, they may never visit. This effect is more difficult for the publisher to measure directly but make no mistake, when combined with other (I am sad to say but it is true that these are) everyday occurrences like malware being served to a Windows user via your website, the anti-consumer sentiment from blocking adblockers may just not be worth it. Here are a couple of other quick (ironic?) examples:

It might be the case that we are headed back to a world of premium publishers serving up their own ads, knowing who the actual advertisers are, and so being able to assure the consumer that turning off the adblocker will have no negative consequences. But we are a long way from that — the adtech-industrial complex is deeply embedded with premium publishers and that won’t unwind quickly or easily.

OTOH I believe that you should get to have your cake and eat it — adblocking users should have an opportunity to still support websites AND block ads. Hopefully over time, paid-adblocking will become a standard. To learn more, visit Optimal.com to sign up for updates -> we’re launching soon. Business Insider did a nice write up about what we’re planning. So did Forbes (oh, and Techcrunch).

Here are some other things I’ve written related to the Brave New advertising world, all of which I hope you will read some time!

  1. The Mobile Video Ad Lie
  2. Carriers are making more from mobile ads than publishers are
  3. Mobile video ad lies continue
  4. Your TV attention is worth just 18cents an hour
  5. Do mobile websites deserve to die?
  6. Why real-time bidding is a big bust
  7. What consumers deserve from digital ads
  8. The downward spiral of deceptive ads
  9. Thanks, Network Advertising Initiative!
  10. The future is about filters
  11. Let’s not talk about privacy
  12. An allegory about the online data business
  13. Who the f*** is that advertiser?

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ads & integrity product management at facebook - our team protects people from mistakes or malicious behavior by businesses