How to survive the ad-blockalypse? Read the comments. No, really.

Re-visiting the First Ad-blocking Wars on video games websites (2013) can be very informative.

You’ve probably read a think-piece or five about the #ad-blockalypse. Many were great. But what they all have in common is that they generally point to one another. They reference Nilay Patel blaming Apple, Marco Ament and the “moral imperative” of stopping current ad technology, or Mathew Ingram recapping the ethical debate. I’m not dismissing the good points that they all raise, of course. But for now, this whole deal has been largely a conversation among media-people, or techies at most. Eventually a “user” gets its voice amplified, but even if it’s good insight, it’s just a media-person tweeting as someone from the audience.

I’m not sure how we’re going to deal with this problem without having an honest talk with the people that go in our websites everyday. To get a sense on how that is going to play out, it’s helpful to revisit the ad-blocking debate on video game websites circa 2013.

It all started with a Destructoid post titled “Half of Destructoid’s readers block our ads. Now what?” 1364 comments later, I came with the impression that the majority of people were ok with seeing non-Flashy (literally) ads. As a matter of fact, some readers were even worried that reading Destructoid on their iPhones/iPads would hurt revenues.

Destructoid Commenters on the eve of the First Ad-blocking Wars

Fast forward today, even with the ad-blocking on the rise, particularly on sites dedicated to video games, and we see that the doomsday scenario never came. The ads didn’t go away — there are still seven positions on Destructoid’s homepage, managed by a single external provider, Crave, for instance. But they are definitively less intrusive now: Destructoid loads its page after 2.33 seconds (compared to, for instance, 6.07s of The Verge). Maybe that conversation worked somehow?

You see, it’s dangerously easy to dismiss ad-blocking usage as a sort of theft. And if you dig the comments on those posts in 2013, you’ll find “evidence” that many readers don’t care about the monetization problem, using the common and frankly inept “innovate or die” threat/wisdom. But the general tone of the First Ad-block Wars™ can be summed up in this comment, from this thread at Reddit:

On Reddit, the conversation continued

This three-step solution has, obviously, limited applicability. Namely, it leaves medium-sized newsrooms out. But considering that all those sites fighting ad-blockers at that time are still around, maybe something actually good happened. Take a look at TouchArcade, probably the best place to go for mobile games. Last week, they posted a straightforward plea: “If you are going to Block Our Ads, Please Support Our Patreon.”

Like many on the video game journalism business, they started to get subscriptions with various perks, which nets them $ 8,046 each month. It’s not huge money, but it sure can keep the website afloat. Either way, they’re still a pretty interesting place for advertisers, as they have a very dedicated following, that discuss passionately the iPhone games in the forums. Their audience — community, rather — is capable of saying heart-warming things like that:

TouchArcade readers are the best

Why they get this attitude when talking about ad-blockers, instead of the usual “you caused this”?

For me, two things were at play: First, the way many of those VG sites started this conversation was very different than the panicked/threatening way more mainstream outlets are doing now. By acknowledging the motives of the readers, by putting themselves in their community members shoes, they set the space for an honest debate. It was really conversational: this is happening, this is bad for us, I understand this is bad for you too, I know the page takes a long time to load, what can we do about it?

And that conversation happened everywhere on that corner of the internet on 2013 (or even a little before that). Around that time, when videos on Gamespot stopped playing for users with ad-block installed, a staff member had to apologize to the community, highlighting that the bug wasn’t intentional; The Escapist Magazine’s Jim Sterling did a podcast acknowledging that the advertisers were a big part of the problem. And the seminal Destructoid post started with “Relax. We’re still friends”.

I’m not saying that it was all milk and honey, without entitled trolls in the middle. Besides the dominant narrative that the problem was only with autoplaying video ads and page takeovers, there were a lot of people saying versions of this (as documented by Gamasutra):

"Sorry guys, people are willing to do your job for free. Maybe not to the same standard but they’ll always be free press and accountability on the internet regardless of whether people are paid to do it. My hobby is video gaming, reading about them on sites is a nice extra but nothing that I couldn’t do without. I might seem like an arsehole but it’s the truth."

And that takes me to my second point. You know what? Maybe those people complaining are right (not completely, but enough so to make the argument valid). Just look at GameFaqs, with its 30,000+ words guides, created with zero budget. Or subReddit communities that have a lot of exclusive content, like developers actively participating in discussions. A lot of journalists fail to realize that there are people not willing, but already doing, our job for free.

Either way, the sites and their users stuck around. On their sites, not on Facebook, bien sûr.

This is the Instant Article Strategy, which pretty much eliminates community monetization

(Credit: Ben Thompson)

To recap: video games sites were the ideal candidates for the ad-blockalypse: tech savvy crowd, willing to do our job for free, having to deal with websites full of intrusive ads with Flash and autoplay.

And yet. There are big, palpable communities on those sites. They fight a lot, but ultimately they talk every day with one another and with the editorial team. The “editorial” of many of those smaller places not only answer to the readers in the comment section, but do all sorts of crazy stuff. My friends at Overloadr, probably the best VG website in Brazil, organize parties to drink with the community, for instance.

The irony here is that most of those communities were formed in the comments section, or in forums within those sites. Video game fans can still think that they can do a good editorial job better, for free (and many of them can!), but they nevertheless still visit those sites, because they value what the authors put as good conversation starters. The best ones, Kotaku, Polygon, Destructoid, GiantBomb, are far from being a Metacritic score generator. They make people come back to keep talking to one another. And this is not a lesser form of journalistic enterprise. Maybe even it’s a higher one.

The comments section, those places that many in the industry now think are useless, have the value of making it easier to literally see the community you’re building. And in these testing times, when you have to turn to them, well… I bet that it will be way easier for the people that have a dedicated following than for the ones that will need promoted posts on Facebook to cry for help.