We’ve all seen it. You visit a site, only to be bombarded by an eyeful of content you didn’t ask for, and you’re not interested in. In the quest to monetise online content, advertising has become an aggressive – and often intrusive – industry that is constantly trying to squeeze more money out of every page view.

A few months ago, I tweeted about this gem:


I’ve never visited the site again.

A fallacy seems to have emerged that the more advertising you can fit on a page, the more money it makes. While it may seem simple enough, it’s far more complex than just increasing the number of adverts to increase the income being generated. One of the main reasons for this is that users can now disable advertising on the sites they visit, with little to no effort.


Rise of the Ad Blockers

If you know how to install a browser extension, a largely ad-free Internet is within your grasp. Easy to use, one-click-install browser plugins can reliably block most adverts on a site. They’re nothing new and have been around for years, but the online advertising industry seems to have struggled with finding a response to the steadily increasing number of ad-blocking users. But why are they such an important factor?

Because people don’t have to look at your ads.

The choice for a user is no longer limited to viewing your content or leaving, which often meant that sites with compelling and desirable content were able to monetise users that put up with their advertising because of what they were getting in return. Now there’s a much shorter fuse on the patience of a gradually increasing percentage of audiences. They have the knowledge and motivation to view that content without contributing a single ad impression.

So what’s the solution?


Less really can be more

It’s a misconception I’ve heard many times from content creators, or those in charge of monetising that content – that ad-blocking users are revenue denying, selfish freeloaders. I’ve seen those sentiments thrown around social media time and time again, to varying degrees of severity. But I hear a lot more of the following kinds of statements:

“I only turned ad block on because of [particularly obtrusive ad].”

“I’d disable ad block on that site if the ads didn’t get in the way so much.”

The idea that advertising needs to simply be pushed more often and more prominently is a self destructive, contradictory strategy that will only damage both users and content creators. As aggressive ads push more and more users over their tipping point, many sites are will try and recoup the revenue lost by the departure or ad-blocking of those users. But serving yet more ads to the remaining user base can only amplify the effect even further, pushing them to their tipping point in turn.

It’s easy to think about websites as free, and advertising almost as a side effect of traffic. But in real terms, ad views are a way for users – with nothing but their very presence on your site – to pay you for your content. And you might be overcharging them.

Imagine a restaurant that’s struggling to fill its tables because many prospective diners consider them too expensive. Do they bump up their prices even further, to squeeze more profit out of the customers they do have? They might, but it’s probably a fast way to go out of business. It’s more likely that they would try promotions or discounts, listening to feedback and finding ways to offer their menu at a more attractive price point.

It feels odd that the majority of online advertising seems uninterested in learning of the lessons of such real-world scenarios that have existed for almost as long as commerce itself. Perhaps screen space is seen as an infinite, cost-free resource to be mined to near unlimited depths. Or maybe advertisers really are oblivious that the damage they’re doing to their userbase might boost figures in reports for the short term, but ultimately devalue their product.


The cautionary tales of other industries

Whether it be the music industry or Hollywood, aggressive monetisation strategies that push consumers to acquire content for free is not new. Is piracy illegal? Yes. Does it damage creativity, and the ability for artists to make a living from their had work and ideas? Absolutely. Did the industries in question help themselves when Internet piracy began? No.

Ad Blocking isn’t technically “piracy”. But there’s definitely a parallel. The unpleasant attempts to combat piracy in those industries – from CDs that wouldn’t play in computers, to DVDs with excessive and un-skippable piracy warnings – punished legitimate consumers. Piracy became more attractive, not to mention more convenient. They tried the equivalent of adding ads in ever increasing quantities and levels of obtrusiveness. They tried, and it failed.

In the last few years, the music industry has enjoyed growth in revenues and a decline in piracy (Source: TIME). Embracing digital distribution and streaming services, instead of fighting against them, provided new ways to monetise the content they controlled. Can advertising learn these lessons? Will online content providers listen to the needs of their consumers, and find new methods of remuneration that can keep both parties happy? More crucially, will they do so before most of the Internet becomes a bloated, hideous, advertising graveyard?


Finding a balance

Ad-blocking users aren’t necessarily “content pirates”. Most of the time, they just want to view the content on a site without having their eyes assaulted by copy that moves around the page so that Kevin Bacon has more room to slide down the screen on a rope from a helicopter. I’ve seen that ad. Often they’re not trying to block quite profitable, unassuming ad zones that sit neatly in the content – just the garish, animated scene that obscures the entire screen just as they’re starting to read an article.

Perhaps because no money changes hands, from the user to the advertiser, the contribution of the audience to the revenue can sometimes be overlooked. But make no mistake – online advertising, especially the obtrusive kind, is asking something of the user. It’s all too easy to ask too much, and eventually they’ll simply say “No”.