Will Flipboard, RSS, etc. Kill Online Advertising?

Frédéric Filloux writes at Monday Note:

The social web’s economics are paradoxical: The more it blossoms, the more it destroys value. In recent months, we’ve seen a flurry of innovative tools for reading and sharing contents. Or, even better, for basing one’s readings on other people’s shared contents. In Web 2.5 parlance, this is called Social Reading. For this, the obvious vector of choice is the iPad: it possesses a (so far) unparalleled ability to transform online reading into a cozy lean-back experience.

Filloux goes on to talk about applications ranging from Flipboard to Instapaper that provide users with ad-free, highly curated experiences. (For the fellow non-iPad crowd, I recommend TweetedTimes with Read It Later.)

In other words, between RSS feeds aggregated by mobile apps, “Read Later” features, and ad-free web curators, you can enjoy the web without bumping into ads. Great for users, not-so-great for the publishing business.

This ad-free threat explains the bold move a few publishers just made. If readers (humans) loathe advertising and favor bare-bones reading interfaces, let’s see if we can make them pay for such. That was the idea behind Ongo. This official paid-for aggregator, backed by several news organizations, hasn’t shown a great deal of progress since I reviewed it in a previous Monday Note (see Ongo…Where?). Its nice look aside, it persists in putting on the same page a story on US troops withdrawing from Iraq next to an article featuring a murderer identified thanks to its tattoos. Some editing is badly needed here…

Monday Note: Read, Share and Destroy

At the moment, three things still hold true:

1) Very few readers use browser plugins that block ads.
2) The number of readers using apps like Flipboard and Instapaper is relatively small
3) Far from leaching traffic, social media like Facebook and Twitter (and not-so-social sites like Google News and The Huffington Post) still drive a lot of traffic to sites.

But this could change, especially as tablets become more common. I’m not yet sure what that’s going to mean for publishers. Filloux worries about reduced ad revenue, which is very possible. I think blogs and other online publications have overdone it with ads and sidebars in recent years, leading to cluttered distracted messes (I’m in the process of slowly redesigning my own sites to be less cluttered). But new devices and social sharing are important driving forces for change in how we consume digital media s well.

Some things I suspect we’ll see:

1) More ads embedded into the text of articles so that they’re harder to excise (In my interview with him, Richard Metzger also suggested we’ll see more online video that makes it harder to remove ads as well)
2) More ways of tracking reader behavior off-site to feed the data hoarders
3) More attempts at pay walls

Update: In an interesting twist of events, Flipboard competitor Zite (which received cease and desist orders from publishers) says it will stop stripping ads from content and work with publishers on monetization.

Safari’s “Reader” Mode May be Best Case Scenario for Online Advertising

It it seems like so many sites are just getting so bad with road-blocks and screen hogging ads. It’s getting like it was in the late 90s and early 2000s, with pop-ups. You’d go to a page and you’d get 3 or 4 pop-ups. And now pop-up blockers are built into all browsers, basically. So that’s not even a viable form of advertising any more. So I expect ad-blockers will become a standard part of browsers – I just don’t know how companies are going to expect to profit from advertising in the future.

– Me, in my interview with Richard Metzger.

Shortly after that interview was conducted, Apple announced it was integrating the browser plugin Readability into Safari.

Reader mode
Screenshot from the big sloppy blowjob Ad-Age gave Apple for Reader

Apple is simultaneously shipping ad-blocking technology in its browser and entering the advertising market. Some, such as Ars Technica’s Ken Fisher cried foul:

So the company that has made an advertising platform a major part of its iOS strategy is also hawking an ad-blocking technology for its Web browser, where it has no stake in ads. App Store: use our unblockable ads, developers! They help you get paid for your hard work! Web: hey, block some ads, readers! They’re annoying!

(Fisher and Ars Technica have previously protested ad-blocking)

Chris Arkenberg noted “Apple’s iAd/ad-block duality underscores their anti-Flash agenda. If they can’t own & control the platform, they will try to crush it.”

Certainly this is relevant, especially if Apple doesn’t offer the ability to block its own iAds in apps. And readers of this site know I’m no fan of Apple’s strong-arm control tactics. But it’s worth noting that Reader/Readability is a different sort of ad-blocker.

It loads the full page, ads and all, and then gives the reader the option of blocking ads while they read the content. This means, for impression driven advertising, that sites still get their pageviews – and advertisers still get some exposure, if for only a few seconds.

Fisher notes this, but worries about articles split up into multiple pages. Sites might not be able to get pageviews for each and every single one of those pages. Cry me a fucking river! The content industry (of which I’m now very much a part, now being a writer for ReadWriteWeb) is on the verge of having the rug pulled out from under it by ad-blockers, and you’re worried that you might not be able to tack on a few extra pageviews for longer content? (Some sites already let you hit “single page” or view a printer friendly version if you don’t want to click through multiple pages.) We’re going to be goddamn lucky if readers stick to Readability and don’t go all out with Ad-Block Plus – or both.

The good news for both advertisers and content providers is that only 40% of Facebook readers say they dislike ads. And I’d guess Facebook users are fairly representative sample of the Internet. That means that unless browsers start shipping with an Ad-Block Plus-like ad blocker, we can expect that at least 60% of Internet users won’t bother to install an ad-blocker more aggressive than Readability.

But Facebook’s ads are pretty unobtrusive, unlike Salon’s monstrous screen hogging ads that try to drive you off the Internet and back onto paper. Considering 40% of Facebook users are annoyed by Facebook’s relatively tiny ads, the number of readers annoyed by “road block” ads and those “Congratulations, you’ve just been selected to receive a free iFuck-in-Ass” ads are probably more in the 98-99% range (the other 1-2% are too stupid to realize those road-blocks and fake contests are ads). Those really obtrusive ads could ruin it for everyone – they’re what finally drove me to install Ad-Block Plus, something I resisted for years.

Advertisers and publishers need to forget about being able to monetize every single pageview and focus on offering unobtrusive and highly targeted advertising – and ostracize anyone who tries to push obnoxious advertising on the web before browser makers start including real ad-blocks by default.

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