Ask any advertising or media executive for their take on ad blockers, and you’ll probably hear them described as something analogous to a vampire, sucking the lifeblood out of digital media and money out of the pockets of publishers. They may remind you that advertising still provides the main source of revenue for digital media, and that every time an ad blocker is installed, an angel cries a silent tear.
Against this logic, a new startup called Optimal has declared that those same ad blockers can actually be harnessed to make money for publishers. At first glance, it’s a contradiction in terms: Ad blocking means fewer eyeballs scanning ads, which means fewer ad dollars handed over to publishers, which means less revenue for everyone’s favorite publications, from the New York Times to the Awl.
But Optimal, set to launch its site next month, has a plan to spin gold out of straw: It wants to offer consumers a “curated” selection of ad blockers, charge them a small monthly subscription fee to use them, and funnel 70 percent of that subscription money to publishers themselves (with Optimal taking the remaining cut). According to Optimal’s founder, Rob Leathern, the new revenue stream will offset some, if not most, of the losses in ad revenue caused by ad blockers.
“They’ll be paying publishers for the right to block ads,” Leathern told International Business Times.
Optimal is pitching its tent in the mobile world, where ad blocking is nascent but catching on at a time when publishers are growing increasingly dependent on mobile ad revenue. The service would charge at least $5.99 a month (“the price of one and a half lattes,” Leathern says) to help users select an ad blocker of their choice and get a cleaner reading experience — while still supporting the publishers.
While the proceeds from subscription fees would initially be divvied up among publishers according to traffic, users would also be able to reward their favorite publications by voting them up and increasing their share of the revenue.
The idea rests on faith in the average reader. “I think consumers will recognize they don’t want to see content creators disappear, they want to support them,” Leathern said. “And publishers don’t want to feel like they’re forced into a corner where they only have to work with Facebook or Google to make money — they deserve a choice, like the consumer.”
Leathern said he is in talks with publishers but declined to name them. “We will offer the exact same deal to every publisher,” he said, “whether it’s small ones you’ve never heard of, or the Wall Street Journal.”
But there’s no standing deal with the 10,000 publishers currently on Optimal’s list. It’s up to those sites to collect their money by visiting Optimal’s page and proving they own their domains. Until then, the money stays in Optimal’s vault. “We set aside the money for one year for publishers to claim. Once they set up an account they will get paid,” Leathern said.
Leathern’s goal to rescue publishers is noble, and his indictment of online advertising is hard to rebuke. Plenty of sites (IBT’s included) deal with ad networks that peddle spammy third-party advertising. You see them at the bottom of an article, advertising a “genius drug” or a little-known miracle fruit that will make all that fat simply melt away.
Ads also suck data and battery life. “We estimate using an average iPhone ad blocker on iOS 9 would save the consumer $4.60 per month in excess data charges,” Leathern said. Factor in the invisible malware and the clunky aesthetic, and consumers’ embrace of ad blockers is easy to understand.
Still, Leathern’s proposed solution doesn’t solve the main riddle vexing the industry: How do you get online consumers to pay for news content? The reality is, consumers can already get ad blockers for free. The way most people download one is by searching “adblock” on Google, hitting the first link to Eyeo GmbH’s Adblock Plus, and installing it within seconds. That’s hard to beat.
Leathern stressed that Optimal’s “curation” of ad blockers is a premium service, but it’s difficult to imagine that’s a strong enough incentive to get people to pay $5.99 or more every month. Also, while it’s clear what publishers would get out of the arrangement month after month, it’s less clear why consumers would keep paying after they’ve already selected an ad blocker, which is typically a one-time deal.
In other words, Optimal’s pitch raises the obvious question: If people like their media for free, how does one get them to pay for ad blocker if that, too, is out there for free?
“That’s a valid challenge,” said Ben Williams of Adblock Plus, far and away the most popular ad blocker on the market. Still, his company has signed up for a beta test of Optimal, which he hasn’t seen yet. “It sounds like they have a pretty cool approach, and we’re interested to give it a spin.”
Jason Kint, CEO of the publisher’s association Digital Content Next, was curious about the incentive to pay for an ad blocker, but he acknowledged that every approach is a valuable contribution. “Ad blocking is prompting many different types of solutions,” he said. “The ones we're taking a close look at are solutions that enhance consumer experiences and, of course, support premium content businesses."
When asked to explain the incentive to pay up, Leathern answered: “Doing the right thing.”
That’s certainly a moral incentive, but it’s not a commercial one. And ethics alone haven’t stopped people from using ad blockers in the first place, despite the harm they are causing to publishers.
When pressed on the issue, Leathern repeated that the curation factor was a significant added value. “You are making the mistake of assuming someone downloading and using a random ad blocker is the same product as someone picking one from a curated list where we have tested them against hundreds of trackers and ad servers.”
“I'm trying to find that group of users [is it 15 or 20 percent of the 200 million people blocking ads?] who would be willing to pay to improve on the current status quo,” he added. “From there, we will create other products and models that will appeal to those not willing to pay directly.”
If he finds them, that will be a major achievement. Until then, what's undeniably true is that ad blockers are here to stay. They are not a fad, or a deviance that can be attacked like music piracy. Leathern is not the only veteran of the ad world preaching the gospel of adblocking; IBT has reported on other ad and marketing players who see it as the first shot in a revolution to topple the corrupt industry of online advertising.
The question, to quote a particularly successful revolutionary, remains, "What is to be done?"