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Are we stealing from the internet?

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Online advertising stealing from the internetApple’s announcement that iOS 9 has ad blocking tools baked into Safari has revived the discussion around the ethics of web advertising.

There are a wide spectrum of views, from those who believe online advertising is invading our privacy to the opposing argument that to consume information without ‘paying’ for it is unethical.

Is The Web Really Free?

The world is at our fingertips. We carry the power to access nearly a billion websites in our pockets, on our desks and even through our tv’s.

From finding your way to a meeting, searching out the best bargain or getting health advice, we have it all and it’s only seconds away. And the best part, it’s free.

What does free really mean?

As the proverb goes ‘you don’t get something for nothing’.  The perception is that a service is ‘free’ unless you actually hand over your hard earned cash – right? Well not quite.

You and I know that our businesses, irrespective of size, have costs and we have to earn revenue to cover those costs.  The internet is no different.

Is the internet a business?

No, not exactly.  It isn’t a standalone entity that generates revenue.  I think of it as a platform that over 3 billion of us use to come together.

So who pays for the internet?

The web is a mind boggling huge resource of information and that has only come about thanks to online publishers.  The various merits, accuracy and legitimacy of online content is a good discussion to have, but right now I would like to focus on the issue of who pays for all this content.

Who are online publishers?

Everyone and anyone who creates content and publishes online.  From social media users and bloggers sharing their views and experiences to businesses publishing information about their products and services.

Who are we generating all this content for?

Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average. So we have lots of questions that we request answers for, but should we expect these questions to be answered for free?

So what are the costs?

There are the basic costs of buying a domain name and hosting a website, but there is also the factor of the time it takes to research and create the content itself. So there’s the author who researches and writes the content, the photographer or illustrator that conveys the message through imagery, the videographer who adds movement to the story and more…

Who should pay?

The most common way for internet publishers to generate revenue is through advertising. By allowing ads to sit alongside their content they generate a return on their invested time, money and creativity.  Generally speaking, higher quality content attracts more visitors and increases the potential to earn a return.

How much can online publishers make through advertising revenue?

According to the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers, “throughout the 20th century, advertising brought up to 80 per cent of revenues in some markets”. The annual World Press Trends survey revealed in 2015 more and more of this revenue is shifting to online and mobile platforms.

So why is online advertising such an issue?

Advertising in the UK is governed by the Advertising Standard Authority. We can take comfort in the fact that the advertising we are exposed to is not misleading. The internet however is global and much content falls outside of the ASA’s control.

When comparing an online advert with say a traditional newspaper advert there are additional considerations.

Now it’s getting personal

Historically marketers, just like me, would select a newspaper or magazine to place advertising in based on the demographic of its readers – perhaps the average age, location or interests of the publication’s subscribers.

That’s fair, I only want to show my advert to people who are likely to be interested in the product – so I would choose a gardening publication for plants or a women’s glossy magazine for cosmetics.

Online advertising goes a step further.

Did you know?

Your use of the internet can be tracked and advertisers can use this information to target ads designed specifically for you?  Have you ever noticed ads for the very same product you saw just yesterday seem to be ‘popping up’ on other websites?  It’s not a coincidence.

Remarketing is an extremely effective tool in the marketing mix.

Is this manipulative or smart?

Here begins just part of the ethical debate.  How much is too much information?

There are already a number of tools which allow users to control how much of their information can be collected online.  If you’re interested a good place to start is Google’s security and privacy tools.

Why choose to deny advertisers?

As an agency who provide online advertising services it may seem crazy to encourage people to take control of their online privacy and potentially deny us the opportunity to display advertising to them.  However, in my experience, if someone finds adverts invasive or annoying the likelihood of them buying from you is close to zero.  I would rather put our client’s budget to better use.

So ad blockers are good, right?

I believe that if we push users to block all online advertising we will see a significant change in the way we use and publish to the web.  Quality curators and generators of content will be less motivated and their content will either dry up completely or be locked behind the doors of subscriptions.

For advertisers the ability to reach a specific target audience through pay per click advertising will be restricted and this valuable source of new business prospects will become increasingly expensive and out of reach for smaller enterprises.

The role of mobile

There are good reasons for Apple to be implementing ad blocking. The addition is designed to speed up browsing and conserve battery power.

However, with more and more content being consumed on mobile we shouldn’t lose sight of the need for publishers to earn a return.

So what’s the answer?

I think clarity is important here.  Are we discussing the use of advertising across the board or are we trying to weed out the unscrupulous advertisers who seek to hookwink us into clicking an advert or bombard us with the same message time and time again?

Darius Kazemi has an interesting solution, by simply restricting the use of content if a visitor rejects the publisher’s opportunity to earn a return.

Should we continue to support publishers by sacrificing a piece of our visual world, or our privacy, to pacify our insatiable desire for more and more information?

Tell us what you think

What price are you willing to pay for the content you consume online?  Tell us in the comments or find us on Twitter.

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