Ad Blocking: Can the digital disruptors take their own medicine?

tristan tobinIn this guest post Tristan Tobin argues the very people who disrupted the media industry now need to show they can adapt themselves to survive the rise of ad blockers.

Does anyone else get a rush a Déjà vu from this ad-blocking debate? Ever since the printing press put scribes out of work we’ve been hearing the same argument, “liberating content from the existing revenue model will be catastrophic.”

When the internet starting taking print media apart in the early 2000s, many digital pioneers poised to make a fortune had only glib sympathy for the print news business model. They sucked their teeth and remarked, ‘times have changed.’ Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

The incumbent online ad platforms have plenty to lose if the current model changes, but surely this doesn’t mean they have nothing to play for? Is the online ad industry, the darlings of disruption, honestly trying to tell us you should only have to win once?

Ad-blocking grew by 41% globally in the 12 months to June 2015. There are 45 million ad-blocking users in the US and 12 million in the UK, up 48% and 82% respectively in the 12 months to June. These stats are pulled from the somewhat compromised PageFair website, but the trend they indicate can’t be completely discounted.

Ad-blocking is becoming more popular and online publishers are taking notice.

The ad-blocking debate, like the many media debates that have come before it, has one word at its core – innovation. Our industry’s favourite word seems to be about to dagger the golden goose, a sort of digital ‘Et tu, Brute’.

Innovation may sound great in pitches and spattered through the company boilerplate, but it comes in a package deal with a much more troublesome twin brother, disruption.

With ad-blocking, online publishers could be facing massive disruption to their business models. While they may be arguing that ad-blocking is theft (and (take a breath), that it callously defeats the value exchange laid down by the advertising- funded publishing model that we all implicitly agree to each time we visit a site), the fundamental principles are centuries old. Innovation has bred disruption, and someone new is about to have a nice long lunch in the sun.

The big difference this time is that disruption is not threatening to unseat a 20o year old business model, the online publishing economy is only 20 years old.

Emblematic of its fast-moving ascendancy, the digital ad space may become a victim of its own pace of change. Rising on the internet’s rapid and tumultuous evolution could mean being dethroned before reaching maturity – chewed up and spat out like last week’s memes.

While there are countless historical precedents for disruption and adaptation, we’re now dealing with a medium that almost exclusively deals in disruption, so for publishers big and small there’s everything to play for, and a huge amount to win. Who’s to say there’s not an entirely new model waiting around the corner?

Whatever happens, it’s never been clearer that consumers are getting to grips with the power that digital gives them, and rather than cry foul, publishers will have to come to terms with the innovation model that led them to their current prevalence.

In an industry that prides itself on being stacked with innovative or even ‘disruptive’ businesses, actual disruption cannot be unpalatable.

  • Tristan Tobin is an account manager at Bold Media

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