Want Better Digital Experiences? Help Pay for Them

I recently picked up an issue of Vanity Fair from the newsstand and started searching for the table of contents. I almost gave up. There were so many ads to flip through at the front of the magazine, I was losing patience. Still, I was impressed with Vanity Fair for convincing so many brands to buy ads that I wasn’t even pausing to look at—and yet, I couldn’t help but wonder what those same advertisers demand from their digital partners.

As someone who both works in digital media and covers it, I often find myself in awkward positions: doling out advice that I can’t always follow or commenting on the very issues that we wrestle with every day. However, of all the things rattling around in my head, there is no single conversation in the digital media space that irks me more than the ongoing one around advertising.

Let’s review some of the issues that have dominated this year’s conversation.

In May, PageFair’s (in partnership with Priori Data) “2016 Mobile Adblocking Report” found that “419 million people [22% of the world’s 1.9 billion smartphone users] are blocking ads on the mobile web.” The year before, the report found, “There are now 198 million active adblock users around the world.” This, PageFair estimated, would cost publishers a cool $22 billion. And as I sat down to write this column, major ad-blocking software provider Adblock Plus announced that it would start serving ads to publishers. I was incensed!

Meanwhile, advertisers were fretting about viewability. Were people even looking at the ads they placed on sites? (Let me point out that these same advertisers pay far more for print ads and have no idea who, if anyone, sees them—or if they immediately end up at the bottom of a birdcage.) As publishers rushed to fix viewability—moving ads above the virtual fold and employing pop-ups—more than one person wondered if this might be leading to that rise in ad blocking that we already discussed. It’s a vicious cycle.

And then, of course, there is the constant wail of people lamenting native advertising. Heaven forbid publishers—hit with the one-two punch of readers who don’t want to pay for content and who don’t want to see the ads that support it—get creative and try to deliver a more relevant, less obtrusive ad experiences through native ads (or sponsored content—whatever you want to call it).

I find myself constantly torn between both sides of these issues. As someone who covers the business of media, I have no choice but to talk about the importance of better ad experiences, relevance, and personalization. But the crusty, old reporter in me says, “Unless you are ready to support your media outlet of choice through hefty subscription fees, you’re just going to have to deal with whatever ads we give you!” Meanwhile, I can’t help but get riled up at the advertisers themselves, who demand more and more, for less and less. This is especially prevalent in the B2B world, in which vendors want your coverage but don’t want to support your publication with ad dollars. “Sorry,” they’ll tell your salespeople, “we’re concentrating on programmatic.”

On the web, we’re all competing for your eyeballs, and he who has the shiniest clickbait title wins. That impacts everything, including the quality of the journalism and what publishers need to do to monetize their audiences. 

I’m not usually one to lament the state of internet journalism—I love a good first-person essay as much as the next guy. But in this election year (during which the media has been much maligned), I think it’s essential to remind everyone how important it is to support real journalists—and the media you care about in general.

Maybe, similar to me, you donate to your local NPR station because you appreciate what it does. Whether you’re the head of a marketing department or just a reader, I urge you to think about how you can support the outlets you rely on. Buy a subscription. Uninstall your ad blocker. Purchase a print ad. Sponsor a newsletter. Do whatever is in your power to help make sure that the quality media you rely on—either to get or distribute your news—has a future. If you want a better digital experience, you have to help make it possible. We’re all in this together.