Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Why Online Display Advertising is Like Crack

For some time I’ve been trying to find a good opportunity to write about online display advertising. It’s not that I haven’t had lots to say in the past, but I just haven’t had a particularly good context. That was until Adblock Plus came around and started getting some press. Adblock Plus, you see, is a Firefox extension that (not surprisingly) blocks advertising on the web. Instead of seeing an ad in the right column of a New York Times article, for instance, there is just an empty white space. (To be honest, I think it’s kind of cool looking.)

Noam Cohen described it like this in the Times:

The larger importance of Adblock is its potential for extreme menace to the online-advertising business model. After an installation that takes but a minute or two, Adblock usually makes all commercial communication disappear. No flashing whack-a-mole banners. No Google ads based on the search terms you have entered.

From that perspective, the program is an unwelcome arrival after years of worry that there might never be an online advertising business model to support the expense of creating entertainment programming or journalism, or sophisticated search engines, for that matter.

It’s that last sentence I find especially interesting. Click-through rates are abysmal and we’ve known for quite sometime that people are banner blind, yet the industry just keeps pushing along. To me it’s always been a lack of creativity: Publishers who came from a world of traditional media were completely uninterested in imagining a new model. Then, as new online-only publishers entered the arena, they didn’t have the marketing savvy to understand that there may be another way to survive.

I think I’ve said it before, but online CPM (cost-per-thousand) advertising is like crack. Publishers know it’s no good and won’t last, but they are addicted and can’t ween themselves off the stuff. The issues with it are numerous:

  1. They still assume reach is the ultimate measure. Problem is, reach is a number born out of a medium (television) where there was a limited spectrum. As a result, people were forced to watch one of a small number of stations. The internet doesn’t live by the same rules, as the digital spectrum is infinite. As an advertiser you can extract much more value by offering a specific message to small group than a general message to a large one. Therefore, the real value on the internet becomes the ability to target, rather than the ability to reach massive numbers. (The issue with this, of course, is that the more targeted you are the less efficient you can be — unless you’re Google of course, in which case you can sell people’s intentions rather than their eyeballs.)
  2. As I mentioned before, people are banner blind. Seriously, when’s the last time you noticed a banner ad?
  3. As Umair mentions: “Ads are nothing but nuisance costs to most consumers.” That, of course, is a larger advertising issue, but it’s especially important in a medium where people are in far more control of what they read/watch/see.

All of this is to say I don’t feel the slightest bit sorry about Adblock Plus. If people don’t want to see ads they shouldn’t have to. Publishers shouldn’t complain about something like this, rather, they should take the hint and start finding new revenue streams. Take job boards, for instance, many bloggers are figuring out that this is a viable revenue stream that taps into the targeted nature of their small(ish) audience. I’ve been a strong proponent of this for a while, as I think it’s the most simple example of a new media revenue stream that actually provides value for advertisers, publishers and users. The problem is, there aren’t a ton of others out there (at least that I know of). As I wrote in July:

But what is a site with few visitors to do? Is it less valuable? The answer is no: It’s actually more valuable to advertisers, but less valuable to the publisher (from a purely monetary standpoint). Being able to efficiently target an audience is worth a lot of money, however, if a site or other niche property doesn’t have big numbers it may not be able to survive the CPM game. Instead of thinking about other ways to add value, however, most just end up folding. That’s sad. While I don’t have a definite answer for how to fix it (Google figured out one way, job boards are another interesting one), it’s clear that Scott Karp is right when he says page views and CPMs are suppressing online advertising.

So there you have it. Pageviews/CPMs are the easy way out and Adblock Plus, while it may not ever become huge, is certainly another signal that publishers need to get more creative and stop relying on a model created for print and television.

September 7, 2007


  • Mike Arauz says:

    For a while now, I’ve been convinced that the future of web ads is in contextual personally curated recommendations. Whenever I visit any site that has advertising, why shouldn’t I only see adds that were personally selected by my friends or favorite bloggers? It’s doable, it just hasn’t been done, yet.

    I wonder how successful Coudal’s “The Deck” (http://www.coudal.com/deck/) has been. It seems like a good potential model.

  • Max Kalehoff says:

    Noah, we just tackled the same issue at the same time — with a great degree of alignment! Consumers To Advertisers: Benefit Us Or Else!
    I think the fundamental issue is one of value. Is advertising (or any commercial attempt, fort that matter) delivering value to its prospects?

  • The Elephant says:

    I recently read the below post that says even if nobody pays attention to banners, they work like water torture. Rather than exploring new models and practices, I wonder if people will lean on this in the effort to eschew taking risks.
    Study: Banners Work Even When Overlooked

  • Ryan Anderson says:

    I feel exactly the same way. The whole “if you don’t watch the ads, you can’t have the show” only works when there’s media scarcity. Four networks – media scarcity. When there are a billion blogs and podcasts, plus Youtube, satellite radio and just about anything in the world I want on-demand, if I can’t have it the way I want it, I’ll go somewhere else.

  • Dan says:

    Noah, you make some great points here. I’ve been spending a lot of time researching the future of display advertising… and i entirely agree with your statement about the “lack of creativity”

  • andy mathro says:

    Your article does not address “privacy rape”: ads are not passive like billboards but like gestapo agents watch you across all internet sites collecting what becomes a sold product

    When ads violate dignity (privacy derived from dignity) they must not be tolerated by anyone.

  • Bardor says:

    well i dont manage a website this is my input on ads i hate them so i use adblock to not get those annoying ads that distrupts my web enjoyment but i understand those that do run a site and use and revenue to finance the site. But sadly i wont allow ads to be shown on sites i visit just becouse i find them annoying. Well this is my personal opinion you can thingk what you want about it i dont care what you think.

  • Bob says:

    I rent a server for $10/month and maintain all its content based on a hobby of mine. It is perhaps somewhat altruistic to do this (share original and unique content for free), but at that very low cost, it never occurred to me to advertise on that website to earn money. Indeed, in some respects, I use it as a personal “cloud” (in-vogue term, but, like many others, I have been doing it well before that term was marketed) and to have an off site backup away from my home PC. Bottom line is that I devote a lot of time and other resources into creating that unique content, I know it is just not a revenue stream. On the other hand, if it cost a thousand dollars per month to rent the server, I would do something else – so my willingness to go ad-free is based in large part on the very low cost to share digital information.

    By-the-way, every computer I encounter, I install Firefox (if not already installed), and adblock-plus (if not already installed and enabled) before visiting any websites in a browser. If a site has a blocking pop-up that tells me to disable adblock plus to see the content, I immediately close that browser window – and I go to another website that might have unrestricted and relevant content. These blocking pop-ups often have a small time delay teasing the user for those first three seconds, then it pops up disabling the website. I am more opposed to cripple-ware than ads.

    To me the web is sort of like a cloud where people post up information they think is important, and anything else is a distraction. google is not a search engine, it is an advertising giant.

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