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Just when you think things can’t get any worse for the publishing industry, somebody goes and hammers another nail in its coffin.
Well, it’s not quite as dramatic as that. But recent news from mobile network provider Three certainly got the ad industry talking over the weekend.
The network has announced that it will roll out ad blocking technology on its network after initially trialling it in Italy.
In this post I’m going to cover what Three is actually doing, why it is doing it, and what the potential implications might be.
What is Three doing?
Three has teamed up with Shine Technologies, whose self-professed goal is ‘to protect consumers from AdTech.’
Shine owns the network-level ad blocking tech that Three will be using, and Three is its first European customer.
We don’t know the full details yet of how the tech will work and what the options will be for consumers and advertisers, but Three says it will announce full details in the coming months.
It has stated that it ‘will work with Shine Technologies and the advertising community to deliver "a better, more targeted and more transparent mobile ad experience to customers."
So it seems this is less about blanket ad blocking and more about bringing all parties together to improve the overall user experience for Three customers, but in a way that works for everyone.
In a recent statement titled ‘Three Group to tackle excessive and irrelevant mobile ads’, the network stressed that its objective is not to eliminate mobile ads altogether but to give customers ‘more control, choice and greater transparency over what they receive.’
The statement outlined three key goals:
- Customers should not pay data charges to receive ads.
- Customers’ privacy and security must be fully protected.
- Customers should be entitled to receive ads that are relevant and interesting to them.
On that first point, Three UK CMO Tom Malleschitz told Marketing Week that ads currently account for around 20% of data usage.
The idea that a fifth of people’s data allowance is being eaten up by ads they never asked for, and that they are effectively paying for the privilege of seeing, is quite alarming.
But points two and three are just as important. Consumer privacy and security is a hot topic, as evidenced by the rise of sites like DuckDuckGo.
People are likely to react positively to any move from a network provider that aims to increase their privacy rather than hand more of their information over to marketers.
But the third point is, in my opinion, the most important of all.
An outright admittance, from a household name known for large and elaborate marketing campaigns, that online ads are out of control and unacceptably obtrusive.
As Malleschitz told Marketing Week:
From a marketing and CMO angle, I believe mobile ads are pretty annoying right now. This is absolutely a push from Three to get advertisers to shape up.
What will happen as a result?
If people on Twitter are to be believed, the entire publishing industry will implode and journalists might as well start looking for a new career.
Some were just downright pissed off...
Did you actually send me a press release about how you're helping people block ads, thereby killing the the site you want to write about it— Holly Brockwell (@holly) February 19, 2016
While others seem to think Three will fall foul of net neutrality laws...
You don't have to like ads to realize that ad-blocking at the ISP level is a flagrant violation of net neutrality. https://t.co/mwuYaWIdsQ— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) February 19, 2016
Three's network-level ad-blocking rollout will be massively illegal under net neutrality law, right?— David Meyer (@superglaze) February 19, 2016
All of this is just speculation at this point, of course, but there are a couple of other points that I think are worth mentioning:
1. Better mobile ads
Hopefully the quality of ads will improve in the long run.
At the risk of having rotten fruit thrown at me by advertising types (one called me a ‘nimrod’ last time I made this point), you can’t just keep putting out crap ads and expect people not to block them.
Something’s ruining my online experience and I have the option to remove it? Yeah, that’s not a difficult decision.
And I don’t use ad blocking lightly, because I understand the potential implications it has for ‘free’ online content. But sometimes enough is enough.
Hopefully this move will encourage advertisers to focus on UX when it comes to producing mobile ads, something that has traditionally been ignored across all platforms.
2. The end of free content?
Of course with any big changes there is always going to be a certain degree of fear-mongering, and whether it is justified remains to be seen.
The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has warned that blocking ads could lead to the end of ‘free’ content.
In a recent statement it said:
The IAB believes that an ad-funded internet is essential in providing revenue to publishers so they can continue to make their content, services and applications widely available at little, or no cost.
We believe ad-blocking undermines this approach and could mean consumers have to pay for content they currently get for free.
Personally I don’t buy the idea that ad blocking will lead to the end of ‘free’ content. We’ve come too far. The majority of people simply won’t go back to paying for content online.
If mainstream publishers start putting paywalls on their content, all that will happen is audiences will become increasingly fragmented and turn to smaller news outlets and blogs to get their information.
Or the sites that have already mastered native content and developed alternative revenue streams will thrive.
The idea that all ‘free’ content will come to an end just because a number of publishers failed to see ad blocking coming and didn’t adapt is frankly implausible.
Do you agree with Three’s decision?
As a digital marketer, do you think Three is right to take these steps, or do you think it could be potentially harmful to brands and publishers?
Personally I see the move as a positive, but let me know your thoughts in the comments below.