Every once in a while, when balking at new formats that might put off visitors, it is useful to remember that digital advertising is what keeps content on the internet free. It’s been a scant two decades since the first digital ads, and in the intervening twenty years digital advertising has been on a rocketing growth trajectory as more and more people have come online. PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicts that by 2017 the worldwide market for digital advertising will reach $186 billion. Online ad spend long ago outstripped print budgets, and now it has also gone past TV spending. Every year seems to bring another shattered record, but it seems as if every dollar increase is accompanied by louder complaints by consumers that they don’t want to be targeted by advertisers.
We could understand this attitude better at the beginning of the internet, when the World Wide Web was the Wild Wild West and everyone involved was crying that “information wants to be free.” But that was when digital publishing was a miniscule part of publishing in general, and publishers thought that eyeballs alone would somehow bring revenue.
However, we are now into a generation that’s maturing without ever knowing a time without the internet, and that generation loves to watch videos, read, and play games on networked devices. In the coming generation, many household appliances and pieces of jewelry will also be networked, creating new potential advertising platforms. The public needs to be educated again about how publishing actually works and why the content it loves to consume can never be free unless it is supported by advertisers. This new generation, with its low tolerance for ads, has already caused many newspapers to go out of business altogether and others to convert full time jobs to piece work. Digital advertising still doesn’t command the rates that print and TV did, even as it becomes a larger and larger part of the budget. And yet, although addicted to real-time convenience, today’s consumers seem to be less and less tolerant of the industry that brings it to them.
In growing numbers they opt out of being tracked or targeted online and even employ ad blocking software, all in an effort to get away from the industry that delivers it largely free content.]
We like to think this is partly a problem of ignorance that can be overcome by education. But some publishers have begun to put up paywalls and others have gone to subscription services altogether. Neither of these solutions serves brands who are interested in drawing attention to their products in an increasingly noisy environment. And in the long run, neither of these serves a consumer who needs to know about new products and services, special offers, or service near her.
We need to spend more time defending the advertising ecosystem and reminding consumers they’re in a quid pro quo deal: free content means allow advertising.