Summary: Online media organizations can be successful and ultimately profitable if they take control of their advertising content.

For over one hundred years, print media, radio, and then over-the-air television have been able to pay the bills through advertisement sales. Consumers of those outlets have largely accepted this as necessary for the business to operate. Radio and television were free, after all, and newspapers were a bargain for the content that they provided.

Some people used television ad blocks to get refreshments, use the bathroom, or take care of other brief needs. For me, radio ads gave me a chance to scan other stations. The standardization of when ads were played on the radio largely snipped that habit, though. As for newspapers, it was easy enough to pull those ad inserts out of the paper the same way they went in.

People could also just do what the advertisers hoped and consume the content. That was their choice, and it was up to the ad creators to make them attractive enough to make people take notice.

Enter the Internet

As online media took off, the media outlets experienced various levels of success. Radio and television were able to largely use the same ad systems they had been using.

Print media’s use of national ad brokers did not translate well to the digital realm. Where people could easily grab the ads in newspapers and discard them if they chose, online media gave no such ability. And with the proliferation of multimedia ads, agencies had a whole new annoying set of tools.

The 3×5 cards that fell out of magazines when you opened them were the most annoying segment of print media advertising. Online advertising came up with their own version of it with pop-up ads, and they were worse. At least you didn’t have to discard the cards before you read the article in a magazine.

Once web browsers started allowing third party plugins, ad blockers quickly became some of the most popular add-ons. Ad networks fought back with different technologies to avoid them, but the blockers would adjust as well. When the dust settled, it was the media outlets who paid the price with no clear way to generate revenue to pay for their online presence. Many have tried the subscription model, but few have had any level of success with that. If Media Outlet A wants me to pay, the consumers thought, then I will just go to Media Outlet B. When Media Outlet B went out of business, they just went to Media Outlet C.

Rinse, repeat.

As an ad blocker user, I feel a sense of justification for doing so. Casual use of a public computer without an ad blocker reminds me that this choice is, by and large, a good one. While writing this, I visited various news outlets with my ad blocker off to see the current ad landscape. While some were for retail outlets, many more were politically-polarizing in nature. Of course, a ton of click bait for questionable sites as well.

Let’s not even forget the tracking cookies that are so prevalent. Worse still is Facebook’s hesitance to remove ads on their platform that are purposely misleading. That’s another topic for another day.

Many media outlets will ask you to disable your ad blocker for their site. Others give you a few articles per month (tracking cookies) before you have to subscribe to read more. Others don’t even give you that.

Consumers generally understand that content creation has a cost. I’ve even white-listed some of the sites that I frequent, as long as their ads are not pervasive nor an assault to my senses.

A Solution

If digital media outlets want their consumers to white list their ads, they need to take more ownership over the ads that they allow on their site. These media outlets (usually) have editorial standards for what they put into the articles. Why not do the same with the ads? The ads of questionable content do at least indirectly impact how the site, and media outlet as a whole, is perceived.

It’s time for media outlets to put into place advertising departments under their control that work with legitimate advertisers. Their purpose would be to come up with ads that match the standards that the outlet wants to reflect. Adopting an ad standard that adheres to these policies would benefit both outlet and reader. Perhaps multiple sites pledging to better ad standards would help the landscape.

If this happens, I could foresee more people using the white-list feature of their ad blockers. Ad rates should go up, as well as ad views.

It is time for media outlets to take ownership of the problem that they created with online advertising, and fix it. It may very well be the best way to save themselves from themselves.