How Viral Sameness Could Destroy Media Revenue

If there’s one thing I love about working for The Content Strategist, it’s that we don’t have to worry about ads.

As a company-funded venture, we have the good fortune of running an ad-free site, which means no 20-second loads; no overlay, pop-up, or auto-play video ads ruining your reading experience; and, most of all, no need to worry about the growing adblock panic.

If you’re currently enabling adblockers on our site, well, it doesn’t matter to us. But for most publishers, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The topic is inescapable in media circles, gaining even more steam this month with the release of PageFair’s latest annual report on adblocking, which featured some depressing numbers for publishers and advertisers: 41 percent year-over-year global growth in adblock use and $22 billion in lost revenue.

It’s important to note PageFair isn’t the most objective observer. It sells software to help publishers combat the issue, so it’s in the company’s best interest to make the problem seem worse than it is. Unbiased research is difficult to find, but a recent study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford suggests rates are just as bad. In the U.S., the study estimates that 41 percent of PC users and 11 percent of mobile users regularly use adblocking software.

Still, some, such as tech investor Chris Dixon, believe the problem is nothing more than an artificially created panic.

The truth probably sits somewhere in between. What is clear, however, is that executives in media and advertising are taking the problem seriously.

“It’s real, and it’s tied to a tech arms race happening because the consumer has been ignored for too long,” said Jason Kint, CEO of media trade organization Digital Content Next, which represents publishers for the advertising community. “Current adblocking revenue projections[note]via Pagefair[/note] dwarf the entirety of digital advertising revenues across our entire membership.”

That’s no small thing: Digital Content Next’s membership consists of 74 major media companies, including titans like Condé Nast, The New York Times Co., and NBCUniversal News Group. That’s a lot of revenue and, for media companies living on thin profit margins, can mean the difference between being in the black and being in the red.

So what’s the solution? For some publishers, a recent trend to combat the problem—detailed in this Wall Street Journal article—is amusingly simple: asking readers to “pretty please” disable their adblockers.

The Journal piece references examples ranging from Wired‘s “Please do us a solid” friendly approach to gaming website GameBanana’s dire “Without ads, we will not survive” plea.

The tactic is endearing, in a way. It’s a direct, honest request to an audience that may not be aware that digital media companies are so reliant on ads for survival. It may even guilt a few readers into whitelisting your site.

But is it a long-term solution? I don’t think so. Some users are never going to disable their adblockers, because the benefits (no trackers, faster load times, better reading and viewing experiences) are too great. This is especially true for a publisher like Wired, which I enjoy reading, but whose site routinely assaults me with some of the most obnoxious ad formats on the web.

But I believe there’s another issue undermining this strategy: viral sameness. Viral sameness is when publishers all post the same story (normally about a topic going viral on social media or something like the requisite Monday morning John Oliver clips) in order to leach traffic and drive easy ad revenue. The trend is explained well in this Poynter piece, and Digiday editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey wrote a particularly insightful article on the phenomena following the craze over “The Dress.”

As Morrissey writes in his Digiday article, the strategy works—but only for a select few:

These days, in viral publishing, it’s a bad idea for premium brands to try to out-BuzzFeed BuzzFeed. Soon, Time, Esquire, GQ and the like will become indistinguishable from BuzzFeed. And the problem with that is simple: BuzzFeed is better at being BuzzFeed than Time.

In other words, the practice may drive traffic in the short term, but over time, it can eventually do serious damage to a publisher’s identity. When Time isn’t Time, why read Time? And if Time isn’t Time, why should I disable my adblocker?

Of course, it’s not as though publishers have entirely abandoned their identities in the name of maximum virality—Time and other offenders still publish unique articles that align with their respective voices. But if a large segment of your audience comes via lazy, aggregated articles and random Facebook links, it’s worth evaluating what kind of relationship you’re building with your audience. Why would a reader go to you if that person can find the same story elsewhere?

“If it’s not unique content, then likely it can be found elsewhere,” Kint said. “[This won’t work] if the audience is forced to turn off its adblocker to get to it.”

Eamonn Store, CEO of Guardian U.S., has been wrestling with this reality on a daily basis. “Some of the bigger issues ahead are things like adblocking, and we’re asking ‘What does a non-ad solution to the Guardian look like?'” he said.

Like Wired, the Guardian has adopted a banner asking users to disable adblockers. But unlike many publishers, the Guardian gives users an alternative solution: donations.

This membership-focused journalism model has seen more serious consideration lately, as media thought leader Jeff Jarvis discussed in a July blog post.

The Guardian—whose unique trust-fund structure gives it leverage to experiment with different advertising and revenue models—has been particularly aggressive in pursuing the membership model, pushing activist approaches to topics such as environmentalism to build a community of readers and intrepid journalists.

“Environment is always at the heart of what we do at the Guardian,” Store explained. “That kind of stuff really matters. It needs to have a bigger voice. Not just a voice when it’s in and out of fashion. That’s an area that we should focus around galvanizing a community. Not just as a revenue stream—that’s not the point of membership—but as a community of people that are going to do something about it.”

By finding topics that not only are under-covered by other news sources, but also could rally the Guardian community, Store hopes that adblockers won’t need to be an issue—readers will donate because they want strong original journalism they care about, even if they continue to block ads.

This particular model won’t work for every publisher. People, for example, won’t be conducting hard-hitting investigative reports. But it can still commit to producing differentiated, juicy gossip content that readers can’t find anywhere else.

With all the benefits of adblocking, I don’t see people changing their behavior anytime soon. They need a reason to whitelist or in some way support your site.

“Do us a solid” just isn’t going to cut it.

Image by Cafe Racer

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