Advertising gets a bad rap these days. Many companies that provide data as a product for advertising have recently come under the microscope of not only tech gurus but governments as well. How did we get here and how can we get out of this mess? Is there a future for online ads in the wake of Ad Blockers? Can we ethically advertise to people without the mass collection of data?
How modern advertising helps
Modern online advertising services promise better targeting of your advertisements which gets you in front of the right people while also preventing you from wasting money on showing it to the wrong audience. Each impression and click costs money after all, and your product is going to change people's lives, they just don't know it yet!
This seems like a win-win-win situation. Businesses get their ads in front of the right audience, consumers get ads that they might actually care about, and websites can keep up and running by hosting advertisements that are specific to their audience. It's a vast improvement from back when you just threw money at a site and hoped it connected with the some of the audience.
And it's simple too! A business pays an advertising service to serve advertisements to their target market, a website owner adds a tiny of code to their site, and bam, everyone's happy!
How modern advertising hurts
Except, these advertising platforms start to show their ugly side.
Users begin to realize that sites they like to visit are getting increasingly slower. They also notice that they are hitting their phone service data cap a lot quicker. Then they notice that the next three sites they visit show them a watch they viewed a half an hour earlier, but don't actually care for.
At first, everyone just sees it as a necessary evil. What else is going to pay for the servers these sites are running on? So for several years, sites get slower, more data on site visitors is gathered and people slowly become numb to advertisements. Governments start taking an interest in data that once seemed benign and start using it to their advantage.
The rise of Ad Blocking
Then people decide that they've had enough and start to fight back. They realize that they can block these advertisements. This saves space on the page, makes site loading incredibly faster, and prevents sites from gathering data that they don't really want in databases.
The people rejoice! They're taking back the internet and making it easier to use.
The wrong response to Ad Blocking
Web site owners fight back. They create pay walls that don't allow you to enjoy the content unless you turn off your Ad Blocker or pay a monthly subscription. They decide to try and circumvent Ad Blockers. Or they simply show a pop-up trying to explain to you their position and attempt to persuade you to make an exception in your Ad Blocker for just their site.
You can't blame them. They aren't the ones tracking you. All they're doing is putting a little extra code on the site that generates money so that they can keep creating quality content for you. It's not even the fault of the business who's advertising. They just want to sell product.
However, web site owners and businesses fail to realize that ad blockers aren't fighting advertisements, they're fighting tracking and over-the-top data gathering.
The real problem
Advertising services real product to their clients is consumer data. If they can just get the right data for each internet user, they can leverage that for their customers and generate more profit.
They build huge warehouses full of servers that continuously grab little bits of information and store it alongside an "anonymous" profile for each internet user they come in contact with. They leverage the code web site owners put on their site by adding tracking code. They also start paying companies to give them data on their customers. What applications you download, how you use your digital devices, your credit card purchasing habits and your daily interactions with family and friends all end up in these data warehouses. Your digital self is replicated by an "anonymous" profile all for the sake of tailoring your advertising experience.
And businesses know this. They aren't totally blind to it, but it has become the norm for it to be morally and ethically OK because, well, everyone else is doing it.
Despite popular belief however, it turns out that consumer data isn't all that necessary for advertising.
Going back to basics
Where do you go for specific information? Do you go to a blog that reviews ice cream when your car is making a funny noise? Do you head over to the "Tired Moms" Facebook Group to find the latest news about video games?
Think about this for a minute.
Websites are already targeting markets.
Facebook could easily be targeting ads by specified Group categories instead of by single user data. Google could target ads only by raw search terms like up-and-comer DuckDuckGo. Businesses could contact sites that are specific to their market and work with them directly to show advertisements and vice versa.
As I typed that last paragraph, I realized how silly of an "ah-ha" moment that truly sounds because we're already doing these things. So why not just cut out the tracking?
How I envision it
Say we run a site about raising Angora rabbits. We need advertisers to keep our site up and running, so we need to figure out what our markets are.
- Rabbits need to eat. Market - Rabbit food
- Rabbits need shelter. Market - Rabbit hutches
- Did you know that some people shear Angora rabbits and spin their fur into yarn? Markets - Needles, tools to spin wool, etc.
Now we go to those companies and convince them that our website is a perfect place to advertise their products. We run non-intrusive ads that contain text, a small image and a link at a fair price and the money goes straight into our pockets. The ads load quickly and doesn't get blocked by Ad Blockers because you are hosting it yourself and not tracking data except for impressions and clicks.
Businesses are happy because you drive traffic and sales to their sites, site visitors are happy because they found the perfect hutch for their new rabbits, and you can sleep at night knowing that you aren't sending your visitors user data over to a warehouse somewhere.
It's already begun
The Ethical Advertising revolution has already begun, but quietly and slowly. Several companies have been working to make Ethical Advertising more normal.
Eric Berry runs CodeFund, an ethical advertising network. They run tech ads on sites that host open-source programming projects. The ads are light-weight, simply targeted, and don't track any extra data than necessary.
David Fischer, the Advertising Director at Read the Docs, has worked to enforce their Ethical Ads guidelines across their site.
Roberto Gallopini who works with Filezilla, has also enforced their Ethical Ads guidelines on their project site.
And at RoutineHub, my own project, I host my own Ethical Ads.
If you're a business, find web sites that are in your market and work with them to get advertisements running there.
If you're an advertising network, be more conscious about how you use user data to target ads.
If you run a website, host the ads from your own server and look for businesses in your market that want to advertise on your site.
If you're an internet denizen, keep using Ad Blockers. Keep up the fight against unnecessary tracking. Keep speaking out against companies and websites that are working against creating a better and safer internet.
I believe in this future strongly, but it will take considerable work and education to get there. Join us. Let's make advertising simpler and more effective without the unnecessary gathering of user data.
If you run a site that has Ethical Advertisements, send it to me on Twitter
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