colleagues Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer have written many times about the quid pro quo by which advertising
supports free online content and services: somebody
must pay for all the supposedly "free" content on the Internet. There is no free lunch!
are two two recent examples I came across of the quid pro quo being made very
apparent to users.
Hulu. Traditionally, broadcast media has been a
"two-sided" market: Broadcasters give away content to attract audiences, and
broadcasters "sell" that audience to advertisers. The same is true
for Internet video. But watching Hulu over the weekend, I
noticed something interesting: Adblock Plus blocked the occasional
Hulu ad but every time it did so, I was treated to 30 seconds of a black screen
(instead of the normal 15 second ad) showing a message from Hulu reminding me
that "Hulu's advertising partners allow [them] to provide a free viewing
experience" and suggesting that I "Confirm all ad-blocking software
has been fully disabled."
I use AdBlock on many newspaper websites (because I just can't focus on the
articles with flashing ads next to the text), I would much rather watch a
15-second ad than wait 30 seconds for my show to resume. I think most users would feel the same way. We
get annoyed by TV ads because they take up so much of our time. If Wikipedia is
to be believed, there's now an average of 9 minutes of
advertisements per half-hour of television. That's double the amount of advertising that was shown in the 1960s.
online services such as Hulu show an average of just 37 seconds of
per episode. Amazingly, some shows garner ad rates 2-3 times higher than on prime-time
Why might ad rates for online shows be higher? Because:
- When a show has only 15 seconds of ads, you're less likely to turn away from the screen to do something else;
- Advertisers are more certain that viewers are watching their ads (as opposed to changing the channel or skipping over it with a DVR); and
- Online viewers are twice as likely to remember a
commercial they've seen on Hulu as one they've seen on television-at least in part because of factors 1 and 2, and perhaps because Internet video ads might
be more effective in other ways.
for me, I've reconfigured Adblock Plus to not
block ads on Hulu. But even if users
like me don't block video ads on sites like Hulu, they may not be able to generate
enough revenue to survive. Traditional
media providers might be willing to cross-subsidize experiments in online video
distribution for a while from offline revenue streams, but at some point,
either online video will have to produce comparable revenue or the quality of
content will deteriorate notably in the gradual shift to online
problem is that, even if online video services can sell ad time for 3 times as
much as broadcasters, because there is almost 15 times as much ad time on broadcast
television than online services, the online service will still earn only 1/5 as
much revenue as a traditional broadcaster.
This is why online video is expected to drive adoption
of personalized (or "behaviorally
targeted") advertising: If online video programmers can target advertising to
the individual user's likely interest, rather than to a crude profile of their
likely audience, they can generate much
higher revenue per ad because advertisers won't be wasting their ad budgets showing users ads for things they aren't
interested in! The increased revenue for online content providers made possible
by targeted advertising is the "mother's milk" that many
websites need to survive.
Google Maps. On 8/25, Google announced that it had
updated Google Maps for mobile to periodically report the user's location
(based on the GPS chip in their device) back to Google. But before you reach
for your tinfoil hats and start shouting about conspiracy theories, let me
explain why this "tracking" is actually fantastic news for users:
- Google uses the reported location (and speed) information to assess traffic conditions in real-time. This traffic information
is then shared with other Google Maps users in near-real-time-everyone
benefits! If only a few people participated, the data would not be very
helpful. But when lots of people participate, the data is more accurate and
available for more roads than would otherwise be possible.
- It's completely optional and users are fully informed of what the software is doing.
- People who do not want their location tracked can opt-out at no cost-and they get to
keep using Google Maps for free.
the Hulu example, the basic quid pro quo for getting all that free video
programming is watching a few ads. It's possible for people to block the ads,
but then they'll waste even more time looking at a black screen. That basic
quid pro quo might prove insufficient to support the quality and quantity of
video programming users want online, but without at least the basic quid pro
quo of not blocking ads, video programming won't get past stage one.
the Google Maps example, the quid pro quo for getting traffic data is sharing
your location with Google. Users can still get the traffic data without sharing
their location, but if everyone did that, there would be no traffic data. This
highlights the problem of free-riding created by the no-cost opt-out: It's still possible to
be a freeloader with both services, but if everyone did that, these services
simply wouldn't survive.