Facebook has made a controversial announcement this week: to essentially block ad blockers from its site. In a blog post yesterday, Andrew Bosworth, Vice President for Ads & Business Platform said the site will “begin showing ads on Facebook desktop for people who currently use ad blocking software.”
In a poll run by Ipsos Mori the main reasons cited by users for using ad blockers were disruptive ads (69%), ads that slow browsing down (58%) and security/ malware risks (56%).
The poll also found that if they have to see ads then consumers prefer them to be personalised and relevant, though this doesn’t help disruptive ads do better.
By giving its users the ability to choose their ad preferences, Facebook allows them to influence the ads they see. This works well for users and advertisers as it is these preferences that advertisers use to create target audiences. The more relevant an ad is to a user, the more likely they are to convert.
However, as I discovered recently, deleting all your ad preferences won’t simply remove all ads. Instead, Facebook assigned new preferences to my profile based on the secret Facebook Algorithm that takes everything from my profile information to my activity into account.
A few months later and I’ve had another look through my preferences. These preferences are created as a response to my activity on Facebook so it’s no surprise to see The Huffington Post listed as I often read their articles. Nor is it a surprise to see Exeter University where I and many of my Facebook friends studied. I can’t be sure when I showed an inclination towards ‘Flight attendant’ or why ‘souffle’ has appeared as a food and drink preference, though.
While Facebook’s algorithm has a pretty good guess at what I want to see, it is still reliant on user input to refine and personalise the content. It is this aspect of ad preferences that Facebook is aiming to improve to make it easier for users to choose what they do and don’t see on their feed.
“With today’s announcement, we’re building on these efforts by making ad preferences easier to use, so you can stop seeing certain types of ads. If you don’t want to see ads about a certain interest like travel or cats, you can remove the interest from your ad preferences. We also heard that people want to be able to stop seeing ads from businesses or organisations who have added them to their customer lists, and so we are adding tools that allow people to do this. These improvements are designed to give people even more control over how their data informs the ads they see.”
The Problem With Ad Blockers
Facebook believes that, since people use ad blockers to avoid bad ads, the best solution is to present them with more relevant and personalised ads. They claim that ad blockers are not the best way for users to avoid seeing annoying ads because “some ad blocking companies accept money in exchange for showing ads that they previously blocked – a practice that is at best confusing to people and that reduces the funding needed to support the journalism and other free services that we enjoy on the web.”
And of course, as Facebook has more than 2 million advertisers and ads make up the vast majority of its revenue (mobile ads made up $5.4 billion in the first quarter of 2016), the company does have a vested interest in making its users see ads. As they put is, ‘ads support our mission of giving people the power to share and making the world more open and connected.’
In March, John Whittingdale, then culture secretary weighed into a similar argument about the use of ad blockers and their impact on journalism and the music industry. “Quite simply – if people don’t pay in some way for content, then that content will eventually no longer exist,” he said.
While it might be difficult to empathise with huge companies like Facebook, there is an interesting argument here as to how free Facebook really is. To the average user, their use of Facebook might appear to be free but as soon as they click on an ad, the advertiser is essentially paying for their time on the site. This is the complication with ‘free’ sites – where does the money come from and what happens when users are unhappy with that?
Is there another solution?
The solution that Facebook has come up with has been met with mixed reviews. On the one hand, many people who use ad blockers are disappointed because they believe in an internet free of ads. On the other hand, free content distribution is an unsustainable business model, especially when you consider the 14,495 people Facebook employs. Without the ad revenue, Facebook would be completely unsustainable.
Some sites are finding new ways to encourage users to pay for content though. The Guardian has a pop-up that appears at the bottom of articles saying ‘we notice you’re using an ad-blocker. Perhaps you’ll support us another way? Become a Supporter for less than £1 per week.’ The Guardian also offers app users access to an ad-free app for a monthly fee, so that the revenue they miss from the ads is recuperated from the user themselves.
The Opinion in the Office
I asked around the office and a bit of a debate was sparked. Everyone had interesting thoughts to add to the conversation including opinions on the types of ads they see and what they would prefer. While a few would rather not see any ads, there was a general consensus that relevant ads were a price we are willing to pay for an otherwise free service.
Here’s what a few of the team had to say:
Tom, a developer, says: I like the idea that I will be able to edit my preferences so that only the ads I’m interested in appear. At the moment I’m not a fan of ads but I get that this is why Facebook is free.
Link builder Tom says: Ads are how Facebook earns its revenue which means we don’t have to pay to use the site. A compromise would be asking people to pay to use an ad-free version of Facebook but then I’m sure that most people would rather see ads than have to pay. Facebook at least understand the kind of ads that people would rather see and are making it easier to set preferences.
Olwen, social, says: Adverts should be so well designed and targeted that they are a help to users, not a hinderance. It’s a shame that ad blockers have had to be used in the first instance. So in this regard, good on Facebook for addressing this and trying to come up with a solution that should, in theory, help users as well as advertisers.