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Dominic Mills 

An ad-block blocker's dilemma: woo, sue or diplomacy

An ad-block blocker's dilemma:  woo, sue or diplomacy

Call the lawyers, make them feel morally dirty or try out a new 'diplomatic' tech? Try and get past this mock 'freewall' and find out...

For journalists, the rise of ad blocking is both a curse and boon. It's a curse because it threatens our trade.

It's a boon because it's the gift that keeps giving - an endlessly fascinating tale of the hunter and the hunted that works on so many levels - moral, social, financial and technical (and legal too).

Journalists' views are marginal, but for their employers, the question is: how can the industry resolve these complex, interlocking issues? One answer is a newish concept called the 'Freewall', which is pretty much what it says on the tin - and of which this column today is a live (frequency capped) test of.

Freewall, just like a paywall, is no more than a method of blocking readers from accessing content without some kind of value exchange. The difference is that it's a) free for readers b) requires nothing more from them than a short and (one hopes) memorable/mildly entertaining engagement before they can access the content they want and c) quick, simple and painless for publishers and consumers.

Compared to some of the other suggestions being made to counter ad-blocking, it's the diplomat's solution, in which everyone gives a little, and everyone gains more than they give.

The reader gives a little time and engagement, and gets access to more content.

The Freewall idea is gaining traction. It's on test on various Trinity Mirror titles, across elements of the BBC Worldwide/Immediate portfolio, including Top Gear and Johnston Press, and also some Haymarket titles. Its highest-profile client is City A.M., which in October became the first newsbrand to block the ad blockers.

If you want to see other examples of how Freewall works, you can see them here with Emirates and here with Nike.

An issue as tortuous as ad blocking invariably provokes a ton of debate in an industry that likes nothing more to examine its navel. Some, like Saatchi and Saatchi head strategist Richard Huntington, think it's a cross-industry problem where 'permission' (a very digital term) has become confused with 'consent'.

Others, like Nick Baughan of Maxus, believe the problem lies with the publishers, but that it can only be cleaned up by industry stakeholder trade bodies.

Compared to some of the other suggestions being made to counter ad-blocking, it's the diplomat's solution, in which everyone gives a little, and everyone gains more than they give. "

Broadly speaking though, it seems to me that, other than publishers closing their eyes and hoping it will all go away - which is most definitely not an option - there seems to be three main approaches.

One, which the Germans seem very keen on, is 'sue the bastards'. They've tried this before and failed, and if a definition of madness is repeating your actions in the hope of a different outcome, then this is madness. The IAB in the US flirted with this briefly in the autumn, before someone remembered what happened when the music industry used the law, and sanity prevailed.

The second approach is to woo the ad blockers, or at least make them feel morally dirty. The Guardian invites readers to support it in other ways, while the German paper Bild reports that when it asked readers to subscribe, the proportion of those using ad blocking software dropped sharply.

Good for Bild (odd though that its parent, Axel Springer, also likes to use the law), but I wonder how much of its success is down to the fact that, for German speakers, there are not many alternatives. English-language readers of the Guardian, meanwhile, have a plethora of choice - New York Times, Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, not to mention the BBC.

And then we have the third route, exemplified by Freewall, which is really the diplomat or policy-makers' way of triangulating your way round the problem.

The outfit behind it, Rezonence, is in many ways a typical tech start-up (i.e. conceived by a code-obsessed investment hedgie in his bedroom), and nurtured briefly in the BBC Worldwide Labs accelerator in 2014.

One difference, however, is Rezonence genuinely understands the media eco-system, thanks to co-founder Tim Greatrex, formerly of Zenith and Razorfish; and chair David Pattison (the P in PHD, chair of Newsworks etc).

It's this understanding, I think, that means Freewall can square off the different needs of readers, publishers and advertisers/media agencies.

Essentially, compared to some of the other suggestions being made to counter ad-blocking, Freewall is the diplomat's solution, in which everyone gives a little, but all gain more than they give when the different interests are addressed and the bill is tallied at the end. Policy-makers would describe this as triangulation.

The reader gives a little time and engagement, and gets access to more content.

The publisher gives up some of their more intrusive, irritating ad formats, and in return gets potentially higher yield and a more engaged audience.

The advertiser/media agency pays more, albeit on a different model, but gets a more engaged and less irritated consumer. According to Rezonence, which did some research with Neuro Insight, the simple, 'active' nature of the ads' quiz format prompts a higher recall.

There are, however, a few wrinkles that need to be sorted out, but may fix themselves over time.

One is the reaction of editorial. Freewall works better with longer-form content (the value exchange simply isn't worth it for a two-para story), but no journalist likes seeing their content obliterated or interrupted by an ad.

Journalists have to come round to this, but a brutal demonstration of simple economics (i.e. this is how you get paid) might help. Framing Freewall as a device that funds/helps long-form content will help bring journalists round in a more agreeable manner and thus do better.

The second is the creation, in effect, of a new charging model. Instead of good old CPM, Freewall wants to charge on a cost-per-engagement (CPE) basis. Freewall's argument is that the format drives better engagement and recall, and the advertiser only pays when the reader engages - fair enough.

But changing the payment model is usually regarded by media agencies as a backdoor way to up the yield, and their default position is to resist. This means, in the end, that everything is reframed on a CPM basis. This is ok(ish) but in the end it slows down the adoption of the new and the innovative.

And, in any case, with media buyers under the cosh on money as never before, they're not going to roll over easily.

The third problem is that publishers stay greedy; in other words they adopt Freewall, but do nothing else to improve the reader experience. This could mean paying fast and loose with frequency capping, or just piling more and more intrusive ad formats onto readers even once they've gone behind the 'wall'. Why then, as a reader, would I bother?

I have no idea what the solution to ad blocking will be. I suspect there is no single answer.

At the moment, it feels like a series of un-co-ordinated guerrilla skirmishes breaking out at random across a diverse universe, some with more success than others.

Still, dear reader, if you've got this far, then you've successfully 'Freewalled'. I hope it worked for you.


Editor's note:

The Freewall is frequency capped in this test example - so readers can only use it once per device.

The example is also a 'light' integration - and ad-blocking software will stop it working (but who in medialand would have one of those installed?).

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