Apple: Saviour or Harbinger of Death?

Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief at tech publication The Verge, laments that the web will die a slow death. He is rightly alarmed. Publishers, barely adapting from print to online, could see their world turn upside down again.

The harbinger of death is Apple. While its new mobile operating system, iOS 9, made headlines for some snazzy new features, the most significant change may be this: Safari’s mobile browser can now block web ads via third-party extensions.

Commentators declared this a bad developmentfor everyone except Apple. It’s a dick move designed to starve Google of its primary revenue source, they say, adding that ad blocking deprives publishers of ad income they deserve. And without that source of income, there’s no way they can continue craftingcontent. Publishers would starve en masse, causing a massive die-off.

Consumers, in the end, will be worse off.

Except they won’t.

Consider this stat: 200 million people have been using ad blocking software even before Apple launched its mobile ad blocking feature. That’s seven percent of the global internet population.

This is a big deal. It shows consumers are willing to fork out a small sum of money to block pesky banner ads, protect their privacy, and get faster page loads.

Ad blockers are meeting a real need; ads aren’t. Ads are being ignored by consumers, and they degradeuser experience. This explains why clickthrough rates are in the single digits.

In the past, displaying ugly, irrelevant ads was accepted as a compromise by readers in order to sustain their favorite publishers. Not anymore. They finally have a means of stopping the bullshit, and they’re acting on it. Publishers shouldstop accusing consumers of being selfish for blocking ads.

So yes, online media businesses will take a hit in the short run should ad blocker adoption rise further. But this trimming of the fat is welcomed. After all, the publishing landscape has been infected by a striking sameness: the news breaks, and everyone scrambles to cover it within 10 minutes in almost the same way. If ad blocking causes some of these news outlets to go bust, hooray.I won’t miss them.

It’s not all doom

However, for media that are truly meeting needs, there is hope. When the dust settles, publications will either be mass or niche. Both are viable ways to build sustainable media.

Buzzfeed serves as the archetype of the mass market approach. Ad blockers won’t faze Buzzfeed because it makes moolah through sponsored content, which is harder to block. In fact, the rise of ad blocking may drive advertisers further into the loving embrace of sponsored content. Mass media will prosper from this new world order. They can leverage any platform to gain eyeballs and then sell that to advertisers.

And then we have niche. Think of niche media less as media but as apps with a publication arm. Whereas mass media is about collecting traffic wherever they are found and getting as many dollars as possible from a wide swath of readers, niche media is about building a destination with features that serve a particular community especially well, maximizing a customer’s lifetime value.

Mass media is like a fast fashion brand, niche media is like that bespoke boutique down the block.

Industry publications might be the ones that best exemplify the niche approach. Consider startup blog TechCrunch, which runs conferences as its primary means of making money. Tech in Asia too is built in this vein, with three conferences financing our operations, plus features like a startup and investor database where users canresearch the tech industry. Sponsored content works for niche media too, since they have a targeted audience which brands find valuable. You’ll hardly find any ads on our site.

Then there’s Stratechery, a one-man blog by tech analyst Ben Thompson, which uses a subscription model. He’s making a decent living out of it. GigaOm would have prospered, if not for the pressures of venture capital funding which pushed it into anunsustainable growth mode in which it took on debt but struggled to pay it back.

GigaOm’s death didn’t fazeOm Malik, who himself remains convinced that there are plenty of opportunities in niche media.

The death of analytics?

Now, there’s a secondary effect to Apple’s ad blocking foray, and that involves analytics. Most publications today use third-party tools like Google Analytics, Mixpanel, and Chartbeat to get data on reading habits. These tools are critical for online media because it allows us to determine what content resonates with readers. We thentweak our strategy accordingly.

However, ad blockers upset the status quo by blocking the Javascript code that allows websites to track users. This is easily done because the code is embedded onto the webpages, which means ad blockers can detect and neutralize it. So, should ad blocker adoption continue to rise, these analytics tools might becomeuseless because they’d no longer accurately reflect actual visitor numbers.

Again, there are solutions. Trackers like Piwik, which contains Javascript files that can be renamed at will, can be kept out of blocker lists. Session logs can be used in place of Javascript to track user behavior. Suppose more sites switch to this method. It would decrease page load times, benefitting internet users en masse.

Does this raise the barrier to entry for publications? I doubt so. It’s a matter of time before someone comes up with user-friendly analytics that’s undetectable by ad blockers.

Apple has caused alarm among publishers, and this is expected. After all, it declared war on Flash, and look at where it is today.

But whileFlash may be dying, the web is not. The publishing industry needs to get its act together. Calm down. Adapt. No need for clickbait jeremiads proclaiming that the end times are upon us, that Apple is evil, and readers heartless.

Instead, recognize that publications can unshackle themselves from advertising. Sponsored content more closely aligns to the reader’s interest than ads, as they’re not just about impressions, but engagement. After all, the more users share the content, the more eyeballs it’ll get. Further, events and subscriptions are viable business models if publishers enter the right niche.

As online media transitions towards this new reality, expect some casualties. But don’tweep for them.

The web isn’t dying. It’s being born again.

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