Ad-blocking and what it means for the online cycling media

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A couple weeks back Apple announced its new iOS 9 ad blocking capabilities. Of course many people already use third-party ad blockers and have been doing so for years. But now that a technology giant like Apple has made it easier than ever for users to block ads, we’ve arrived at something of a watershed moment.

Apple’s move is one that undermines a fundamental business model of the media; one that goes back to the days of the printing press — the implicit exchange of free content for your attention.

I don’t believe I’m being melodramatic when I say this could change the internet as we know it. It’s a turning point for online media and how business is done on the web. If an ad isn’t shown, then how is the site’s content being paid for?

| Related: The Ethical Ad Blocker – The Atlantic

Founder of the Peace ad blocker, Marco Arment, saw his $3.79 iOS 9 app rise to the top of the charts when it was released last week on Apple’s App Store. Two days later, he made the unlikely decision to pull it down.

“Even though I’m ‘winning,’ I’ve enjoyed none of it,” Armet said. “That’s why I’m withdrawing from the market. It’s simply not worth it.”

Arment wrote on his blog, “Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

Widespread ad blocking on mobile devices will be devastating for publishers who rely on display ads, particularly given the rise of mobile browsing in recent years (a trend we’re seeing clearly here at CyclingTips.) And the impact won’t be felt in five years time; we’re talking only in the next 12 months.

Subscriptions don’t work (even at $20 per month, the economics don’t stack up). Display ads are what the vast majority of web publishers rely on in order to pay their editorial costs.

Should anyone feel empathy for the publishers? “Adapt or die” is the common sentiment. With some advertisers and publishers introducing pop-up ads, flashing banners and tracking scripts in the past, it’s no wonder people don’t feel sorry for them. Should they have had the foresight to have seen this coming? Unfortunately death is the only thing that makes this social Darwinism such a powerful force. Expect that fate for many publishers.

But here’s the thing. A lot of great things are supported by advertising. CyclingTips (I believe we’re doing a good service to the community) is 80% ad-supported. Cyclingnews and BikeRadar are ad-supported. Velonews is ad-supported. So is ProCyclingStats. Almost everywhere you get your online cycling media, you get it for free — because advertisers pay for it.

The Global Cycling Network (GCN) has a unique business model in the cycling media space. It has no traditional homepage and instead relies on distribution via social media and other websites embedding their videos. Pre-roll video ads help pay for it (I’d hazard a guess that this is their largest revenue source) but sponsored content (or “native advertising”) is also playing an increasingly important role. Now that YouTube isn’t funding GCN anymore, it remains to be seen whether the model they have is sustainable. I sincerely hope it is, but those YouTube ads don’t pay for much unless you’re getting tens of millions of view per month.

So why has Apple introduced the ability to block ads in Safari in iOS 9? The company claims it’s because ads and tracking codes hamper the download speeds of your mobile browser. But it’s not about that — it’s about Apple getting into the news and content game, much like Facebook. They want what Google has — a slice of the online advertising pie. Indeed, the same day Apple rolled out iOS 9 and it’s ad blocking capabilities it also introduced its News app — an undeleteable icon on your home screen.

Apple and Facebook are both working on platforms (Apple News and Instant Articles, respectively) to funnel existing publishers’ content through, which corals all the advertising to them. You’ll still be served Facebook and Apple ads, your personal profile data will still be tracked, but they will now control it and the publishers will be the ones to suffer.

But where will the content come from if the publishers can no longer serve their own advertising?

Publishers like BuzzFeed that have mastered native advertising will thrive, and ad blocking will accelerate the trend in that direction.

Much of BuzzFeed’s content is actually promotions for brands. Their quizzes, clickbait, GIFs and so on are designed to be spread to the edges of the internet via social media, rather than by people going to their homepage. It’s a fascinating business model, but I despair when I think about the lowest-common-denominator content they generate and the incentives at play. But while the New York Times is laying-off, BuzzFeed is hiring.

BuzzFeed benefits hugely from Apple’s decision to block ads and host content on their News app (the same with Facebook’s Instant Articles) because, in many cases, the content itself is the ad. Velonews has started doing native advertising this year, and as mentioned earlier, GCN also does a good job of this.

But it’s not nearly enough to fund their businesses. The trend towards native advertising will mean that content will morph into being neither 100% organic nor 100% advertising — it will be a mix of both, which is the most dangerous combination I can imagine.

While BuzzFeed and other big online media outlets will likely thrive in this new era, mid-sized publications are likely to struggle or die in favour of publications big enough to support sophisticated operation — the likes of CNN, BBC and Sky, for example.

Small publishers like CyclingTips will be fine and perhaps even thrive under these conditions, but it’s meant a lot of hard work behind the scenes preparing for our business model to be flipped upside down. Unfortunately our survival might be at the expense of many of the good things you’ve come to enjoy. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

Time will tell. Either way, it will be interesting to see the impact of Apple’s lead in ad blocking and how our favourite cycling media outlets will “adapt or die”.

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