When Community Members Block Ads
Todd Garland is the founder and CEO of BuySellAds, an ad tech company that I’ve worked with for many years. He says the time to blame ad blockers is over, and that whining about ad blockers only guarantees a bad ending to this story. Plus:
- How ad quality became so bad, even for reputable players
- Why native ads are the future
- Ad behaviors that community managers and operators should watch out for
This is not only episode #50 of the show, but December 7th marks one year since Community Signal launched! Thank you to everyone who has supported our program, including subscribers, our 50 guests, those who have shared it online, people who have rated it on iTunes, Stitcher or other platforms, those who have offered thoughtful feedback or kind words and our sponsors.
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Higher Logic.
“Let’s pretend that I walk into … Macy’s, and I see a nice scarf for my wife, but I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to go check out stuff in the men’s clothing section before I come back and buy that on the way out for her.’ And so I pass by [the] scarves, I touch one or two, my body language indicates that I might be interested in buying. As soon as I walk away from that shelf, somebody approaches me from behind. ‘Hey Todd, hey Todd, I just had this great idea. Why don’t you buy the scarf right here? And better yet, I’ll give you 25% off if you buy right now, right now, right now, right now. Hey Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd.’ That’s how ads are approaching us as consumers on the web. That’s absurd. If I am that person in that store, I’m going to walk out.” -@toddo
“We can build a car that can drive itself down the street and avoid accidents 99.99% of the time, but we can’t prevent an ad from redirecting a user unwillingly to the app store?” -@toddo
“Deception is very, very profitable. That’s the only answer that I can reasonably come up with, considering the fact that we can have a car drive itself down the street, but we can’t prevent [ads that] redirect.” -@toddo
“It’s okay to ask people to turn off their ad blocker. Many times, the user who’s blocking ads in your site might have installed an ad blocker because of a completely different site or maybe they don’t like 30-second YouTube ads before watching a 10-second clip on YouTube. Crazy miscalculations or aggressive behaviors from people or companies monetizing, like a YouTube for example in this case, have led your users to install these things that then affect your revenue.” -@toddo
“Take good note of what ads are actually on your site. Even going as far as installing a VPN. Browse your site from different locations. Try and view your site as if you’re somebody visiting from France or Turkey or Japan and see the ads that are coming up, and hold the ad companies that you work with accountable for these ads.” -@toddo
“Publishers need to save themselves in many ways. They need to curb their enthusiasm – maybe that’s trademarked, I don’t know – from installing one more ad or having the mindset where, ‘Oh, it’s just one more thing.’ Publishers need to hold themselves accountable.” -@toddo
About Todd Garland
Todd Garland is the founder and CEO of BuySellAds, an advertising platform designed to connect media companies directly to advertisers. Founded in 2008, BuySellAds powers critical ad tech infrastructure for some of the best media companies on the web, including NPR, Forbes, Roku and The Atlantic.
He is a champion for remote work environments and bootstrapping businesses to profitability.
Prior to BuySellAds, Todd was one of the first dozen employees at HubSpot, the company leading the global movement of inbound marketing. Todd lives in Boston with his wife and three children.
- Karn Broad, producer of Community Signal
- Our sponsors thus far: Emoderation and Higher Logic
- Community Signal on Spotify
- BuySellAds, Todd’s company
- HubSpot, where Todd was an early employee
- Mobile Web Surfers Again Facing Unexpected Redirects to App Store, Native Apps by Sarah Perez
- Taboola, a company that provides “related story” type ads
- MailChimp, an email marketing company that has found success through podcast advertising
- Carbon Ads, Todd’s company that connects advertisers to designers and developers through a single, tasteful ad
- The Time for Blaming Ad Block Users is Over by Todd
- It’s Time for Ad Tech to Evolve by Todd
- Many Ad-Blocking Readers Agree to See Ads When The Financial Times Asks by Jeremy Barr
- Native Advertising is Finally About to Go Mainstream by Todd
- New York Times Shuns Banner Ads in Favor of Proprietary Ad Format by Jack Marshall
- BuySellAds Publisher Pro, a tool for publishers to serve native advertising
- DoubleClick for Publishers, another tool that helps publishers service native ads
- Adzerk, which also helps publishers serve native ads
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals, sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet as you listen using #communitysignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:24 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you. This is episode number 50 of Community Signal being released on December 5th, 2016. December 7th marks one year since the first episode of our show was released. I’m really grateful for everyone who has supported our program. If you’re a regular listener, that’s you. Thank you. Thank you as well to the 50 guests we have had on for coming and sharing their knowledge with us. To people who have shared this show online or rated it on iTunes, Stitcher, or some other platform, or if you sent me some thoughtful feedback or a kind word in private, thank you so much.
00:56 Patrick O’Keefe: The show is one of the reasons I haven’t blogged about community in about six months which is crazy because before that, I blogged twice a week for around eight years. I want to get back to writing about community, but Community Signal definitely takes up a chunk of my time. And it’s my outlet for a lot of my community management related thinking right now. But it’s more than just me. Most notably, my producer Karn Broad has made sure that our program sounds great, and the show wouldn’t happen without him, so thank you Karn. Finally, I’d like to thank the organizations who have sponsored our show thus far, Emoderation, and the sponsor of this episode, Higher Logic.
01:27 Patrick O’Keefe: I pay Karn, as well as a number of other service providers, from the producer of our show’s theme music, to the transcribers, to our hosting service, they all come together for the end product that we release each week. Thank you to both of those companies for sponsoring our show. I’m really proud of what we release each week, and I look forward to seeing where it goes over the next year. To that end, I have some pretty cool news to share. Community Signal is now on Spotify. This is awesome because Spotify isn’t accepting very many shows into their podcast offering. Podcasts are only available through Spotify’s mobile client, so you’ll have to open the app on your Apple or Android smartphone, search Community Signal, or just visit communitysignal.com/spotify.
02:04 Patrick O’Keefe: On this episode of Community Signal, we’re going to chat with one of my favorite minds within the online advertising space to talk about ad tech, ad blocking, native ads, and how community pros should approach them. Todd Garland is the founder and CEO of BuySellAds, an advertising platform designed to connect media companies directly to advertisers. Founded in 2008, BuySellAds powers critical ad tech infrastructure for some of the best media companies on the web such as NPR, Forbes, Roku and The Atlantic. He is a champion for remote work environments and bootstrapping businesses to profitability. Prior to BuySellAds, Todd was one of the first dozen employees at HubSpot, the company leading the global movement of inbound marketing. Todd lives in Boston with his wife and three children. Todd, welcome to the program.
02:46 Todd Garland: Thank you Patrick.
02:48 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure to have you. And before we get started, as a point of disclosure, I am a long-term BuySellAds user on the publishing side. I like the company and I’ve recommended them to many people. I have not been paid by them other than the ads they sell and serve on my behalf, for which I paid them a commission. So small point of disclosure, possible conflict of interest aside. Let’s get down to business. Generic question to start us off to inform our discussion today Todd, what ad tech trends do community managers and operators need to be aware of for 2017?
03:19 Todd Garland: So, I’m gonna take that and extend it beyond 2017 and I’m going to say authenticity.
03:24 Patrick O’Keefe: Okay.
03:24 Todd Garland: I believe the ad tech industry has been plagued by a lack of authenticity since the beginning, and I believe that’s the most critical thing that anybody dealing with advertising within their community needs to be aware of is to make sure that you’re doing business with authentic companies who truly have your best interests in mind.
03:45 Patrick O’Keefe: So what does that mean? Give me some examples. What are companies that are… You don’t have to name names that company, you can if you want, but what are the things they are doing that make them lack that authenticity?
03:54 Todd Garland: Yeah, so I don’t wanna sit here and tell you that all of ad tech is horrible because there are a lot of fantastic people working in ad tech, a lot of fantastic products, a lot of fantastic companies. What I think you can boil it down to is the same way that you sell sponsorships for your show. The people that you allow to tap into your audience need to be businesses and companies that you might use on your own, and that you otherwise have respect for their business, how they conduct business, and the products and services that they’re selling. I think sponsorship is the best advertising model.
04:26 Todd Garland: We are inundated with the pitch that everything online needs to be data driven, but the simple fact is that advertising is meant to form a connection between the advertiser and the consumer. Data isn’t always the best judge of whether or not that interaction is going to be a positive interaction. And so, that’s why I believe that while data is great, humans need to be involved in all of these processes. And it might feel or sound archaic, but in many ways, I believe the web needs to go back to the days of magazine-like advertising. If you’re an advertiser looking to place an ad that targets people that are concerned financially, you might buy a full page ad within Forbes. That’s how I believe, fundamentally, web advertising should be bought and sold.
05:16 Patrick O’Keefe: It sounds like the internet corrupted the well almost a little bit or it made it worse as far as advertising goes. Because there was a time 10 years ago where I was running a site that was receiving millions of page views a month, and I threw AdSense on the page, and I got a decent check every month. And it was just this mass approach, not that AdSense didn’t target things a little bit. Of course they ran out of targeted ads, but there was this approach to the web where it’s X number of page views, you get your CPM, and you have these mainstream ad companies that try to monetize that audience in a super generic way.
05:50 Patrick O’Keefe: And we have the data there; it’s very data driven. You have the page views, the clicks, the demographic data. It’s all there. But it’s almost like that gave rise to a laziness, a lack of discretion in how we advertise and who we allow to access the audience that we cultivate. And now what you’re saying is, and I hate to use the term, I’ll just make use of funny term, small batch artisanal ads. No. We need to get back to more of a custom approach to this as an advertisement that makes sense for our audience. This is one that isn’t. If we take the one that isn’t, we’re doing more damage long term to our brand and to our ability to make money than if we simply turn them away.
06:30 Todd Garland: Yeah, it’s like an advertiser just needs to understand the audience that they’re trying to reach, that would be better I think.
06:35 Patrick O’Keefe: And the publisher needs to understand their audience too. A publisher is the guardian, in some way, we’re either guarding of who accesses our audience. There are people who will always throw money at us, but the advertiser for their sake needs to know the audience. But the publisher sort of needs to protect that audience too, right?
06:50 Todd Garland: Exactly. And the other thing that I wanna touch on too is when you said laziness. We’re in a situation where it’s incredibly easy to take a bucket of money and just dump it into this thing that says, “It’s going to do amazing things and target all its users that are going to buy our product.” It’s like, “Great, let’s find out.” So you have these super large companies with millions and millions and millions of dollars on their advertising budgets and they say, “Well, let’s try it out.” And so to equate that with an offline experience and to articulate why I believe a lot of ad blocking has become front and center is the simple fact that people just don’t wanna be annoyed. So let’s pretend that I walk into… I don’t know, it’s Christmas time, so maybe I’m going to do some shopping at Macy’s and I see a nice scarf for my wife, but I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, but I’m gonna go check out stuff in the men’s clothing section before I come back and buy that on the way out for her.”
07:44 Todd Garland: And so I pass by this nice shop that has nice scarves, I touch one or two, my body language indicates that I might be interested in buying that. And as soon as I walk away from that shelf, somebody approaches me from behind and like, “Hey Todd, hey Todd, I just had this great idea. Why don’t you buy the scarf right here? And better yet, I’ll give you 25% off if you buy right now, right now, right now, right now. Hey Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd, Todd.” That’s how ads are approaching us as consumers on the web. That’s absurd. If I am that person in that store, I’m gonna walk out of the store. And that’s exactly what people are doing by installing ad blockers right now. And so what we are saying is that the laziness that is allowed to occur with online advertising is absolutely staggering.
08:25 Patrick O’Keefe: I would like to take a moment to recognize our excellent sponsor, Higher Logic.
Higher Logic is the community platform for community managers. With over 25 million engaged users in more than 200,000 communities, organizations worldwide use Higher Logic to bring like-minded people together, by giving their community a home where they can meet, share ideas and stay connected. The platform’s granular permissions and powerful tools, including automated workflows and consolidated email digests, empower users to create their own interest-based communities, schedule and manage events, and participate in volunteer and mentoring programs. Tap into the power your community can generate for you. Higher Logic – all together.
09:01 Patrick O’Keefe: So I wanna break down into some of these themes that you’ve highlighted and go into more detail. First, for me, as a web publisher since 2000, I’ve been using ad networks probably for 16 years. Many networks. And I know, I mentioned Google AdSense earlier, so I use Google AdSense in some form or another. For more than a decade on KarateForums.com, a community that I’ve managed for 15 and a half years that I also use BuySellAds to sell ads for. And I used AdSense until March of this year when I yanked it off the site after a member complained map on mobile, they were being automatically redirected to some random app in the iPhone app store. And after some checking, after pulling some devices from my family, I don’t have an iPhone, I said, “Give me your iPhone, I need to check my website.” But as I’m checking, I was able to find that it was not an isolated incident, and bigger than that, many people online were experiencing across many large sites, much, much larger household name websites than mine.
09:57 Patrick O’Keefe: And there were mainstream articles written about it. If you just Google mobile ad redirection, you can probably find some. And I serve the ads from Google through BSA and even though you’re a reputable company, there wasn’t really much you could do as they were coming from Google. And I don’t know if there was anything more frustrating than when a community member tells you about a bad ad. I’m in these communities for a long time, there are some people aspects that are particularly challenging. But when people tell me something and I don’t know exactly how to fix it, or in some cases I can’t because there’s so many intermediaries in the ad relationship, and the ad tag relationship not just the network you’re with, but all the companies underneath them, it feels like there’s nothing you can do. And I guess just to ask a question, how did this get so bad that even Google can’t seem to stop bad ads from appearing in their network?
10:48 Todd Garland: So I know you can’t see me, but I’m sitting over here nodding my head the whole time you’re talking. So number one, this articulates the problem that we have with malware. I understand that a redirect isn’t actually installing malware on your site, but it’s the same concept. It’s doing something with your system that you did not intend to have done. We can build a car that can drive itself down the street and avoid accidents 99.99% of the time, but we can’t prevent an ad from redirecting a user unwillingly to the app store? Then maybe this is getting a little too into it, but we can send a man to the moon, but we can’t prevent an ad from redirecting to the app store? Come on, these problems, I understand that they’re difficult to solve. I don’t wanna say Google doesn’t want to solve these problems and they’re not the only one who’s dealing with these problems.
11:32 Patrick O’Keefe: There’s a few smart people at Google.
11:36 Todd Garland: Exactly.
11:36 Patrick O’Keefe: There’s a lot of big minds over there. And advertising, although some forms of it might be declining, some forms of it might be increasing and we’ll give them some of those forms later, but ads are big for them. It’s Google, that’s the business. They’ve diversified over the years, but that’s what they started from and that’s still a substantial portion of their business. And again, to add to your point, they can make it so that we’re not getting redirected off of our websites at the very least.
12:00 Todd Garland: Exactly. And then if you step back and unpack it, it sounds incredibly ridiculous for us to think about this like, “Why can’t you stop it?” Unpack it a little bit. So start taking notice of the different kinds of ads that you see around the web. Another theme aside from the app store redirects is the scantily clad women or body parts, they look different than what they actually are that makes you look again, or these really weird images that you see being advertised as sponsored content or you might also be interested in. So first things first, I’m really disappointed that with all of the big data and ad tech that has been built that you can’t figure out that I’m a genuine consumer on the web, when you give me something really good to consume.
12:40 Todd Garland: So first things first, the data is failing many advertisers. If you can’t serve me a good ad who doesn’t block cookies, doesn’t block ads, and gives you full access to everywhere I go on the web, then something is really wrong. So the issue is that these kinds of ads are incredibly profitable. Deception is incredibly profitable because there are a lot of consumers that aren’t particularly as well informed as many folks are in how they conduct their traffic on the web, how they understand what is real, what is not, and how they interpret the things that they’re seeing on the screen. And so deception is very, very profitable. That’s the only answer that I can reasonably come up with considering the fact that we can have a car drive itself down the street, but we can’t prevent an apps that redirect.
13:26 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. And it seems like in some ways, there has been distrust to the bottom. You’ve mentioned the related articles like Taboola stuff, you will be shocked by the net worth of Morgan Freeman. Those ads are becoming a thing unto themselves online. They have grown in popularity to the point where they are becoming not a meme, but when people talk about garbage advertising, it’s like, “Well, here’s the related content ads.” And it’s just this race to the bottom for the sake of grabbing a few dollars now, but for the most part, people who click on those ads once, I don’t know, maybe the data would show otherwise, but I would think, because I’ve clicked on some. I look at ads, I don’t use an ad blocker. I look at ads. I look at everything that appears on the page. Especially with my own sites, I wanna see everything that happens.
14:14 Patrick O’Keefe: So I don’t use ad blockers, I don’t really believe in it. I don’t hate people who do it. I just don’t. And so I see all the ads and I click on ads. And I click on some of those ads out of curiosity. Or you know, “This looked interesting, let’s click it.” And it’s always a great mistake. The thing you get redirected to is never what you clicked. It’s often through some sort of interstitial, or some sort of delayed page where you have to wait. And it’s a slide show where there’s like 50 pages. The experience is so poor that it makes people swear off advertising. So once again, it’s yet another reason for people to go blind to ads, to distrust ads, to block ads. And then when people block ads, you ask why and you act like they’re a problem where the ad quality is so low that they just don’t care about the medium at all.
15:00 Todd Garland: Yeah. And the interesting thing is that when a publisher does exhibit moderation on how they monetize their site, good things can actually happen. Take a company like MailChimp for example who spent a boatload of money sponsoring podcast before it was cool to sponsor podcast. There are plenty of articles out there written about how fabulously that investment paid off for them and they weren’t using any sort of special data to target their would-be users. They said, “Hey, I believe this is where our users inhabit the online landscape. This is what I think they’re listening to. This is what I think they’re doing. I’m going to show up where they are.” Bets like that that advertisers are made and paid off fabulously.
15:41 Todd Garland: We ourselves run an ad network targeted to web designers and developers called Carbon Ads and the entire concept of Carbon Ads is, “Let’s figure out how we can turn an ad into a value ad, something that the users actually appreciate versus detest.” And so the concept is that there is a single ad per page, it’s small, it’s well-designed, it’s not obtrusive to the content that they’re consuming. And it’s a very finely curated crop of advertisers who they might actually be interested in working with or buying a product from whatever. And so this leads to an incredible increase in performance for the advertisers, they see click-through rates that they don’t see anywhere else with any of their other ads. And the publishers love it too because they actually feel like they’re adding to the user’s experience by helping expose companies and products that these folks might actually be interested in.
16:32 Todd Garland: And so it’s fascinating when you think about if we as publishers just had better moderation on how we monetize, we might not be in this position in the first place. You have to look at very large brands that we consume content from a CNN, or a BuzzFeed, or a Fox, or whomever. These companies are selling us authenticity of the information that we consume from them, yet at the same time, right next to that authentic “content” are these ads for these related things that are on the web that are everything that is wrong with the web. In many ways, it’s like a slightly better version of the dark web which is not a good place.
17:10 Patrick O’Keefe: No, it’s not. And as you mentioned, there are some websites and some community owners that take this stuff seriously, but there are also many that have grown rather cavalier in their use of ads and methods of monetization, big publisher, but also small communities, and they have allowed the user experience to be degraded. But there are many community owners and operators who agonize over how much of the screen is taken up by ads, who never served pop-up ads. And I was one of them, and I am one of them. But when people block ads or when people get ads blocked for them by default, which is happening more and more, everyone gets caught up in that net, good and bad. And that lack of revenue can cause an online community to disappear in many cases. Early this year, you wrote that, “The time for blaming ad block users is over,” and that “Whining about ad blockers as a strategy only guarantees one thing. It’s not a happy ending.” So, what is the answer for ad blocking for communities?
18:08 Todd Garland: A number of folks have written a number of things on this. The best way that I can sum this up and also inject some of my own opinions is that it’s okay to ask people to turn off their ad blocker. Many times, the user who’s blocking ads in your site might have installed an ad blocker because of a completely different site or maybe they don’t like 30-second YouTube ads before watching a 10-second clip on YouTube. Crazy miscalculations or aggressive behaviors from people or companies monetizing like a YouTube for example in this case, have led your users to install these things that then affect your revenue.
18:44 Todd Garland: So it’s perfectly acceptable to detect whether or not an ad blocker is presenting the user from seeing an ad and kindly asking them to turn it off. I personally believe that users have a right to block advertising if they so choose. I’m not here to incite some kind of back and forth, cat and mouse game between ad blockers and companies monetizing their content. I think that’s a silly game to play. And the other thing, too, is take good note of what ads are actually on your site. Even going as far as installing a VPN. Browse your site from different locations. Try and view your site as if you’re somebody visiting from France, or Turkey, or Japan and see the ads that are coming up, and hold the ad companies that you work with accountable for these ads.
19:30 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s tough because one thing that I run into as a smaller publisher, and I don’t know what we would consider small. I mean, 10 million page views a month can be small in the grand scheme of things. That’s a small publisher for a lot of companies. There were ad networks I couldn’t get into. That I wasn’t even that large. But small for us is different for the big ad networks. But there’s a lack of power there in a lot of cases. It’s a take it or leave it sort of thing, where for a small publisher, I don’t even know who I would call out as a network that I would say, “You know what? That’s perfectly safe. They’re 100% on the ball.” I’m not sure who I would call out in 2016 and maybe it’s just me being out of loop a little bit of a network that I would say, “Hey, I trust them 100%. You won’t get redirected to iPhone app store when you visit their website on your iPhone.”
20:14 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s tough because there’s a lack of leverage there for me. There’s a lack of leverage there for publishers of many smaller online communities who essentially have to take it or leave it. And maybe sometimes they have the ability to block individual ads, if you can find the ad. But again, that’s letting them get on the site. So again, it goes back to selling ads directly which takes time, takes effort, takes sales people in some cases. But there’s a lack of leverage. Isn’t that the case? I can’t demand things that The New York Times can demand.
20:40 Todd Garland: No, of course not. But I think as well, if that is the case, that should push you in favor of trying to sell more sponsorships. And trust me, I understand the feeling of the lack of leverage. Let’s say your audience might not be quite big enough to get so and so’s attention at such and such a company that is a great fit to advertise on your site. I get that. That’s difficult. There’s this sweet spot where you have enough of a captive audience that is exactly the kind of audience that these 20 companies are trying to reach where you’re able to gain a lot of leverage and do really well with advertising and sponsorships. That’s a very tricky balance and space to get, but that’s where publications and communities can do really well. If they are able to properly articulate the value that their audience, their captive audience can provide to these advertisers in these companies and help them understand why they need to be working with them.
21:31 Todd Garland: Another idea as well is affiliate marketing can actually work really well for communities. And I don’t mean like placing links that link up to your affiliate and you hope somebody converts. I mean, acting as if you’re a lead generation service for these companies, which doesn’t mean giving them all of your users’ email addresses. It means understanding what product or service it is that this company is trying to sell or potentially sell to your users and then help them actually work your users down through the funnel and hand them over to that company only at the point at which they’re ready to actually make a purchase. So it’s more of a higher touch, handheld lead work flow, but it’s something where more niche or a small or more focused communities can find leverage. Because if you can deliver paying customers to any business, you’re really, really valuable.
22:18 Patrick O’Keefe: The war on ad blocking has gone on for a long time. Some of the earliest communities I participated in were web development and design communities, like the SitePoint Forums. And I can remember that stuff going on back then. Like, “How do you deal with this?” There’s an adversarial tone to it. Do I block them? How do I circumvent what their browser is doing so my ads get in there? But in your case, what you’re saying is, it’s Occam’s razor. It’s the simplest explanation, the simplest thing. Ask and see if they will unblock it. And to your point, the Financial Times ran an experiment where they took 15,000 registered readers and divided them into groups. One group was simply asked to whitelist the websites whose ads would appear, but they could just as easily disregard that notice. 40% of that group opted to whitelist.
23:00 Patrick O’Keefe: Another group was shown a Financial Times story with missing words representing the percentage of the company’s revenue derived from advertising. 47% of them whitelisted. Finally, a third group was given a choice, whitelist or get the heck out. 60% of that group whitelisted. All told, about 50% of people who were asked to whitelist did so. You have to invest less time in asking than coming up with some sort of hacked up solution to get around ad blocking, which to borrow your verbiage is just a cat and mouse game at the end of the day. So it makes sense to ask, is asking going to be so common for websites that visitors may go ad blind to the request to unblind ads?
23:40 Todd Garland: It could be.
23:40 Patrick O’Keefe: Do you see what I did there?
23:41 Todd Garland: Yeah, I did. It could be. I think it all speaks to the connection that you have as a community manager with the folks that are within your community. And ideally, the interaction that you’re having with them isn’t just on your website. There’s potentially some kind of email component or other way that you’re reaching these people every month or however often you publish. So I think you need to weave the story of why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you believe this is value of the community and how… Just like you did at the beginning of this episode Patrick, what is it that you’re paying for to make this work for everybody that’s involved here? And most people are really good human beings and they’ll understand. But at the same time, if you’re doing things that are offending them or offending their experience on your site, they’re not gonna do anything.
24:27 Todd Garland: So if you have, and I’m not gonna name companies, but if you have these sponsored or around the web links on your site and you’re asking people to stop blocking ads, I’ve got news for you, a lot of them might not do it. So both the person monetizing needs a reality check as well as the person avoiding the monetization. And it’s a conversation that should be done in more ways than just the technical challenge of showing them a pop-up or asking them once you detect that ads are blocked.
24:56 Patrick O’Keefe: In other words, if you ask them and they say, “Okay, show me ads,” and then you show them garbage, they’re just gonna block you again. It’s just about as quickly as they allowed you back into their lives. So you have to have kind of a strategy of taking care of those ad spaces on your site. You wrote in October that native advertising was finally about to go mainstream, thanks to The New York Times, who is making a push in that direction. So, for people who might not be familiar with native ads, how do you define native advertising?
25:21 Todd Garland: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, there’s a nuance answer there between native and custom. So a native ad in my opinion is an ad that can be purchased at scale that is integrated within the user experience of the site that it’s being consumed on. So, the best example to date is obviously the sponsored links in the Google search. That is the largest scale native ad on the planet. Facebook, I forget what they call them now, but there are sponsored stories or the ads that show up inline in your feed. That is a perfect example of a native ad. And the critical defining element there being something that can be purchased at scale.
25:57 Todd Garland: A custom ad on the other hand is something more one off, I guess you could say. It’s something that a smaller publisher might do. It’s not something that can be purchased by an advertiser at scale or across a large swath of users. And so, a lot of what small, medium-sized publishers do with native ads, I consider to be more like a custom ad. And the reason why is because the requirements for that ad or the creative elements that the advertiser is supplying that publisher or list of publishers for that ad could be different per site. So it doesn’t scale very well, but it fits very nicely within the overall user experience of that particular publisher and publisher’s sites.
26:34 Patrick O’Keefe: How do you think native ads look in community spaces? So, that’s a lot of UGC. It’s mostly content posted by other people, posted by members of their community and spaces they can all see and engage with one another. How do you think native advertising should work there?
26:47 Todd Garland: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think the best form of advertising within a community is most likely going to lean more towards the sponsorship side. And when I say sponsorship, that means that depending on who that advertiser is, you might integrate their program into your community in different ways. So for example, if I’m Patrick and let’s just pretend that there is a forum that goes along with Community Signal or maybe there is and I just don’t know.
27:10 Patrick O’Keefe: There isn’t.
27:13 Todd Garland: So, that might be a sponsored ad on the podcast here and then it might be reinforced further through some kind of footnote or inline ad within the forums. And then furthermore, if there’s an email component where you engage your visitors, it would be reinforced in there as well. So while different components of that I believe could be considered native or custom or whatever, overall, it’s a sponsorship program that you’re delivering to this advertiser that allows them to touch your users in all of the different places where you’re engaging with them and their experience with your community.
27:45 Patrick O’Keefe: To go back a little bit, native ads, in some form or another have existed for a while. I mean, I could argue that sponsored blog posts are a native ad.
27:50 Todd Garland: Totally.
27:52 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s part of the blog, it’s in line with the blog. And there was a time, and I’m sure you remember this, when Google actually gave them access to custom code, I was one of the people who got access to it where you could change the appearance of ads, and you could make it look like the text on your website or the content on your website. And a lot of things, using that technology, verged on deceptive. It’s tough because it seems there’s this potential for abuse. They’re like any ad I guess. Because I used to have native ads in my forums where we would have actual threads that were ads, that were properly marked and disclosed. In the title, it said ad. In the actual content, it said ad. It wasn’t small text. It was there. It was visible. You could see it.
28:31 Patrick O’Keefe: But again, there’s this potential for low-quality ad content. Like you mentioned, there were related articles. I’ll throw our name out there. Again, Taboola, those Taboola-like related stories. Those are kind of native ads. I mean, here’s an article, here’s another one and there is it again, that one about Morgan Freeman’s net worth. They all look the same, like they’re right there. Native ads seem like they have the potential to fall prey to the same scummy behavior that has harmed display ads in general. Are you concerned about that? How do you kind of guard against that? Because I feel like there’s already people who hate native ads or feel like they’re deceptive. And with communities, that’s obviously a poison. So, whatf should people be doing?
29:06 Todd Garland: Yeah, I think it all comes down to us curbing the inevitable amount of greed that exists with every human on this planet.
29:13 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s a real uplifting perspective.
29:15 Todd Garland: I know.
29:17 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s like, “Happy Holidays Todd.”
29:20 Todd Garland: Well, one thing that plagued online advertising is the whole concept of, what’s one more ad? And so you have publishers, and I’m not saying I’m holier than thou, I’m guilty of doing this as well. Where it’s like, “What’s one more ad on this site? How bad is that really? It’s an extra $1,000 a month. I don’t think people would really mind. But that $1,000 is gonna be very important to me.” So, publishers need to save themselves in many ways. They need to curb their enthusiasm. Maybe that’s trademarked, I don’t know, from installing one more ad or having the mindset where, “Oh, it’s just one more thing.” So, publishers need to hold themselves accountable. They need to exhibit the best practices of disclosure that exist which is, it’s really simple. I don’t even know why we need rules and laws against this stuff. It’s like, don’t deceive people. That doesn’t feel good. That doesn’t scale. That’s not sustainable. And people just need to, overall, try and learn from their past mistakes that ad tech and/or themselves have inflicted upon the industry or themselves over the last 20 years.
30:22 Patrick O’Keefe: So have standards. Apply them. Standards as far as disclosure, as far as how the ad looks, as far as not being deceptive. Because you’ve written about how standardized ads are dead. It’s more of a custom, native approach. But within native, there are standards of some kind, either developing or already set, aren’t there?
30:40 Todd Garland: That’s the funny thing, you’d think. And I think part of the problem with ad tech is that it’s absolutely failed to police itself. Sure, there are standards, but there’s no real organizational method in which these are regulated. And so, unfortunately, I think one thing that’s going to come to most things in the world that stay unregulated for too long is regulation. And that’ll prevent companies like BuySellAds, who could very easily in 2007-2008 get started on a bootstrap budget, it’ll prevent folks like myself from starting in the future. It’ll make it more difficult, more expensive, yada, yada, yada. And so, regulation is more of a concept than a reality in ad tech in my opinion.
31:21 Patrick O’Keefe: Because display ads are standardized and very one size fits all, it was easy for publishers large and small to use them. But native ads can be trickier for the reasons you’ve outlined. They’re different for each site. They’re native to that one website. And are there any good, accessible tools that people can use to customize the design through CSS or HTML or something along those lines and then easily sell native ads? Are there any tools out there that help people do this?
31:47 Todd Garland: Yeah. I think with a lot of publishers, if they’re selling sponsorships and working to integrate that sponsor’s experience throughout the different touchpoints they have with users in their experience, they might actually not be using an ad server or an ad network, if you will, at all. They might actually just be hard coding those sponsorships directly into their site. Folks who need to have some kind of structure or system in place who are doing this at a pretty good scale of which I know there are plenty of communities that are, you might be looking at using a native ad server.
32:17 Todd Garland: I believe this is where I would normally plug my own product, but I’m not gonna go that far. Use something like Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers. You can build custom ads within that product. You can serve them on your site just like you would serve any other ad. And there are other companies out like mine and companies like Adzerk who have native ad servers. So you can build these programs in these ad formats that are in a structured environment that have the same controls as you would serving a regular ad. And there are a lot of really powerful things that you can do if you use some of the tools that already exist.
32:50 Patrick O’Keefe: Todd, thank you so much for coming on the program and for sharing your knowledge with us.
32:55 Todd Garland: Thank you Patrick and everyone listening. Thank you very much for your time and listening.
33:00 Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Todd Garland, founder and CEO of BuySellAds. That’s buysellads.com. BuySellAds also operates Carbon Ads, a premium ad network targeted at designers and developers. Find out more at carbonads.net.
33:11 Patrick O’Keefe: For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. Thank you for making the first year of Community Signal a good one. See you next week.
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