blog: Don Marti


a less annoying future for consent and registration?

07 September 2020

(This post is a continuation of the likely near future for web ads scenario, which is now happening.)

Web advertising is rapidly fixing itself. There is still quite a bit of brokenness, but it's not fundamentally as bad as some proponents of alternate business models make it out to be. Free, ad-supported, web content was never really the problem. In print, the subscribers basically covered the printing and postage, and the advertisers paid for the content. More pages of advertising, more budget for articles we could assign. When publishers went to the web, they didn't emphasise advertising-funded business models originally because they were hippy-dippy Internet freedom types—they made a fairly sound business decision to let the readers off the hook for the high distribution costs they were no longer incurring. Yes, in hindsight it would have been better to have an incredibly cheap subscription, or even one that came out to a negative price after coupons, in order to get a hard-to-fake signal of reader engagement, but basically, the decision to go free was pretty reasonable.

Unfortunately publishers ignored the big problem, which was that browsers, until recently, facilitated cross-site tracking. This put sites into a race to the bottom on ad pricing. Any advertiser could track an expensive site's audience to the next cheapest site, and so on. And in most of today's web, that means no market power for a publisher with a good list of subscribers or at least registered readers. When good ad campaigns can chasing big-budget readers on cheap sites, that frees up space on legit sites for crappy ad tricks like traffic arbitrage and sends money to 'Unknown delta' instead of paying the publisher.

Too many publishers had a casual attitude toward reader data, and just let the browsers take it and leak it to whoever. If publishers were more like tech firms, they would be all like, "what, someone else is making money from ads served to OUR readers? Those eyeballs are OUR PROPERTY! Muster all the lawyers and lobbyists we can find to put them out of business!" If publishers got a fraction as mad about having their audience data taken as Hollywood people get mad about having their movies pirated, or hardware people get mad about generic cartridges that fit their printers, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Enough review.

That's all changing. Ever notice that more and more sites are making you give your email address, or log in with SSO, to keep reading? Browser privacy changes are rapidly increasing the market power of sites where users are willing to sign in.there is no reg wall cartel

The market price of an eyeball has fallen into different sets of price brackets, with the dividing lines between the brackets changing as the browsers and regulations change.

Pre-2017: subscriber > trackable reader > ad blocker user (The ad blocker user is still worth something if you choose to pay into the Acceptable Ads racket or do some other reinsertion tricks.)

2017 (Apple Safari ITP): subscriber > registered reader > targetable reader > unregistered ITP user > ad blocker user

2018 (GDPR): subscriber > registered reader > consent-giving reader > no-consent reader or unregistered ITP user > ad blocker user

2021 (death of the 3rd-party cookie): subscriber > registered reader with consent > unregistered or no-consent reader or ad blocker user

If things keep going the way they're going, a pageview from a non-registered user is not going to be worth much more than a pageview from a user who is blocking ads entirely (or, in practice, trying to block ads but getting some ads reinserted by their ad blocker's paid whitelisting scheme) Meaningful consent that's good enough for high-CPM ads has been getting harder and harder to get for a while now. And there's a lot of attention being paid to complex technical schemes to replace the third-party cookie, but in order to use them, the site still has to get people through the consent UX. So by the time a site gets the consent UX up to the point where it's passing inspection with the regulators, publishers might as well be combining the consent wall and the reg wall.

Just getting someone through a consent dialog but not the reg wall just puts them into a basically worthless state. Sites might find it better to skip the big up-front consent experience anyway and put all the UX effort into getting the registration, which is where all the money is anyway.

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