Bo Sacks is a veteran of the printing and publishing industry. He started his career by founding a weekly newspaper in the New York metro area, and after several years in the alternative press, publishing newspapers in the New York and Tucson areas, he went on to become one of the founding fathers of High Times Magazine. Bo's resume lists directorships at such prestigious companies as McCall's, Time Inc., New York Times Magazine Group, International Paper, Ziff Davis, CMP, And Bill Communications. Today, Bo's firm, Precision Media Group, does private consulting and publishes 'Heard on the Web Media Intelligence', a daily e-newsletter that delivers pertinent industry news to a publishing community of over 16,000 media industry leaders, and it's the longest running e-newsletter in the world.
On this day, Bo and I talked about ad blocking- it's here and only going to get worse. So, what should we do about it for this current digital marketing landscape we are living in.
This is a topic that only a small handful of people are as qualified as Bo to speak about.
DR: Can you just quickly explain what ad blocking is?
BS: Ad blocking is nothing more than a technology, a relatively new technology, which allows, amazingly enough, the blocking of ads. The block happens in nanoseconds, and it happens before the ads are loaded into your web browser. So, what does that mean? That means you're saving valuable brand bandwidth and time, and the page which you're reading is rendered faster. It happens faster because there are no bloated or unwanted ads. That's what ad blocking is.
DR: It came about because of user experience. People were probably complaining about it, and someone saw an opportunity to satisfy all these people, hence we have this ad blocking. But it’s created some dilemmas in the marketplace, so that kind of leads me to our next two questions: Why is it a concern and who should be concerned about ad blocking?
BS: If you just think about how the industry has evolved over the last few years, you kind of have to question what we should be worried about. Ad fraud, ad blocking, identity theft, malware, keyboard capture, and a dozen other things. I could go on listing all the abuses that the common reader has experienced, and how this is a problem for anybody. It's a problem for business, and it's a problem for the general reader, and every solution that we come up with seems to be only temporary, including ad blocking.
DR: Now, you say a problem for the reader. What do you mean by that? Because isn't this something that people who are all about it are just jumping up and down in joy that this exists? What problems are you talking about?
BS: It's my experience that in this world nothing is black and white, and some of the ad blockers, which profess to be protecting the public, are actually making a profit by allowing some ads through the system. So, if there is a bounty, these guys are like pirates. Not all of them, but some of them, and if you pay the company, the ad blocker, they will allow some ads to get through. So, it's a gray area. It's not that gray for me, but it's not a perfect system.
DR: People who make their hay on ad dollars, online ads, obviously, those people are probably very, very concerned by this. Is that kind of how you see it too?
BS: We have concerns from everybody. If I understood your question, it's not only for media people. All commerce is transacted on the web now. I can't think of a single industry that's not on the web. So, it's not just media. Even if you're a plumber, or a lawyer, or cab drivers, everybody's operating on the web, and so they're exposed on the web. Businesses are exposed, and the consumer is exposed, and there is no solution in sight yet, at least not one that I see that is clickable and good for both sides. One should strive for a win-win - it's good for the businesses, it's good for the consumer. How do we achieve that goal? That is a good question. We're not there yet. Not even close.
DR: I believe there are about two hundred million people who are using ad blocking software, and on top of that, I believe that some of the new operating systems, at least Macintosh, will automatically default to having ad blocking written in. Is that still the case?
BS: Yes, but this is just like a war. We started with bows and arrows, and that wasn't good enough, so we made guns. That wasn't good enough, so we made tanks. We keep elevating the level of this ad war, and to your question, sure, Apple building in ad blocking - listen to the report from Facebook. They have built a program that is going to block the ad blockers.
We've elevated this level of war. We haven't gone to the nuclear answer yet, but that's what's happening. So now that Facebook has developed a blocker for ad blocking, well, the ad blockers will develop a block for the blocker. There is no end to this.
DR: What can marketers, or publishers, or whoever actually makes money from serving ads, what can they do about it?
BS: That's the big question. If I had the answer, I'd be making a lot of money as a consultant. But here's the thing - what's at the heart of the issue, the real bottom line, is how does one recover trust once it's lost? I think it was Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.” So, that's at the core of the issue. Trust, once it's gone, is unrecoverable. It's an unrecoverable asset, and I'm afraid we'll never be able to regain that trust once we've crossed it. So, what can we do? The answer is to try to act honorable for an extended period of time -and here's the kicker - hope that the rest of the industry does, too. And I ask you, what are the odds of that happening?
DR: Zero, I would say.
BS: There you go. So, our marketing friends are in a tough bind. I think the best thing that you can hope for - and social media could be good at this - you've got to go out there and present your image. Your branded image is one that is trustworthy, and if you can achieve that goal, then you can circumvent the mistrust that's out there. You've got to have a program to prove that you are not a pirate on the web.
DR: So obviously, there are people who are doing it right, with integrity. But, is there anything else? And are there any great examples of what other companies are doing to combat the issue of ad blocking? I believe I saw an example of the New York Times doing some things, I believe the Financial Times are doing some other things. Can you talk about what people are doing to combat this outside of trying to win the trust of their reader base?
BS: Not really. The New York Times has a built-in credibility factor, and they're parlaying that, and the key is transparency. The only way to get through this is to be above board and transparent in what you're doing. The public, who are on one level incredibly smart, incredibly powerful, are less educated in our business. They don't really know what a sponsored ad is, or what it means. They don't know what native advertising is, or what it means. Now when we gracefully put sponsored content on the top of an ad, they don't know. Sponsored content is an ad in disguise, and that's my point. We are using deception to head down the path of revenue. We all want revenue, nothing wrong with that. It should be honorable, but it's not always honorable. We take shortcuts, and perhaps the longer road is the best road. This may be tangential, but I think it all comes about from greed. That's the problem. We seem to have gone from seeking an honorable profit in a capitalist system, to unfounded greed, and this is becoming recognized.
The greed has infiltrated into everything, publishing and politics alike. There is less stability and more crassness in everything, and it's all compounded on the web. I don't know of any cure for greed.
DR: That's a tough one. Now, you mention trust, and I believe what the New York Times is doing is, they're basically asking people to whitelist them from being ad blocked, and that probably only will come if you’ve got trust from your reader base, and then ask them a simple request, and let them know that this is how you're able to pay your reporters and put out great content. It comes with a cost, and you make your money. So, you just explain to people with full transparency, “This is what's up. Please let us make some money so we can continue to serve you in an honorable way.”
BS: Exactly. And I think we agree in this format that the New York Times is an honorable corporation, and last week, or maybe it was earlier this week, it was reported that they inadvertently sent ad malware in their advertising, which was doing identity theft. So, here's the honorable and honest New York Times, who inadvertently sent out malware. This is pretty complicated. We're getting into some deep and murky areas, and I still trust the New York Times, but they didn't do their due diligence on what they were sending out.
DR: Wow. One of our best examples here is even making mistakes. So, definitely, you can see how many layers there is to all of this. You mentioned native ads. They're not the newest thing in the world, so just quickly describe what these are, and then give your thoughts on the pros and cons of them, and then if possible, some examples of companies using these correctly.
BS: Native advertising is a type of disguised advertising, usually but not always, online. It's kind of the trick of native advertising, it matches the form and function of the platform on which it resides. If it's in print, it will look like a typical editorial page. If it's on the web, it will just look and match the corresponding template for that site. So, native advertising, if it's not done well, and not done in moderation, in my opinion, will go down in history books as yet another lost opportunity - a lost opportunity for revenue, and another opportunity to lose trust. Like everything else in the world, there can be too much of a good thing. With the right context, and when done in the right way, I think it can be a win-win for everybody. But, I would take you back to my greed formula. Once we discover a new path to revenue, we have a tendency to overextend ourselves, to put it politely. It’s native to the land that it lives in. So, if you're on the New York Times, a native ad will look just like another article in The New York Times. If you're on Forbes, it's even more disguised as just another article that you may or may not want to read.
DR: And when it's done incorrectly, or deceptively, it looks like an article, but then it directs to not the article that you thought you were clicking through, correct?
BS: Yes. Unlike sponsored advertising, native advertising is much more subtle.
DR: What are your thoughts on sponsored content. Do you like it?
BS: I'm a for profit guy. I'm for every way that we can honorably make a good living, shelter our family, feed everybody but the operable word there is in an honorable way, and sponsored content can be done right, can be transparent, native advertising can be done right and classic. Like my favorite example I learned many, many years ago, because it's very old, David Ogilvy who is known in some circles as the father of advertising, he created a series of ads, and this was the Guinness Guide to Oysters, and it was all about oysters, but it was the Guinness Guide to Oysters. Well, how brilliant is that? Cleverly out front, this is Guinness, but the article was about oysters. Beautiful pictures, a great read- that's how to do it right
DR: Was that sponsored content or a native ad?
BS: I would say it was a hybrid, because although it's a native ad, the headline was Guinness' Guide to Oysters. Brilliant. Exxon's Guide to SUVs, and if you had a really good article about SUVs, but that's what they sponsored, it says Exxon's guide - this one I'm making up as an example - Exxon's guide to SUVs. I might read that article.
DR: Let’s dig into that. How can we help people find some alternatives, find some good ways of doing it? We talked a little bit about native ads, and you gave some examples of how to do it correctly, and basically it goes ahead and be transparent, and direct people to what you say you're directing them to. Now, sponsored content is an article that’s ‘brought to you by…x’. Let's talk to marketers and publishers. Give them some pointers. What should they do if they want to go this route?
BS: There's a simple answer to this. Although the answer is simple, the achievement of the goal is not always that easy. What are the needs of my client, on either side, marketer or reader? What are my needs? If you can answer that question, and supply the answer to that, you've got a winner. If you can only supply half of their need, you're going to be less effective. If you're not supplying any of their needs, their true needs, then you have an ineffective campaign. So, the analysis goes into 'I have x and x products. How does that fit into the lifestyle of my client? How can I help with her needs?' So, that's a pretty simple statement. Now, how do you go about and make that happen? That's why it doesn't always work. You've got to do your research, do your homework, do your investigation, and supply the answer to “What are the needs of the client?”
DR: Do you have any examples that we can kind of put it in context, of somebody possibly doing it the right way?
BS: I would go back to Guinness' Guide to Oysters. Guinness wants to sell beer, and beer and oysters go together really well. One assumes that that article will interest those who like oysters, so you're satisfying the need. How do you make oysters, how do you serve oysters - that's with any product. How do you make it? How do you serve it? What do you want to do with it? How can I make it the best experience possible? That's the bottom line. How do I make this experience the best possible? And if I were selling whiskey, it would be Bo Sack's Explanation to the Perfect Martini, better than anybody else's.
DR: So, basically what we're saying is, if you are going to be going the route of sponsored content, don't put Disney sponsors the top twenty-five most fit bodies. That wouldn't make any sense, but you need to basically have it match up and make sense. I think that's where a lot of things went wrong in the past, that you're just so busy chasing the dollar. you're not really stopping and thinking, 'Well, does this make sense?' And if you're going to have a bang-up, amazing piece of content, and you're sponsoring it by a sponsor that you can't draw any correlation to it, you're not doing the reader any good.
BS: I'm a big believer of common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is not all that common.
DR: Right? Now some of these other more technical types of ways to combat ad blocking and stuff, and of course these would be for really large media type of companies, but just wanted to touch on them a little bit and get your thoughts..
BS: Yes, PageFair, Secret Media if you're asking me about a service that delivers advertising in a manner that ad blockers are unable to block, so you're back to what Facebook is doing. So, that's deceptive, is it not? So, you just brought me back to trust. The consumer has an ad blocking program, and now we have a service that's going to circumvent that. Well, I think Ernest Hemmingway covered that one pretty well. He said the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. There's a case where we have now abused the trust. It's stupid. These are flashes in the pan, and they might make a few bucks in the short term, but long term, it's a losing proposition, because at the end of the day, the consumer is smart and will be protective of himself in any way he can, and if a publisher abuses that privilege, they're not going back. If a marketer abuses the privilege, they will lose sales, not gain sales long term.
DR: So, we're sitting here, and I know there are people out there who don't mind putting elbow grease and doing things the right way. There are other people out there who are always looking for a shortcut, or a tool to fix everything or a magic wand.
Bo, you are one of the most premier publishing, online, print, and digital - the whole works - experts in the world.
BS: You are too kind.
DR: Well, it's fairly accurate, but I don't mind saying it as long as it's true, and it is true. So, readers and listeners- you have someone telling you there is no shortcut. There's no easy answer. Do it the right way, win the trust, then you can even go so far as to ask people for a small favor. You can make money that way, but only if you're doing it the right way. the building that trust, delivering on what you say you will. If you are going to be advertising and making money, make sure it makes sense. Don't waste anybody's time, or anybody's money, or anybody's efforts. Anybody out there who was looking to get a quick fix, quick answer, you're not going to get it here today.
BS: I couldn't have said it better myself.
You know, at the same time as we're offering all this sound advice, it shouldn't stop anybody from performing and trying, and doing the best they can. Because on the other side of what we've just said - this is my day for quotations - P.T. Barnum has a great quote: “Without promotion, something terrible happens. Nothing.” So, you've got to be out there, you've got to play the game, so just do it right. Do your homework. Do it right. Be honest.
DR: You have native advertising, you have sponsored content, you still really do have online ads. Even though it's growing, and it's a problem, it's still a viable solution to for advertising dollars.
BS: I have ads in my newsletter. They are right out in front, they're not intrusive, they're not hidden, there's nothing secret about it, and my people get positive branding. My newsletter has a fairly respected position, and my advertisers ride along with that respect. That's how it should work.
DR: My guess is that they're applicable to your reader base.
BS: Oh, absolutely.
DR: So, you have these alternatives, just do it the right way. Make sure everything makes sense, make sure it's applicable. Now, moving on to another way, this is probably mainly again for bigger media companies, but what are your thoughts on having readers and consumers pay for content? Has it worked? Does it work?
BS: Well, the answer is absolutely yes, and I think that that is the Holy Grail that answers all of the questions we brought up today. This is more for publishers, but the consumer is willing to pay for content that's worth paying for. The Economist is a great example. There's hardly a magazine out there that has a higher subscription rate or per copy cost, and they're doing extremely well on the web, in print, because they have extremely high-quality content that their consumers are willing to pay for. They don't give anything away for five bucks as some magazines do who are seeking out rate base, and rate base is a conversation for another day, but no, they've decided to charge their clients what they deem the content is worth, and that formula is actually working. Can everybody do that? Depends on upon your sphere of influence. If you're in the news business, the answer is harder. They have financial information, it's quality information, there are sports sites where people are paying for sports information- there are niches. Any niche that you can develop, you can charge for good quality content. It's being done, it will be done, and that's the answer to many of our problems. Fair value, fair cost.
DR: Now, are there any differences in strategy for large scale publishers, the BuzzFeeds of the world, even the New York Times of the world, versus smaller niche local publishers or online sites?
BS: Let’s take this tangentially for a second because you mentioned BuzzFeed. Again, back to Facebook, and they won't be the only one doing this, they now have an algorithm to prevent click bait, which is what BuzzFeed is all about, and that's again back to trust, because how many times are you going to click on these fake articles and be disappointed? Because that's what clickbait is all about. They give you this spotty, great headline, and I go, 'Oh my god, I'm going to learn something, see something, do something,' and it's just a come on, it's nothing. So BuzzFeed is going to start to struggle now that there are formulas for eliminating clickbait.
DR: So if you are a big publisher, and you aren't doing it the right way on your big online sites, you really need to start paying attention here fast, because you're going to get dinged. More than a ding, you're going to get smashed, and your business is going to be going away.
BS: The advantage that larger publishers have, and they do have one, is their large war chest, and David Carey from Hearst has a great expression. He says he doesn't mind failing, as long as he fails fast. Smaller corporations can't absorb that, but Carey can, and that's how they operate. They don't mind experimenting and trying new things, and if it doesn't work out, well we'll just fail fast and move on to something else. Your small or midsized publisher doesn't have that war chest, is more resistant to taking those kinds of explorations in creativity.
DR: But again, it all circles back to just build your reader base the right way, build your trust the right way, then you'll have all the opportunities of monetization at your fingertips.
BS: Quality counts, not only in the content you provide but in the readership, the quality of your readership is just as lucrative as the positive content.
DR: When we decided to talk on this topic, I really dug into everything, and did a lot of research, and saw these tricks, and this, and that. I really wasn't quite sure where today was going to go. I guessed it was going to go this direction, but I didn't know for certain, so I really appreciate you simply stating that there are no shortcuts.
BS: I would add that quality does count, and that's the clearest, safest way to success. Don't just say it, believe it.
About Bo Sacks
A veteran of the printing/publishing industry since 1970, Bo Sacks was always an innovator.
After several years in the alternative press publishing newspapers in New York and Tucson, Az., he went on to become one of the founding fathers of High Times Magazine.
Since then Bob has held positions that include Publisher, Editor, Freelance Writer, Director of Manufacturing and Distribution, Senior Sales Manager, Circulator, Chief of Operations, Pressman, Cameraman, Lecturer, and Developer of web site companies.
Today Bob’s firm, Precision Media Group, does private consulting and publishes "Heard on the Web: Media Intelligence", a daily e-newsletter that delivers pertinent industry news to a diverse, worldwide, publishing community of over 11,750 media industry leaders. It is the longest running e-newsletter in the world.
Bob Sacks is a columnist and lecturer who regularly electrifies the media and marketing industry with the good and bad news about what he calls “El-CID” or Electronically Coordinated Information Distribution. His fun and extremely informative presentation covers the technological past, present and future possibilities for publishing at the digital edge.