Have you ever wondered what the internet would be like without advertising? Advertising on the web has evolved significantly over the past 27 years; it is more sophisticated and bespoke than ever. But why do we have it? How would the internet look and feel without it?
By “the internet,” I am mainly referring to the free and open web, a place where we spend much of our time, browsing content, doing research, and interacting with others. To the average internet user, the idea of an ad-free internet experience might sound ideal. No pesky ads to get in the way of the content; no online tracking or data privacy concerns! But this fantasy-version of the internet is based on the assumption that only the ads would disappear and everything else would remain the same. In reality, the internet would be drastically different–and not in a good way.
Instead of free content, a content-free internet
Without advertising to fund it, the internet would have less variety of content: news would represent a narrower viewpoint with less local coverage; access to educational resources and blogging platforms with their recipes, DIY projects, and book reviews would be sparse. To get ideas for throwing a client event, reading the latest tech news, or scouring for visual inspiration, we would no longer simply browse the internet. All the little time-savers, educational resources, and entertainment sources that we take for granted would no longer be a click away. All of this information could still be available online, but it would be hidden within a walled garden, and we would have to pay to access it.
Advertising is the currency that powers the free and open internet. That message has been lost; the everyday internet consumer does not understand the value exchange of how the internet ecosystem works. Over 5 billion people around the world have widespread access to information, entertainment, news, education, and so much more, but that content is available and free because advertising funds it. Content creators share their perspective, ideas, and creativity with online consumers, but they expect–and deserve–to be paid for it. Advertising pays these original content creators–from journalists to bloggers to graphic designers to educators–and it provides everyone with access to their amazing free content online.
Instead of relevant ads, irrelevant pop-ups
Advertising can also provide another beneficial and valuable form of content to consumers: relevant information about products or services. Admittedly, in the early days of the internet, advertisements were not always very relevant. Consumers were bucketed into broad categories; banner ads and pop-ups were distracting and annoying, things to ignore.
Today, however, sophisticated AI and machine learning techniques–such as those used by the Quantcast Platform–can reach consumers at scale with relevant advertising, and as a result, brands are building successful campaigns and driving performance. Consumers are served useful, personalized ads that introduce them to a product or service that they actually want, enhancing–rather than detracting from–their overall internet experience.
However, this value exchange between consumers and advertisers works best when consumers understand how data about them is being used and can set their preferences; and when advertisers respect those preferences. When consumers have control and transparency around their consent and preferences, ads can be tailored to them while respecting their choices. The internet can offer relevant ads without feeling intrusive to the ad recipient. And with such win-win advertising, the internet can remain our go-to place for free, ungated content.
The internet would be a very different place if we did not have advertising to fund content for all. It would not, in actuality, be an ad-free utopia; it would be an internet with impersonal ads and walled gardens. By grasping the reality that ads are ultimately beneficial to everyone in the ecosystem–publishers, advertisers, and consumers–we can use consent-based advertising to power a thriving free and open internet.