FIGHT! FIGHT! My response to the CEO of Outbrain

[ tldr: The CEO of Outbrain sent me a choice email regarding AdReplacer, which might — at some point in the future — impact his business in some minor way. Here is my response. I’ll leave it up to him if he wants to publish his email. ]

Thanks for reaching out. Let’s split this into three issues here. First, my support of startups; second, how consumers feel about advertising (and your product); and third, the morality of adblockers.

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In terms of my support of startups, it speaks for itself:

  1. 150 angel investments
  2. almost 600 episodes of This Week in Startups
  3. 20,000 free tickets distributed for my events, Launch Festival, SCALE, etc., this year alone

To the second point, consumers are fed up with overbearing advertising. This is a problem that has been caused by aggressive marketers and the publishers who enable them.

Advertising inventory has exploded, but at the same time, consumers have become much more savvy about avoiding tricky ads. Which then requires marketers to get even trickier and more misleading.

This has resulted in the wholesale destruction of journalism’s famed “Chinese Wall” between editorial and sales, with even the New York Times trying to trick their customers into clicking on “native advertising.” It’s disgusting to anyone who cares about journalism and keeping the public well-informed.

Native ads are perhaps “Peak Deception” in this war between marketers and readers, with Google’s confusing search ads being a close second. (Reports show that up to 40% of Google users don’t know they’re clicking on an ad — something that has caught the attention of even the FTC, which is handing out warnings.)

Publishers will do anything they need to in order to survive. Except, it seems, charge for their content. They’re probably right not to charge, because most consumers don’t want to pay. And so the Cold War continues!

Consumers are so disgusted with the “Messy Web,” they are increasingly taking the time to install ad-blockers. We are doing something much better than removing the ads. We’re letting consumers replace those ads with human-curated content that sends folks back to publishers. (At least, the best ones).

So to say we’re stealing or misdirecting traffic from publishers is a snap reaction that doesn’t look at the facts. In reality, the only place we are redirecting consumers is to — wait for it — the publishers themselves!    

Marketers and the platforms that enable them, including yours, have pushed consumers to the edge and enabled already-desperate publishers. I know you’ve had great success with the business, but let’s be honest: everyone either hates your product or wishes it didn’t exist.

Our little “ad replacer” is just a reaction to the level of aggression that publishers and ad platforms have shown to consumers. If you guys tone down the ads, no one will install AdReplacer.

Finally, on the moral issue, let’s be candid for a moment. Startups are a competition of ideas, with consumers as the judges. Helping consumers avoid pain (what we do) is as (or more?) valid as inflicting pain on consumers because they have no choice (what you do).

At the end of the day, this is a tiny experiment we built because we don’t like these spammy-looking stories — and we had a feeling other consumers felt the same way. I don’t think we’ll get past 10,000 users a day and I doubt there is any business here unless we hit 100,000.

If we get to that point, you’ll have to rethink your model and we’ll have to come up with one (which of course we haven’t yet)!

all the best, @jason

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