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Is Adblock Plus hurting content creators, or are they victims of friendly fire?

Earlier this month, many were shocked to hear just how lucrative a successful YouTube channel can be, as it emerged that the 25-year-old PewDiePie raked in $7.4 million over the course of 2014. However, it should be noted that PewDiePie sits at the very top of a very tall tree.

With more than 37 million subscribers, PewDiePie can be sure that any video uploaded to his channel will rack up more than a million views in a matter of hours. Since he uses advertising rather than product placement to make his money, his income is directly linked to the number of viewers that sit through an ad ahead of each individual video.

Last week, Forbes argued that PewDiePie should be making more than he does now, based on a comparison to the fees advertisers pay for a similar spot on network TV amidst a hit show like The Big Bang Theory. However, this misses one key element of the YouTube viewing experience — users can skip commercials entirely by using a piece of software called Adblock Plus.

People are voting with their mice.

Adblock Plus isn’t the same as TV viewers fast-forwarding through adverts on their DVR. It removes commercials without a trace, and it’s trivially easy to set up. However, given that it removes a key element of a YouTube channel’s ability to make money, there’s a clear argument that the software is tantamount to enjoying the show without buying a ticket.

It’s a minor problem for mega-hit channels such as PewDiePie, but it’s a big deal for those that are merely successful. Competitive Hearthstone player Jeffrey ‘Trump” Shih shares game tips to an audience of half a million subscribers, but the widespread use of Adblock Plus software means that the view counts of his videos isn’t reflected with complete accuracy in his advertising revenue.

When I asked Trump what he thought about the relationship between YouTube and Adblock Plus, he responded in the brief, no-nonsense manner that’s become his trademark. “Adblock Plus weakens YouTube.”

A Retort From Adblock Plus

With Trump’s thoughts on Adblock Plus in hand, I spoke to Adblock Plus’s Ben Williams about the effect that the service can have on content creators. Initially, my assumption was that the company wouldn’t be prepared to discuss the relationship between their product and the video content that is provides free access to. I was quite wrong.

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“People are voting with their mice,” Ben tells me, and the figures he has to back that statement up are quite astounding. Adblock Plus has recorded some 400 million downloads over the course of its lifespan, having settled into a steady two million new downloads a week since the middle of 2013.

The company is eager to insist it’s not the bad guy in this situation. Neither are the individuals who install the software, nor the content creators putting ads in front of their YouTube broadcasts. According to Ben, the quality of the advertisements themselves are the weak link in the burgeoning field of online advertising.

“We haven’t found an acceptable video ad yet, but we think it’s out there,” Ben tells me, going on to describe the feedback the company has received from users as to what sort of content they’re trying to block. The 30-second pre-rolls commonly used ahead of YouTube videos are apparently one of the biggest culprits that prompts a viewer to download Adblock Plus.

Adblock Plus isn’t trying to cut out ads from the Internet entirely. It’s instead attempting to give users some control over what ads are presented to them. Of course, many choose to block all forms of marketing that they can — but that’s not what the service is looking to offer.

Instead, it’s looking to encourage a wave of advertising that pulls away from the bad habits that the Internet developed in its early years; auto-playing videos and pop-ups being two major examples. Ideal online advertising, according to Ben, is clearly labelled as an ad, and doesn’t intrude upon the content that users are trying to access.

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“Users come for content,” says Ben. “If the ad content is engaging enough to get their attention and they click on it, then they can be brought to whatever you want.” The key is creating an ad that plays to the strengths of the medium, and understands the demands of its audience. Simply re-airing a tired TV spot online isn’t good enough for Adblock Plus.

Meanwhile, the company is making efforts to make life easier for advertisers who are producing worthy content. Sites can apply to be white-listed, and a solution for individual YouTube channels to do the same is in development. Furthermore, individual users can white-list particular sites for themselves if they feel that what they’re viewing deserves the ad revenue.

However, there are concerns that not enough Adblock Plus users are aware of how to white-list a site. The team has made white-listing tools more prominent in its UI, which has prompted some improvement — Ben notes that even ‘finicky’ Adblock Plus users aren’t completely averse to seeing ads, as long as they’re not a nuisance.

“We want to provide a better browsing experience. What Adblock Plus allows you to do is customize your browsing experience as you like. You can stop tracking, you can get rid of malware domains, you can write your own filters — you can do all manner of things. Since we can’t decide what a better Internet is for you, we try to give you a tool that allows you to define and experience what that is.”

Is There Another Way?

The people behind Adblock Plus certainly don’t seem to feel that the service is the root of the problems plaguing the relationship between advertisers and YouTube — but who would expect them to? The situation remains the same for content creators: a key revenue stream is being blocked, and an audience that isn’t willing to sit through ads is still enjoying their videos.

However, not every channel on YouTube has a dour attitude towards Adblock Plus. Classic Game Room is the longest-running video game review show on the Internet, having debuted in 1999. The show moved to YouTube in 2008, and continues to release new reviews on a near-daily basis.

When it comes to its subscriber count, Classic Game Room can’t claim to best the likes of PewDiePie, or even Trump. However, that statistic is a little misleading, as the channel has the sort of audience engagement that countless others on the service would kill for. It’s very easy to see why such a cult following has developed around its low-key musings on retro games — and the fact that the videos have amassed hundreds of millions of views speaks for itself.

There’s a laid-back atmosphere to Classic Game Room that’s earned it that passionate following. Host and creator Mark Bussler is a refreshing alternative to the in-your-face style of much of the video game focused content that gets uploaded to the site, and his measured style of reviewing carries over to the way he looks at Adblock Plus.

“I remember hearing about Adblock in 2008,” Mark tells me when I ask him about his thoughts on the service. “It’s always been there, and I’ve never worried about it, to be honest.” He goes on to refer to the current model of advertising as ‘flawed’ and ‘unpredictable’ — it’s clear that it isn’t a huge concern of his.

That being said, Classic Game Room needs to keep the lights on and the Vectrex powered. Instead of relying on YouTube advertising, Mark puts his content first, and hopes that his viewers enjoy it so much that they feel an urge to support the channel by putting down some cold hard cash.

Adblock Plus has always been there, and I’ve never worried about it.

“If I really like something, I buy it,” he tells me. “That’s our approach as a company, and that’s why I think it’s better to concentrate on a good show rather than wrestling with forces outside of my control. While I like earning ad revenue, I would rather hear that a fan enjoys their new Classic Game Room Blu-Ray set.”

“For me, it’s more about working with our audience to ensure they get quality content that keeps them informed and entertained. YouTube is great at what they do, but we have to run a business by looking beyond them and concentrating on physical products, other video distribution outlets and cool merchandise like our awesome beer mugs. Adblock Plus cannot block the Classic Game Room beer mugs.”

A New Model

Despite being situated on opposing sides of the issue, Mark and Ben seem to agree with the broad distaste for advertising on YouTube. Not every channel can support itself on beer mugs, but that’s not the point; every channel has to find its own beer mugs, whatever that may be.

Maybe it’s a Patreon account. Perhaps it’s a tasteful method of product placement. It might even be traditional advertising. The point is, content creators need to understand their audience, and what method of monetization works for them. This isn’t network television, and it’s not bound by the same restrictions, so it’s time to get creative with the way content pays for itself.

However, the solution isn’t solely on the shoulders of content producers and advertisers. If audiences don’t want to sit through an ad, they have to come to terms with the fact that there needs to be some replacement. It’s similar to the situation arising around BBC iPlayer and its relation to the licence fee, where the content might be terrific, but people still don’t like being told that they have to pay for it.

Oscar Wilde once said that “people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” That quote seems particularly potent in the digital age. It’s difficult to put an asking price on something that’s, in the end, just a string of ones and zeroes being streamed to your computer — but it’ll be even more difficult to find content worth watching if no one is prepared to pay for it.