“Does Anyone Really Like Adware?” My Response to Suzi’s Question

By Eric Goldman

Suzi of Spyware Confidential asks: “Does anyone really like adware?

I think this question is crucial, and it’s one I’ve been wondering myself. However, I think there are really 2 subquestions embedded in this one, and I’d like to deal with them separately.

Adware Today

One way to frame Suzi’s question is: does the value proposition of adware, as currently implemented, work? To that, I think many of us–even me!–would answer the question negatively, and I think the adware vendors can largely blame themselves for this.

Most adware vendors today say: we’ll give you X for free (or help you get X for free), but you’ll pay for it with pop-up ads. In this model, the pop-up ads are the “price” or the “cost” of the consumer getting something they want.

But thinking of ads as a cost to consumers, rather than a benefit, seals the fate of the adware vendors. When consumers view ads as a cost, they have every incentive to avoid the ads. We’ve seen this behavior over and over again with ad-supported media. Consumers take the “good” stuff (the “content”) and avoid the “bad” stuff (the ads). For example, drivers in cars switch between preset radio stations when an ad comes on, and TiVo and VCR owners blast through the ads. (Even I do that–with my TiVo, I can shave a half-hour show down to 22-23 minutes).

Thus, each time adware vendors bang the drums that adware-served pop-up ads are the price of something else, they are reinforcing that consumers should resent the value proposition and try to vitiate the deal. And, on that basis, I think even the adware vendors are admitting that the current answer to Suzi’s question is no (at least with respect to adware qua adware).

Adware in the Future

Personally, I am less interested in the state of adware today. I recognize that some bad practices today are creating significant difficulty, and I don’t want to trivialize those. But technology, business practices and consumer expectations are evolving rapidly, so focusing on today’s snapshot of activity may be too myopic. Accordingly, we could reframe Suzi’s question as–does adware have the capacity to be something people like and value?

I think the answer to this reframed question is emphatically yes. Indeed, I’ll go one step further and say that adware has the potential to have a positive value proposition even if it’s distributed on a standalone basis (i.e., without any bundled applications).

I know it sounds crazy to most people conditioned to hate advertising, but advertising can be a benefit, not a cost. Consider, for example, a person looking for a job or an apartment might buy a newspaper to get the classified ads. Stated another way, this person would pay to purchase advertising. Crazy, isn’t it? Not at all. Where ads add value to consumers, consumers will want them, seek them out, potentially even pay for them.

Adware vendors have the theoretical capacity to make their software valuable enough that consumers will want it on a standalone basis. If adware vendors succeeded in that, I predict that consumers would gladly embrace adware.

While this capacity may be theoretical, there are existing models of such a mutually-beneficial vendor-consumer relationship: “infomediaries.”

An infomediary model works only if consumers trust the infomediary. This is why I think adware vendors’ current efforts are so misdirected. Adware vendors should be focusing on how to win consumer trust in the ads they serve, not how to improve distribution or the bundled value proposition. The current crop of adware vendors may or may not evolve to meet this challenge, but future market entrants will–so long as we don’t destroy the competitive environment in a way that prevents their entry.

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