22/01/2015 08:38 GMT | Updated 24/03/2015 05:59 GMT

Consumers Don't Want an Ad-free Web - They Want a Relevant One

Let's get something straight here, as with most things in life Mr. Free-web-user, you can't have your cake and eat it.

The web-using world needs a reality check. Consumers who enjoy virtually unlimited access to information, social connections and entertainment on their devices all day long are - for the most part - oblivious to the costs and complexities associated with the online ecosystem.

Users love to hate ads as unwelcome interlopers, when in fact it is advertisers footing the bill for the World Wide Web - yours, mine, and the free Wifi at Starbucks.

A recent IAB UK study quantified that virtual subsidy was approximately £269 per year per internet-using household. What's more, given the option to pay out of pocket vs. pay via ad exposure, few consumers actually want to switch. According to a survey by Censuswide on behalf of Ebuzzing, 98% of consumers are unwilling to pay even £140 annually for advertising-free internet access.

Fee vs. 'free'

Google recently launched an experiment in alternative funding for web content. Contributor by Google offers users the option to pay monthly subscription fees for ad-free access to select websites and instead of ad placements users receive thank-you messages and pixelated images. Google is pitching it as a way to directly support those hard-working writers and coders who create the publisher's content. While it is another way for publishers to monetise inventory, it's not exactly public radio, and Google still gets a hefty cut.

The Contributor experiment is unlikely to transform the internet, but it may help spotlight how much value web consumers actually get from online advertising. It may also start a new discussion about what the ideal internet really looks like, and perhaps it's not a zero-ad experience that consumers want, but simply a more positive ad experience?

Make it relevant

The digital advertising industry is worth $141 billion globally. Ask anyone in this vast community what works in online advertising, and they'll say relevance. Consumers respond to ads that are personalised and relevant to them - to their interests, buying habits and lifestyles, or even the weather outside.

So perhaps the more realistic online paradise we seek is one where advertisers deliver more relevant ads. Consumers will have to accept that the web has a cost - viewing ads - but advertisers can make that cost quite painless and dare I say it, useful?

What we need isn't an ad free web or a subscription-funded web, it's a web paid for by relevant, intelligently optimised ads that consumers actually care about.

Surely that's a fair deal; we just need the right data to get us there.

Will offline data save the online experience?

Cookies and device intelligence, dynamic creative optimisation (DCO) and advanced attribution - ad tech has brought us a long way toward a more tailored and optimised advertising experience. However, much of that targeting is based on past behaviours - what a consumer browsed, bought or read. The next phase must become more predictive, using the vast array of offline data available to predict consumer needs and then market proactively.

Company loyalty cards and other kinds of offline data provide rich consumer insight that can be analysed and integrated with online data to create targeted ads that benefit both advertisers (via better performance and less waste) and consumers (via offers and relevant information).

The web will always have a cost, and it appears consumers much prefer to pay with their eyes than their wallets. With smarter use of data, advertisers can make the ads-for-access deal a lot better for everyone.