Sep 26 2010

Stylebot Gives Users Control to Eliminate Display Advertising

Published by at 12:31 pm under technology

If you’re like most marketers, you buy your digital display advertising on a CPM basis. But, what if you found out that your thousand impressions were really only 700? Or 500? That is a real possibility with the new Chrome extension, Stylebot.Stylebot is  a tiny little Google Chrome extension with huge implications. Stylebot allows users to change how web pages render for them on their own machine, and also port those preferences over to other machines. Most of the examples (as well as the Mashable write up) show how users can change design preferences – background color, font sizes, etc.

While this is definitely interesting to design geeks and fontophiles, it’s really a marginal use case right now.

The atomic bomb of Stylebot is for display advertising. Users can quickly and easily eliminate all advertising from any website, and never see it again on subsequent visits.

This is the latest development in an escalating arms race between marketers and users.  Here’s how it has played out so far:

  • Marketers create well-produced, well-regarded advertising for a new medium
  • Users respond positively
  • Analysts write up a case study on the campaign
  • Subsequent marketers copy the idea, with a decreasing focus on quality of product and relevance
  • User response and participation declines
  • Marketers push the medium to the extreme, walking up (and then over) the line in order to juice results
  • Users opt out entirely

At this point, the industry has killed the golden goose. The only solution is to find a new technology, and start all over.

That’s the history with telemarketing (which eventually led to the Do Not Call list). And television (which led to TiVo’s 30 second skip button). And now, that functionality continues to display advertising as a whole.

Stylebot goes several steps beyond traditional ad blocking software like AdBlock Plus. AdBlock suppresses Flash, which is what most display advertising is rendered in. But, as more ad serving companies start to support HTML5, AdBlock loses effectiveness. (Still, it’s important to note that AdBlock Plus has nearly 100M downloads – so nearly 5% of the web doesn’t see any display advertising already – and they are the most technically sophisticated audience).

Stylebot allows all types of advertising content – like sponsored search bars, locally-hosted display, and more – to be customized or eliminated. It also allows any page element – whether the site owner considers it valuable or not – to be edited. That means users can increase font size, eliminate branding and trust icons, push margins out further, and even get rid of navigation elements that they don’t like. And, all of it is incredibly simple to use.

I was interested in how easy it would be to completely de-ad Mashable – one of the most aggressively overdesigned websites out there. Their share features maintain even as the user scrolls through the site, they have sold branding all over their site, including their search box, and their display. So, I recorded my very first use of Stylebot – on the Mashable home page. Here’s the video:

Removing Ad Units from Mashable Using Stylebot

As you can see, the user has an unprecedented level of control over the page design (and I didn’t even adjust fonts or any of the other features!).

In fact, that was the original goal of the project, according to Ankit Ahuja, the creator of Stylebot. In an interview, Ahuja told me that he felt annoyed by the sheer heaviness of sites like TechCrunch and Engadget. Distracting elements affected the readability of these blogs, which made him want to create a solution to make sites more accessible and customizable.

Ahuja sees great possibilities in the future of Stylebot – in particular to make websites more accessible for different types of users. He also sees potential for sharing your Stylebot preferences, which would allow users to apply the styles of their favorite designers.

Stylebot is the type of emerging tool that puts the user in total control of their own experience – breaking down the carefully crafted UX work that goes into site design in the first place.

With users in the driver seat to this degree, marketers will increasingly be forced to create great content and engaging experiences in order to attract prospects and customers.

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