Ads in Telegram messenger: weird, ugly, inevitable

The security-oriented messenger Telegram has announced an ad platform last autumn. Businesses are to be able to buy posts in public channels with more than 1K subscribers. No external links in ads — only links to other channels. No ads in personal messages. No behavioral targeting, only contextual. No personal information harvested and used. The announcement was received favorably: people hoped that Telegram would make ads great again, targeted strictly by content and not by users' behavior.

But those users who were among the small testing group and saw and interacted with the actual ads — they were critical and disappointed. What have they been so displeased with? Aren't we already used to ads after all?

Mistakes were made

As it often happens, when you start to test a new product, whatever it is, it quickly turns out that there are more pitfalls than probably was expected. Ad platforms are no exception in general, and Telegram is no exception in particular. Here are just some things that went wrong:

Same ads by several dozens different advertisers appeared in all channels with a 1000+ audience. It didn't take long for subscribers to get tired of seeing the same ads over and over. In total, 18 channels became the pioneers of Telegram official ads, and two of them belong to the man himself Pavel Durov.

The ad message is supposed to be the last (the most recent) message in a channel — and it is. Apparently, the developers imagined that people would read all the messages in that channel, naturally reaching the last one.

But in reality, people would let messages pile up in the public channels they were subscribed to — too many channels, too many posts, you know how they seem to be multiplying once you get the habit of subscribing to them.

So the majority of users (as discussions on the web show) would click the button that took them to the last message of the several hundred or even thousand messages that had accumulated in the channel, scrolled up for some more recent messages, and then jumped to the next channel. And these people saw the same few test ads, over and over again. It was infuriating.

Not that it's much better for those who are subscribed to a smaller number of channels and read them all thoroughly. Those users see ads even more often, as they are forced to face them every time there is a new message.

It's not clear how the ads are moderated. Now that crypto companies were among the most advertised ones (half of the channels that took part in the test belonged to crypto projects), we have some concerns about whether the ad content was really intended to be moderated. Scams in crypto projects appear relatively often, the revenues of such scams are huge enough, and it is difficult to protect yourself from them — not the best topic for advertising, is it? But it's probably no less difficult to turn down the crypto money.

The content of ads is irrelevant most of the time. It was announced that ads would match the channel's content, be somewhat relevant. More often than not, they were not. Perhaps, this will change once there are more channels that participate in this program.

Ignorance is no excuse. The Telegram team claimed that all third-party messengers made on Telegram's API were obliged to show the official ads too. But they did not provide an update that would allow to do it to the app that is supported by Huawei's AppGallery. Due to US sanctions Huawei cannot install Google Play to its gadgets, they have an app store of their own instead. Telegram neglected it, didn't give it an opportunity to show ads, and then shot the app down for not showing ads. See the logic? Send me a message if you do, because I don't.

A promise was broken. This one could be the most important factor in the negative response from the public. Telegram's FAQ had once stated in plain text that there would be no ads in the messenger, ever. After the platform had been announced, the FAQ was edited, but the Internet never forgets — and neither do people. And for a company that lists security and privacy as the key features of its product, it is not a good tone to just take their words back like that.

It's all about money

Well, to be honest, there had been plenty of ads and other types of sponsored content in Telegram channels even before the official ad platform was launched. But it was actually users' amateur initiative that produced no revenue for Telegram itself.

And Telegram does need revenue. Firstly, they require resources for supporting and developing the messenger. Secondly, the failed TON initiative cost a lot: the company had to pay nearly $2 mln to the participants of the ICO that the SEC had cancelled.

TON was supposed to be a blockchain-based platform for decentralized apps and services that would support payments and other financial transactions. Telegram’s team had made an attempt to fund it through a closed ICO for high-profile venture investors, but SEC's investigation ended up in recognizing it as securities offer and thus a rules' breach.

Investors still believe in Telegram — a year ago the platform got over $1bln by selling "5-year pre-IPO convertible bonds" to Abu Dabi-based investment funds. But investors want to see revenue too. "A project of our size needs at least a few hundred million dollars per year to keep going", said Pavel Durov commenting on this investment.

Funny, by the way, the TON initiative is still alive and kicking, and more than that, Pavel Durov has recently supported the new independent team that had taken on developing the blockchain as an opensource project. A bold move after TON almost took the whole company down.

In fact, Telegram needs revenue so much, they aren't planning on sharing. Despite the fact that ads were implanted forcefully into the carefully crafted content of the channels who took part in the test, often did not match the content of the channel, were not moderated enough so you could have faced an ad of quite a dubious thing if not a straightforward scam — despite all that, the channels' owners didn't get anything out of it.

The Telegram's team plainly stated that it wouldn't share advertising revenues with the content makers. Well, actually, they said, "Once Sponsored Messages are fully launched and allow Telegram to cover its basic costs, we will start sharing ad revenue with the owners of public channels in which sponsored messages are displayed". A bit of opaque scheme, don't you think?

Meanwhile, Pavel Durov has announced that there will be a paid subscription or some kind of other paid way to shield yourself from ads in Telegram. From ads placed through the official platform in question, obviously. All other numerous ads that people sell to and buy from each other will obviously stay.

More than that, channels' owners will receive the opportunity to buy out ad placement in their channels and thus block selling the spot to advertisers. Well, you know, usually media get paid for placing ads, in Soviet Russia media pays for not having ads placed in them.

What about ad blocking?

The testing of the ad platform has quieted down, we do not know when it's launched officially. But now that money is what Telegram needs in the first place, it's not hard to assume that ads will come in full scale sooner or later. And our job here is to research our opportunities on working with them – and block them all, if possible.

Currently we cannot intercept Telegram's messenger traffic: it is a protected messenger after all. We could block ads within Telegram's web version at web.telegram.org, but there are no ads there (yet). So you can just use the web client for now if you want to avoid those ads at all costs. But we have to add that we are working on blocking ads in Telegram's Android app as well — cannot promise anything just yet, but it's very possible that we will succeed.

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