How adblockers can help grow your subscriptions

We’ve all heard it before, print dollars have been replaced by digital dimes, and it’s only worsening with the increase in readers using adblockers. Globally, 27% of all readers use adblockers, and this figure is as high as 42% in Greece and 34% in France. Since February, Google has automatically blocked the most annoying ads on its web browser Chrome, including prestitials with a countdown and autoplaying videos with sound.

So could this rise in adblockers actually help to drive subscriptions for newspapers? Some publishers think just that; with their insights, learn how to respond to adblockers and grow your digital subscriptions.

Lesson 1: Ask adblocking readers to subscribe instead

Last year Bay Area News Group, a Digital First Media company, experimented with the message to visitors it flagged as using an adblocker. While typically they had only asked for the adblocker to be turned off, now they asked to turn it off or support their journalism by subscribing. During the experiment, roughly 9% of all new subscribers came from this pop-up.

As expected, 100% of the new subscribers chose to keep their adblocker on, according to a follow-up survey. Ryan Nakashima, a John S. Knight Fellow who ran this experiment explained:

“When people pay for content, they expect to have an ad-free experience, just like they get at Netflix, HBO, Pandora, YouTube and many other online services.”  – Ryan Nakashima, a John S. Knight Fellow at Bay Area News Group

He also advises all publishers to at least have a pop-up message for adblocking users, even if they don’t add in the ability to keep the adblock on after they subscribe.

“When you look at the revenue of the people who were turning off their ad-blocker, this amounted to a bunch of people’s salaries. This is significant dollars. Wow. Even if it doesn’t work that well. Even if you don’t have the technical things worked out perfectly. Just launch this. It’s better to launch an imperfect ad-blocker message than to not have one at all.” – Ryan Nakashima, a John S. Knight Fellow at Bay Area News Group

Other results from the survey showed that more than half of the respondents would be willing to pay more for an ad-free version of the newspaper, and all of them agreed that it was important to them to have the ability to leave the adblocker on after subscribing. Based on these findings, Nakashima recommends to publishers that they charge ad-blocking subscribers an extra $1 or $2 per month. Now, the survey had only 20 respondents, but it will be interesting to see this carried out with a larger sample.

Lesson 2: Educate your readers

While it may be surprising to people in the news industry, many readers aren’t aware of the funding challenges faced by newspapers today. This means they do not realise that by using an adblocker on the publisher’s website, they are consuming content entirely for free, content that costs money to produce. That’s why some publishers have experimented with educating their readers in the adblocker pop-up message. The Guardian for example experimented with a message informing readers that the ads fund its journalism, as did The New York Times with a pop-up stating “The best things in life aren’t free. You currently have an ad blocker installed. Advertising helps us fund our journalism.”

“We tell publishers to focus on educating their audiences. Rather than feeling pestered by ads, users should develop an understanding that ads significantly contribute to financing high-quality content.” – Gerald Grünberger, Austreian Newspaper Association (VÖZ)

In Germany, Spiegel Online tested targeted pop-ups based on specific audience segments. For millennials readers, they even went so far as to have a pop-up with a picture of a kitten that said “If you don’t whitelist us, we will kill this kitten”. Then readers were directed to a message saying that clearly they are joking, but that still they need advertising revenue to fund their journalism.

The Financial Times took it a step further, with an experiment in which a random selection of readers with adblockers were shown articles missing a third of its words—roughly equal to the proportion of total digital earnings made up by ad revenue for the Financial Times.

“This solution came up as one that raised a bit of a smile but also helped people to understand the impact and consequences. It was done in a thoughtful way and in keeping with the Financial Times brand, which can be witty. We think it is quite clever and will give us some good results.” — Jon Slade, chief commercial officer at the Financial Times 

Finally, it may also be necessary to educate your readers about the types of ads you have. For example, Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang commissioned a survey to understand why its readers were using adblockers. 20% said they used it to avoid video and pop-up ads. These readers said they would consider whitelisting the website if it removed the pop-ups ads, however VG.no didn’t even use pop-up ads. So by clarifying to readers the type of ad experience they would have, and promising it wouldn’t be intrusive, they were able to convince more readers to turn off their adblockers. Another Schibsted title, Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, surveyed its readers to understand which types of ads they were most receptive to.

Lesson 3: Offer a paid, ad-free experience

Following up on the results at the Bay Area News Group, we see other publishers who are already offering paid ad-free experiences for subscribers. Gannett’s USA Today app offers an ad-free experience for $2.99 per month, while for Salon the ad-free experience is bundled into different offerings, such as Premium which also include video and documentary content. By selling an ad-free subscription, these publishers are able to generate revenue from readers who would otherwise bring in no revenue. Still, there’s the risk of cutting off ad revenue from subscribers, who are usually more engaged and can be monetised through ads more effectively than anonymous visitors.

In 2016, 80% of the top 40 publishers in France took part in a nation-wide push to reduce the number of non-paying, adblocking readers. Publishers including Le Monde, L’Equipe, and Le Parisien banned together to showcase the value of their journalism. Le Figaro took part as well, following a similar approach as the Financial Times. In this experiment, as adblocking users read through the website, the articles became progressively blurrier. By the fourth page, the content was completely illegible, with a pop-up saying that the display problem could be solved by turning off the adblocker or paying for a subscription. 5% of these readers then opted to buy a subscription for an ad-free experience. All readers have benefited from this experiment, as it prompted Le Figaro to do a site-wide cleanup of intrusive ads from its website.

“We have unplugged every single intrusive ad format and external sales house, which has cut $2 million from what we would normally have made. But that’s necessary if you want to continue building a sustainable business. We see it as our duty to do it.” – Alexis Marcombe, chief operating officer of Le Figaro Media

The new startup Scroll will enable a similar experience for readers. With a monthly fee, users will have an ad-free reading experience when they visit participating websites, and the fee will be split amongst the publishers. Launching later this year, Scroll has signed up Gannett, Fusion Media Group, and The Atlantic already.

London business newspaper City A.M., the first newspaper to ban users with adblockers entirely, now uses micropayments in their fight against adblockers. In exchange for 50p, readers can access one day of content without ads.

Lesson 4: Use adblocking pop-up to extract value from readers

As is true in all cases, a known reader is more valuable than an anonymous reader. So another way of extracting value from adblocking readers is to ask for their email address, something the Texas Monthly is currently experimenting with. Of course, being based in Texas meant they did this in a fun way, as you can see from the cowboy!

Now adblocking users can chose to whitelist the site or to sign up for their weekly newsletter. While Texas Monthly doesn’t have a subscription model, for publishers that do, email is a highly effective way of creating reader habits and deepening engagement. Newsletter subscribers are more likely to become paid subscribers—something internal research has shown to be true at many publishers. The New Yorker found that the top sign a reader will become a paid subscriber is if they are a newsletter subscriber, while The New York Times found that newsletter subscribers are twice as likely to become paid subscribers. This holds true outside of the American market as well; French financial newspaper Les Echos found that readers reached via email are more loyal than those who come via social media or search.

Of course, you can also literally extract value from your adblocking readers — which Salon tested by asking readers to let it use their unused computing power, which it then uses to mine for cryptocurrency!

Using adblockers to increase subscriptions

So while adblocking usage is only expected to grow in coming years, with these lessons publishers have nothing to fear. Publishers can use adblockers to increase their subscriptions in four different ways:

  1. Ask readers to subscribe instead of forcing them to turn off their adblockers
  2. Educate readers about the cost of producing quality journalism
  3. Create ad-free, paid-for news products
  4. Get adblocking users into your subscription funnel through capturing their email addresses

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe 

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