More than 200 million global internet users have downloaded and installed an ad-blocker on their devices to protect themselves from online advertising, which is becoming more and more intrusive, a study published by WAN-IFRA earlier this month (April 2016) has found.
Alongside case studies and practical recommendations for dealing with ad-blocking, the report also highlighted a worrying fact for news organisations and their relationship with their readers going forward: some publishers are still not “acutely aware” of their audience’s concern with being tracked online.
During a morning panel at Digital Media Europe in Vienna today (21 April), Stefan Betzold, managing director for digital at Bild, Elnaz Esmailzadeh, commercial product manager at Norway's Verdens Gang (VG.no) and Michael Golden, vice chairman for The New York Times Company, discussed their approaches to ad-blocking. All three publishers count display advertising as one of their revenue streams, to one extent or another.
Referencing Thomas Griffith's statement that "journalism is in fact history on the run", Golden said that aside from that being the case, “our business is also changing on the fly”.
“Some forms of advertising that came into play three or four years ago are going out of vogue now,” said Golden, “and digital advertising is not a mature market.”
The New York Times has a global reach of 100 million unique visitors per month, according to comScore data cited by Golden – a fifth of those are outside the US, and 20 per cent of the total number of readers account for 90 per cent of the outlet’s digital revenue. NYT surpassed one million digital-only subscribers in 2015.
“We talked for many years about transitioning our business model from print to digital, but ‘transitioning’ is the wrong word,” he added. “What we need to do is invent a digital business model.”
In March, NYT joined a number of other titles in blocking people’s access to content if they have an ad-blocker installed, asking them to either whitelist the website or subscribe instead.
“So far, we have observed an increase in people’s willingness to whitelist nytimes.com, but we were surprised to find that readers did not associate advertising with paying for journalism,” Golden pointed out.
In the German publishing market, ad-blocking is a huge concern, said Bild’s Betzold.
Twenty-five per cent of internet users have adopted one, according to data from the PageFair and Adobe 2015 Ad Blocking report.
Bild’s total reach across print and digital amounts to 38 million readers and 45 per cent of digital readers come from mobile. Dividing ad blocker usage on desktop by browser, the outlet found only nine per cent of its readers using Internet Explorer had one installed, compared to 35 per cent on Mozilla Firefox, 33 per cent on Google Chrome and 20 per cent on Safari.
Bild’s analysis also showed that use of ad-blockers varied widely according to time of day – higher between midnight and 5am Monday to Thursday, and between 8pm and noon every day of the week including weekends.
Betzold said there are three strategies for fighting ad-blocking – publishing adverts in spite of users having an ad-blocker activated, asking readers nicely to turn ad-blockers off and finally, refusing to give them access to content online.
Bild adopted the latter, choosing to walk readers through the process of turning ad-blockers off as soon as they arrived on the website according to their respective browsers, or asking them to subscribe for a monthly price of €1.99.
“We have seen positive results,” said Betzold. “In three months of using this approach, use of ad-blockers on bild.de dropped by 80 per cent.
“The top concerns for ad-blocking are relevance of ads, page loading speed and tracking. But if five of those trackers come from us, the publisher, and the other 50 come from commercial players in the industry, that is not an issue we as publishers can fix,” he added.
VG.no adopted a similar strategy to Bild, but the outlet also partnered with its national competitors to conduct research into why their readers were keen on using ad-blockers in the first place.
Verdens Gang is entirely funded by advertising, Esmailzadeh pointed out, whereas most of the outlets it cooperated with were subscription-based.
Twenty per cent of its readers said they were using an ad-blocker to “avoid film advertising”, followed by 17 per cent who cited other reasons, such as privacy and preventing Flash and pop-up ads.
Only eight per cent of those surveyed had downloaded ad-blocking software to use on other websites such as Facebook, whereas 39 per cent said their intention was to avoid all advertising on all websites they visited.
In order of importance, readers of VG.no said they would consider whitelisting the website if it removed pop-up ads – “something we didn’t even have”, Esmailzadeh noted, if it served them better advertising or if it removed Flash adverts.
“But only one per cent of them chose to pay for ad-free content,” she said.
Update 21/04: An earlier version of this article included a tweet quoting Bild's Stefan Betzold saying that Bild had asked readers to deactivate ad-blockers and this approach worked for a short time. This was actually the result of an experiment conducted by other German publishers, not by Bild.
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