Daily Miracle 2.0: Clean Ads, Native Ads, No Ads

By: Peter Marsh


Your typical news website takes almost eight seconds for a page to load. That same page loads in less than two seconds when an ad blocker is installed on the visitor’s desktop or mobile device.

When someone is trying to access news media content, a gluttonous 60 percent of page load time is taken up by ad technology and tracking software running on the site. Put another way, only 20 percent of page load time is spent serving up the news, sports, business, or entertainment content that the visitor came for in the first place.

Is it any wonder that nearly half of all visitors to news media websites regularly use ad blocking software? For those cherished 18- to 24-year-old readers, the percentage is even higher. This, according to a study of 20,000 news consumers in 12 countries conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Oxford University. As the study notes, consumers are fed up with “advertising and the interruption it causes to their reading experience.” One study participant summed it up succinctly when she said, “Online ads are obtrusive, obnoxious and annoying.”

With an estimated 200 million monthly users of ad blocking software, publishers lost an estimated $22 billion in online advertising revenue in 2015.

We recently surveyed a group of news media executives and asked them “What do you think is the main reason your customers use ad blockers?” The top answers echo the site performance problems – and the associated annoyance factor – cited above:

  • Web and mobile page load times are faster when using an ad blocker (47 percent)
  • Customers hate intrusive pop-up advertising (13 percent)
  • Customers fear malware or viruses when clicking on an ad (9 percent)
  • Ads that refresh cause problems with customers’ browsers (3 percent)
  • Other or unknown reasons (6 percent)

What’s working today in the war on ad blockers?

In our survey, we asked publishers to identify one or more alternatives to ad blocking that readers might find acceptable. Over 40 percent of respondents said that readers would not block native advertising if the sponsored content is relevant to the page they are reading.

Good native advertising is proving to be an effective antidote to ad blockers. One reason is technical; another is qualitative.

At a technical level, almost all ad blocking software programs work pretty much the same way. They check where things are coming from when loading a page and block anything that comes from so-called “blacklisted” domains. This is effective because most ad networks use the same domain names to serve up their ads. When an ad coming from one of these domains attempts to load, the ad blocker blocks it and the site visitor never sees the ad.

With native advertising, however, publishers can run native ads without any reliance on these external domains. Publishers can create and publish sponsored advertising content using the same internal systems that are being used to serve up news and information content. There’s no need to worry about blacklisted domains. Very simply, most ad blockers won’t try to block native advertising because it is coming from the same domain as the rest of the site.

PubNation recently noted that 71 percent of native advertising was not blocked by ad blocking software. And, at a qualitative level, readers are much more willing to accept native advertising because it does not interfere with their reading experience. Readers are also increasingly likely to engage with a native ad if it provides valuable information that is contextually relevant to the adjoining news content.

Our publisher survey mirrors a recent consumer study conducted by one popular ad blocking software vendor, Adblock Plus. As reported by Nieman Lab, 65 percent of Adblock Plus customers surveyed said they’d be willing to see advertising if it wasn’t intrusive. “It can’t pop up, pop under, or be deceptive,” says the Nieman report. “It must be labeled correctly, should not have attention grabbing images, and should not disrupt your reading flow.”

Labeling is crucial here. Good native advertising must be clearly identified as “Advertising.” Readers feel duped when they are reading something they think is news content, only to discover at some point that it’s really an ad. This is exactly why content discovery platforms like Taboola, Outbrain and Gravity have such low clickthrough rates. These products, which are sometimes incorrectly referred to as native advertising platforms, seem to have abnormally high bounce rates. People often click on the sponsored links once, then rarely if ever return.

Paying for an Ads-Free Experience

In our publisher survey, 37 percent of respondents felt that readers would pay for a subscription to their news site if the site contained no ads. Another 23 percent said that readers would pay for a “light ads” site limited to four ads per page.

Publishers around the world are experimenting with ads-free and light advertising subscription models. The online jury is still out on whether these programs will prove successful. One major Swedish publisher, Aftonbladet has been able to stabilize the percentage of users with ad blockers at 22 percent by offering an ads-free premium subscription model. The Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune introduced a premium membership option last July, where subscribers get an ads-free online experience for $9.99 per month. In addition to access to sltrib.com “with no commercial interruption,” subscribers receive daily newsletters and Top Headlines emails, as well as priority admission to a series of live events.

Most recently, Narcity Media in Toronto and Montreal started asking visitors with ad blockers to log in to the sites using their Facebook accounts if they want to read the content ad-free. Narcity believes the value in this model comes from the data it collects about the readers who sign in. With Facebook’s log-in feature, Narcity gets access to the names and some demographic information of the readers who access the sites in this manner. Although the data it receives from Facebook is limited, the publisher hopes this information will allow Narcity to better personalize content for logged-in readers with more relevant articles and targeted native advertising content.

The plan appears to be working. Narcity signed up 1,500 new user registrations the day after this ads-free feature launched, and more than 11,500 new users overall.

Speaking of personalization, our own survey found that 30 percent of publishers believe people will be more likely to turn off ad blockers if the ads are targeted or personalized specifically for the reader.

The Clean Ads Approach

It goes almost without saying that readers find intrusive ads to be the most annoying. This includes pop-up and pop-under ads, homepage takeover ads, display ads with audio, pre-roll and mid-roll video ads, expanding ads, and interstitial ads that dominate the screen as a reader goes from one page to the next.

On the other hand, the least obnoxious ad formats receive the warmest response from ad blocking users. According to the recent Adobe/PageFair report, over 60 percent of people who currently block ads expressed some willingness to accept still image ads, text ads, and even skippable pre-roll video ads.

Ad blocking software companies like Adblock Plus have introduced the concept of “acceptable ads” as a whitelist compromise to those blacklisted ad serving domains. An acceptable ad is defined as one that appears above the fold on a website, as long as the ad does not occupy more than 15 percent of the visible portion of the web page. For ads appearing below the fold, an ad must not occupy more than 25 percent of the visible portion of the page. Acceptable ads must go through an inclusion approval process in order to be whitelisted by Adblock Plus.

While this whole process might seem fairly complicated, there’s a new company called Brave Software that’s come up with a model to put the user in control of the ad blocking experience. With the Brave browser installed, users have three options: (1) accept ads and tracking; (2) block all ads; or (3) accept the Brave clean-ads model, which it calls “Replace Ads” and which is the default. Using the Replace Ads options, Brave will insert clean ads onto a web page after other ads have been blocked, without hurting page load speed. Brave chooses these clean ads based on browser-private user data that includes no remote tracking.

Founded by Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript and CTO of Mozilla, the Brave Software model sounds like one to watch for news media publishers everywhere. When asked if publishers will be required to pay in order to be part of the Replace Ads program, the site’s FAQ page says, “No, we block without reference to any business relationships, and our brand value depends on us doing so. We will not take ‘pay to play’ money from advertisers or publishers, or extort publishers with blocking threats. Our goal is to make better revenue for all publishers, and give users better ads and control of their data.”

This approach certainly sounds consistent with the findings in our own survey. With over 69 percent expressing moderate to serious concern about the impact of ad blockers on 2016 revenues, news media executives tend to agree that the best strategy to defeat ad blocking is a two-pronged attack consisting of better advertising and better user experience. For a copy of the complete ad blocking survey results, please write to info@newscycle.com.

Peter Marsh is the VP Marketing, Newscycle Solutions. Daily Miracle 2.0 discusses the challenges, opportunities, trends and technologies impacting news media companies in the evolution from daily ink-on-paper products to round-the-clock digital offerings delivered in print, online, on tablets, and across mobile and emerging channels.

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Published: February 24, 2016


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