Is Blocking Readers Who Use Ad Blockers The Best Strategy?

December 22, 2015, 11:59 PM UTC
Woman at home using computer for online shopping with lots of internet sales adverts outside window
Photograph by Philby Illustration/Getty Images/Ikon Images

There’s a growing trend in online publishing: Namely, media sites blocking users who choose to use ad-blocking software. In the past few days alone, a British publisher and the Forbes business news site have either implemented or are looking at implementing barriers that keep users with ad-blocking software from reading their content.

It’s understandable that publishers might feel under pressure from ad blockers, but is blocking the blockers really the best strategy for dealing with this problem?

British publisher Incisive Media runs a number of sites, including technology-focused site The Inquirer and a financial news site called Risk. The company told Digiday that for sites like the Inquirer, the proportion of users who have ad-blocking software turned on is close to 40%, while its financial sites have usage rates of around 10%.

As a result, the company plans to try a number of different strategies to convince readers to turn off their ad blockers in the new year, including a message that tells them the publisher relies on ad revenue for its survival. The Washington Post has also experimented with similar messages in the past.

Forbes, meanwhile, has already pulled the trigger on its solution: When a reader with ad-blocking software turned on hits a page, a road-block ad pops up and denies the user access to the content unless they turn off the software. If they agree to turn it off, they get access to what the magazine calls an “ad light” experience for the next month.

Matthias Dopfner, CEO of German media giant Axel Springer told the Financial Times that after implementing a similar block at its newspaper Bild, more than two-thirds of users chose to turn off their ad-blocking software. That meant 3 million more visits that could be monetized through advertising, he said.

This was characterized by the Financial Times as “winning the fight” against ad blocking software. And Dopfner has been a vocal critic of ad blockers, to the point where he has launched a lawsuit against the company that makes the most popular blocking software.

WATCH: Are ad blockers ethical? Take a look at this video

But is this really what ad blocking is all about—a fight between publishers and software makers? As I’ve tried to describe previously, the real battle is between readers who want to read a company’s news or other content, and the publishers who clutter up and slow down their sites with dozens of annoying and intrusive ads.

What’s surprising isn’t that people use ad blockers, it’s that people continue to go to websites that offer such a painful experience. The fact that they continue to come, even with ad-blocking software installed, is a sign of how loyal they are to the site in question. Publishers should be trying to figure out how to appeal to them, not how to send them packing.

Sites like The Guardian have experimented with messages that try to educate readers about how much advertising supports the financial health and well-being of the site they are visiting, and suggest donating or signing up for a subscription.

In Axel Springer’s case, this kind of pitch does not seem to have worked. While two-thirds of those who were hit with a block turned off their ad-blocking software, only a tiny number followed the included link to become a subscriber to the Bild news site. Springer also hasn’t talked much about whether it shares some of the blame for forcing users to to turn to ad blockers because of a poor online experience.

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If anything, focusing on the use of ad-blocking software seems to be a case of missing the forest because publishers are so intent on getting rid of individual trees.

The problem isn’t people using ad blockers, the problem is that many websites—and Forbes is high among them—irritate users with popups and auto-playing video ads, and pop-unders, and interstitial ads, and every other format imaginable. What’s more, they use ad trackers to snoop on the behavior of their users, in most cases without telling them.

Maybe if such publishers spent more time working providing an attractive advertising experience for their readers, they wouldn’t have to install ad-blocking blockers at all. Not only would advertising be less annoying, but publishers would gain a better relationship with their readers to boot.

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