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Ken Fisher, the founder and editor-in-chief of popular online tech publisher Ars Technica has a message to readers who use ad blockers: you're killing us.

In an effort to defeat ad blockers, last Friday Ars experimented with a technique designed to prevent Ars readers with ad blockers from viewing Ars content. According to Fisher, the experiment was a success "technologically" but not surprisingly, a "mixed bag" socially.

As you might expect, some Ars readers running ad blockers who found themselves cut off were upset with Ars' experiment. Many were not upset by the experiment itself, but by the way it was implemented. But according to Fisher, the experiment was justified:

There is an oft-stated misconception that if a user never clicks on ads, then blocking them won't hurt a site financially. This is wrong. Most sites, at least sites the size of ours, are paid on a per view basis. If you have an ad blocker running, and you load 10 pages on the site, you consume resources from us (bandwidth being only one of them), but provide us with no revenue. Because we are a technology site, we have a very large base of ad blockers. Imagine running a restaurant where 40% of the people who came and ate didn't pay. In a way, that's what ad blocking is doing to us. Just like a restaurant, we have to pay to staff, we have to pay for resources, and we have to pay when people consume those resources. The difference, of course, is that our visitors don't pay us directly but indirectly by viewing advertising.

Sound familiar? It should. It's similar to complaints of record labels, who have equated downloading an album gratis from a peer-to-peer file sharing service as the moral equivalent of walking into a store and stealing a CD. Of course, there are those who argue that such analogies are accurate, but even if we assume for argument's sake that they're right, being right doesn't always pay the bills. And like it or not, every business has to pay the bills.

While I'm personally a fan of Ars' content and can sympathize with Fisher's frustration, I'd argue that the ad blocker problem isn't devastating, but rather potentially helpful. If enough Ars readers are so turned off by ads that they're blocking them and this is impacting Ars' bottom line, Ars should take this as a hint that it needs to reevaluate its business model. Obviously, readers who use ad blockers would otherwise be generating lots of 'wasted impressions' for Ars' advertisers. Wasted impressions I'd hope Fisher would agree reasonably represent a loss (of sorts) to the advertisers Ars is supposed to be helping. Using Fisher's restaurant analogy, one could argue that the advertiser is footing the bill for dinner and Fisher is trying to find a way to get the advertiser to pay for 10 meals when only six individuals are really eating.

Instead of pleading with readers to turn off ad blockers so that Ars can get paid for impressions Fisher knows aren't likely to deliver results for Ars advertisers, wouldn't it make more sense for Fisher to develop a business model that lets Ars monetize these readers in a fashion that's good for all interested parties? Perhaps Ars should be pushing its subscription offering harder. Already, Ars is apparently evaluating offering a monthly billing option for its subscription, something which it surprisingly doesn't offer now but that would probably lead to much higher conversions for obvious reasons. For those who don't want to purchase a full subscription, why not create a cheaper subscription that provides for an ad-free experience and nothing else? If Ars is convinced that subscriptions alone can't drive enough revenue to maintain the organization as it currently exists, there's nothing stopping Ars from experimenting with new ways to integrate advertiser branding into the user experience in a manner that's more acceptable to readers, and thus more effective for advertisers.

Ars' 'nuclear option', of course, is to block ad-blocking readers. It may be an unpopular move, and Ars would probably lose some readers, but it may not turn out to be all that bad. Successful businesses hawk their wares profitably, and therefore many businesses consciouslly refuse to serve potential customers that they know can't be served profitably. Would there really be a problem with Ars refusing to serve readers who refuse to either view ads or buy a subscription?

If there's anything we've learned from traditional media companies, it's this: pleading with consumers is rarely a long-term solution to a significant business problem. From newspapers to record labels, you can't force customers to pay you. They have to want to do it, and that usually only happens when you have the right business model. At some point, all businesses, be they traditional or digital, have to make tough decisions about their business models. These decisions aren't always ideal, but we don't live in an ideal world. The best business model for any business isn't the ideal one; it's the one that maximizes profit. It has been suggested that record labels, for instance, would maximize their profit if they lower the price of their digital music, but many refuse to consider this because they're more concerned about metrics that are irrelevant to profit.

But businesses shouldn't forget that profit is especially important because it's a signal of how efficiently and effectively products are being developed and distributed. If online publishers like Ars forget this, they'll be falling victim to the same backward thinking that has devastated so many traditional media companies.

Photo credit: hoyasmeg via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 8 March, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2381 more posts from this author

Comments (8)

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Bryan

You portray Fisher's article as "pleading" but it did not come off that way to me. I saw it as educational. Certainly a lot of the readers did too - a large number of the comments basically say people didn't realize that Ars gets paid for ad views rather than ad clicks. Large numbers of the newly informed chose to whitelist the site. 

Fisher does suggest that people should consider caring a bit more, at least to the extent that without some form of revenue, the site will contract and possibly die. Still, it seems (to me) far less like a plea than a suggestion: if you care enough to visit a site, don't carelessly block its main revenue stream.

over 6 years ago

Magnus Nilsson

Magnus Nilsson, Managing Director at RED PerformanceSmall Business

Having been in a similar situation when editing a tech magazine, I understand the arguments. Think it's an interesting approach to restrict access for those who block.

I'm not sure about the "wasted impressions" argument though, it's like saying "I don't get influented by advertising". Just because they don't want advertising, doesn't mean it's less effective.

But you got a point in that the way forward is probably to be more creative in implementing branding than purely traditional banners and the like.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Bryan,

Fisher wrote:

If you read a site and care about its well being, then you should not block ads (or you subscribe to sites like Ars that offer ads-free versions of the site). If a site has advertising you don't agree with, don't go there. I think it is far better to vote with page views than to show up and consume resources without giving anything in return.

If that's not a plea of sorts, I don't know what is.

Semantics aside, I will reiterate the point that Fisher is essentially asking his readers to 'view' ads they won't 'see' so that Ars can earn revenue from advertisers, value to the advertiser be damned. Even if you believe that's ethical, I don't see how anyone would believe this approach to be the basis of a sustainable long-term business model.

over 6 years ago

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Scriptwriter

I'm a bit unclear on why it is that ads served are not the same as ads seen. How can they tell whether an ad that gets served up actually gets rendered on the screen? And I'm wondering whether some enterprising soul couldn't come up with an ad blocker that pulls the ads down from the servers in question but immediately dumps them in the bit bucket.

over 6 years ago

Adam Tudor

Adam Tudor, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at The Black Hole

I'm not sure about Ars Technica specifically, but nothing get me wanting to reach for an ad-blocker more than having to wait to load substantial flash ad content for a site.  Not that I have done to date, but certainly understand users that do.


over 6 years ago

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John Ardis, VP at ValueClick, Inc.

The author makes a tremendous leap that the blocked ads represent "wasted impressions." What if the ads being blocked would have represented goods or services that the viewer was genuinely interested in - or could be? This is, and has been, the premise of advertising from the beginning - create awareness, elicit desire, incite action. Further, with the growing prevalence of behavioral and other forms of anonymous retargeting occurring online these days, it's quite possible that the ads a given individual who's blocking would have seen would have indeed been of some interest based on recent past behavior by that individual.

While the points about testing different business models is certainly sound in any environment, I would absolutely argue against the premise that it's required because of a blanket, uninformed statement about alleged wasted impressions.

over 6 years ago

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John Nagle

"Ars Technica" complaining about ad-blocking. That's funny. Most of the stories on Ars Technical ARE advertising. Let's look at today's top stories there.

"Verizon: FCC is a haunted house and can't regulate the 'Net" - press release from Verizon.

"Our digital exodus: we're moving forums!" - trying to drive traffic to their forums.

"Nintendo DSi XL" - new product announcement "Almost half of poor Americans go to the library for Internet" - a plug for subsidized Internet access

"Advertisers hot for iPad, even though details are murky" - PR for iPad advertising agencies.

It's not like Ars Technica has a staff of paid reporters in the field, digging up information that someone doesn't want published. They have nothing to complain about.

over 6 years ago

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john delorian

At the end of the day, if a user is reading http://www.socialnews.biz/tag/Ars%2BTechnica, the least they can do is not use an ad blocker. They're providing free content and you are visiting and enjoying it. Why not just comply with their wishes?

about 6 years ago

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