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.