The recession and weak ad market have led many well regarded businesses to ask their customers to reach into their pockets and pay a little (or more) money to their cause. But guilting users into opening their wallets is not a long term fix.
This week, Ars Technica CEO Ken Fisher conducted an experiment with ad blocking software, in efforts to get readers to start interacting with the ads on his site. My colleague Patricio Robles has written about the mixed reaction to Ars Technica's plea. But now it turns out that Fisher's efforts have helped the site's bottom line.
According to NeimanLabs, "Ars Technica’s 'experiment' with ad-blocking readers built on its community’s affection for the site." According to data from IP addresses, "25,000 users whitelisted the site in a 24-hour period — evidence that the goodwill the site has built up with its audience could be converted into user acts of generosity." In addition, 200 users signed up for Ars’ premium accounts at a cost of $50 annually or $30 for six months.
Ars' premium accounts offer additional features, like ad-free viewing, printable PDFs and special access to community sections. But many people aren't paying Ars Technica for those features. As NeimanLabs writes:
"Fisher notes that many subscribers just feel a sense of obligation, not a desire for premium features. 'We get many people who subscribe just because they love us. They just want us to survive.'"
Asking ardent loyalists to pony up can be a way to bring in some additional dollars. Donations work for non-profits like NPR, and as I wrote last week, Roger Ebert is now asking his readers to join The Ebert Club to help subsidize his web endeavors.
But it's not a dependable way to get revenue. As Patricio wrote:
"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."
Large brands looking to get into online subscriptions need to keep in mind that subscribers can only be depended on paying for brand affinity on a limited basis. And while a publication like The New York Times may be able to get some devotees to donate money to its cause, the more users are leaned on for support, the less they're likely to give. Hulu is another site looking into freemium subscriptions. And while the video site is incredibly popular right now, if it doesn't provide paid customers with content they want to pay for, that goodwill isn't going to last very long.
After awhile, continued pleas for money start looking like an NPR drive for supporters. And depending on consumers' generosity is not providing value in a positive way. The success of a freemium model depends on actually offering something that people want to pay for. Not something they are guilted into doing.