Oh publishers, when will you learn?

Of course you need revenue (after all you wouldn’t exist without it). But if you don’t start getting the balance right between ad revenue and user experience you’re going to die a slow and painful death.

A recent study by YouGov found that 15% of British adults are using ad blocking software. The main reason? They find online ads disruptive and annoying. Shocking, I know.

15% may not seem huge, but I can only imagine that figure will increase as more people become aware of this type of software (which seems likely given the amount of media coverage it has been getting recently). 

Why do people find ads annoying?

To get the answer to that question you only need to visit a few websites. And I don’t just mean dodgy little black hat types; I’m talking about some of the largest and best-known publishers in the UK. 

I hate to pick on the Independent because I do generally like its content, but I’m sorry: the display ads on its site are a total joke.

The screenshot of the Independent site below contains no fewer than five types of advert, one of which is an irrelevant video right in the middle of the article text that takes ages to load and then plays automatically.

But the worst part is those enormous vertical banners at the sides that follow you as you scroll. Not only are they visually obscene, they also slow your browser down to the point where it’s not even worth the hassle to scroll to the end of the article. 

Annoying display ads

This next one is just a train wreck.

Annoying display ads

Just so you don’t think I’m picking on the Indy, Sky uses the same annoying side banners, although they don't seem to slow the site down as much as on the Independent. 

Annoying display ads

In the example below from Wired, the article text is actually wrapped around a massive advert. Just stop it. 

Annoying display ads

After looking at the above examples, why would anyone not block ads on these websites if they knew it was an option?

What can publishers do?

We’ve seen the statistics. We know people are blocking ads. So what can we do as publishers to protect our revenue without making our readers hate us?

Here are three things I think all publishers and online advertisers should aim to do:

1. Focus on quality content

You may have seen our recent post about Sourcepoint, effectively a blocker for ad blockers. 

Tempting as it may be for publishers to use this kind of software to protect their revenue, it doesn't get to the root of the issue. A far better plan would be to focus on producing and displaying high quality ads that don’t feel intrusive or annoying. 

This way people will naturally be less inclined to use an ad blocker on your site. 

According to the research I mentioned earlier, only 52% of those who use ad blocking software it to block all online advertising. Not giving the other 48% a reason to specifically block them on your site seems like a good place to start, then.

The Buzzfeed site makes a good case study for this topic (although I appreciate it has the luxury of 200m+ unique visitors a month in traffic). Love it or hate it, Buzzfeed has managed to make an absolute killing without using a single banner ad. 

How does it do this? By creating sponsored content like the example below. 

Buzzfeed ad content

The important thing to note here is that these are not ‘advertorials’ in the traditional sense. They are pretty close to the kind of content Buzzfeed normally posts and don’t promote the sponsor’s products too blatantly.

The posts are produced by an in-house creative team, so there is no danger of losing the Buzzfeed ‘feel,’ whereas ‘advertorials’ (I despise that word) on most sites are written by external PR people. 

Here’s another example:

Buzzfeed ad content

This approach means Buzzfeed can get rid of banner ads altogether, instead publishing revenue-generating content that blends in with the rest of its site.

2. Develop other revenue streams

At Econsultancy we’re lucky enough that we don’t have to rely on ad revenue alone. As a result, we can keep display ads to a minimum on this blog. 

Econsultancy display ads

If your site relies entirely on ad revenue then it might be time to start exploring other ways to make money.

I’m saying this for two reasons: firstly, it is clear that more people are starting to block ads online, which means the earning potential is only likely to decrease over time. 

Secondly, having other revenue sources means you don’t have to be quite so ‘in your face’ with display ads. People will therefore be less likely to block them on your site. 

3. Be open and honest with consumers

I have to step up in defence of display advertising at this point. It’s far from perfect in its current form, but we live in an age where people want (no, expect) content free of charge, and ads largely makes this possible. 

So it is not only publishers that need to change their ways, but consumers of content, too. Blocking ads on your favourite publisher’s site is hypocritical at best. At worst, it’s a direct attack on that publisher’s business. 

The problem is, a lot of consumers probably don’t think about this, not because they don’t care but because they’re ignorant of the facts. 

Publishers should therefore start being open and honest about their business models. They should appeal to their readers not to use ad-blocking software if they want to carry on getting the content they love free of charge. 

Let’s meet in the middle

Of course publishers can’t expect their readers to put up with the kind of nonsense I showed in my examples above. But equally consumers can’t expect their favourite publishers to run for free.

It’s about everyone meeting in the middle, by creating better quality and less intrusive display ads, losing those stalking, browser-slowing sidebars from hell, and then asking readers not to use ad-blocking software in return.

That way, everyone wins. 

Jack Simpson

Published 2 July, 2015 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (5)


Ob io, My title at My company

God I'm tired of idiotic articles like this. Congratulations Jack. You just cloned the last 2000 articles on what publishers can do about AdBlocking.

And in perfectly flawless continuity with your predecessors you misunderstood the problem as well: Millennials want free sh*t. Period.

There's no amount of "good content" or "acceptably tasteful" advertising that's going to prevent them from blocking 100% of the ads on their "free" content.

Let's cut to the chase:

This is a technology arms race. Publishers need to fight back.

And no, it's not just about making really, really good stuff. We do that already.

Ya nimrod.

about 3 years ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Ob, thank you for your comment. I haven't been called a nimrod in many years.

To be honest, what's more boring than people talking about ad blocking is people claiming millennials are nothing but a bunch of selfish, demanding layabouts who want everything handed to them on a plate. I'm sure people said that about the last generation and the one before that, too.

I take your point that certain publishers and advertisers already produce good stuff, and if you're one of them I commend you, but as you can see from the examples above this certainly doesn't apply across the board.

about 3 years ago


Peter Cunningham, Product & Marketing at Buyapowa

Ad blocking is a result of intrusive and irrelevant ads, particularly auto-play videos and banners that cover the entire webpage to such an extent that they prevent you enjoying the content - like those annoying betting ads that even if you "click the 'x' to close" still try and open the app store to get you to download the #@@#!!! app! I imagine if you already have the app it opens it whether you want it to or not! It is not just millennials that want to block ads, everyone is irritated by these tactics.

Ad blocking is a choice web users make that should be respected. Publishers should not try to force ads against the expressed will of their audience. But the same way some websites/services won't work if you block cookies then publishers are perfectly entitled to block access to their content to people who won't accept ads.

Of course the publisher needs to weigh whether it has more to gain from engaged readers, who maybe have created an account and registered an email, who refuse to watch ads but might open emails, read advertorials or watch videos with product placement or even read articles that link out to advertiser sites (like Skimlinks) or even monetise subtle (or less subtle) product mentions in the text or product placement in videos (the same way films needlessly linger for several seconds on the Starbucks Coffee Cup or Miller Lite beer bottle ) ! Remember interruption advertising is only one revenue stream for a publisher.

A better way altogether would be to focus less on interruption advertising but think how to engage with users so that they see relevant messages that they want to share. This means getting customers, friends and followers of a brand to act a conduit to forward messages/offers to people they think will appreciate them. Basically its incentivising and empowering Word of Mouth to break through the advertising clutter and ad blockers. At Buyapowa, we learned that for this to happen at scale you need to mix concepts like smart rewards, gamification, and communal targets but the principle is the same - make stuff people want to read/view and share.

That is not to say interruption advertising will go away. It will always be part of the marketing mix. But with more strings to the advertisers bow such as engaging users via social means ad blocking will be less of an issue.

about 3 years ago

Howard Moorey

Howard Moorey, Founder at Hojomo Group

Thanks for the piece Jack - I haven't seen, or paid attention to "all the others" that our "friend" at the top mentions, so I'm pleased to see you articulating the "challenge" ahead for all advertisers.

Ads are so last century, and most often they come from companies who have agencies to support, and neither of those parties has a blind clue about how to use conversations on social to achieve the same ends as the advertorials - which, as you say, in true Buzzfeed fashion, have no need to be intrusive, so long as they are informative.

Yes, I'm an ad-blocker user, in the main because I have no desire to be sold to. I will buy what I wish to buy, from he/she who informs me best when I am researching for my purchase. In the social world, I see a lot of informative posts, but always tell clients NOT to treat any form of the social media as a replacement for the ads they used to place, but which no longer work. Readers and seekers have moved on, and to some degree, taken back that former high ground.

I get upset when I find the amount of tracking crap on the back-end of a url, such as yours - I just haven't found a suitable crap-blocker yet! If I am to repost/retweet your post, I will usually "reformat" the url back to it's native state before passing it on, because, quite frankly, I haven't got the time or inclination to identify exactly what you are expecting me to pass on to others on your behalf, so it gets cut.

Thanks again - I hope that through posts like this the message will eventually get through that "advertisers" have to find and master new ways which, when far more open and transparent and informative, will more than likely have the desired effect.

about 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Thanks Howard. The tracking crap is merely there to allow us to count visits from social media, nothing sinister.

about 3 years ago

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