Finding Opportunity in Ad Blocking and the “Death of the Free Internet”

A rising number of people are enabling ad blockers and it’s the end of the free Internet as we know it. Lately, there has been a lot of talk on this trend in the digital marketing space, and it’s causing much concern.

Without going too deep into a topic you’ve likely read plenty about already, the rising number of people using ad blocking plugins and apps on desktop (and now, too, on mobile devices) is causing many to worry. As most people know, advertising is the necessary evil that keeps many of the Internet’s websites flashing bright. More people blocking ads means less visibility for those ads, which means less advertising dollars coming into sites that, in some cases, are already having trouble turning a profit. The “end of the free Internet,” as it’s popularly been coined, certainly seems to be approaching—even if we’re not entirely sure what form it will take.

I have a La-Z-Boy reclined in the front row of this event, as I work for a print publisher that relies on selling banner ads as a revenue channel. While we have yet to see any major ad blocker-induced hits, there is enough chatter on the topic in the mainstream to cause concern.

Despite that, we’ve opted to keep our “The End is Nigh!” signs in the closet for now and are using this challenge as an opportunity to actively seek solutions that can not only help us prepare for ad obsoletion, but also help us to strengthen (and in some cases build) revenue channels to make up for (or eclipse) the difference. Here’s what we’ve been looking at.


An oldie but a goodie, we’ve been relying more and more on the tried-and-true survey as a method of figuring out what our audience wants and, more importantly, how they want to engage with our content.

Now more than ever, we’re focusing heavily on building out personas for our reader base—something that we’ve traditionally tried to do with more anecdotal data. Why is this so important for an ad-blocked world? Because it turns out that in the past we greatly misunderstood just how tech savvy (or, rather, not tech savvy) our readership is.

For instance, we’ve historically leaned heavily on device data courtesy of Google Analytics. But it turns out that just because people are reading our content on smartphones doesn’t mean it’s their preferred way to do so. In fact, the results from our surveys have opened our eyes to the fact that many of our readers prefer to read our content in every way but on their phones. This helps us to breathe a sigh of relief (as temporary as it may be), assuring us that maybe we don’t quite need to worry about people blocking ads through their iPhone at this point.

For our next round of surveys, we plan to find out just how tech savvy our readership really is. In the meantime, though, the surveys have helped us to build a solid base for personas. This effort is already informing us about how our content (and the ads sold against it) are faring. It also gives us a great idea of what they want to read.

Doubling Down on Classics

As I mentioned earlier, surveys really opened our eyes to how readers want to digest our content. One of the surprises was how many readers still prefer our print products to digital—which is nice, since those ads won’t be blocked any time soon. What was more interesting, however, were how many people stated that our email offerings are a preference.

This came as something of a surprise, especially when comparing that information to our modest open rates. After reviewing click rates in deeper detail, we were able to add a little more context to the information from our surveys to find out what our readers truly enjoy about our emails and give them more of it. This has led us to begin adjusting our email offerings as a whole—testing everything from frequency to content types to the content quantity.

By making these adjustments, we were able to develop a new deployment schedule, which left us room and resources to start building an offering we’ve long wanted to try but didn’t have the time to invest in: fully sponsored e-blasts. While this is a fairly common offering, it’s something that took some time for us to get off the ground. However, we already have advertisers onboard with the idea and are preparing to launch this new offering in the very near future.

Native Advertising & Special Projects

Like most publishers who deal in print and digital, we rely on native advertising and special projects—think along the lines of sponsored pamphlets and inserts—as a substantial revenue channel. For some, this can be harder to sell depending on the advertising budgets of potential clients who feel safer investing their budget where it can be tracked and quantified with hard data.

However, with ad blockers threatening to render such ads less impactful, publishers are in a much stronger position to sell products like advertorials. These types of offerings are attractive to advertisers because they read and look like standard content or microsites and thus give advertisers their own space to exemplify their value to readers.

If done right, this kind of content is a win-win-win: A win for publishers in the form of new revenue, a win for advertisers in the form of another way to engage potential customers, and a win for readers in the form of content specifically targeted directly to their needs.

Climbing Over the Blockade

So, yes, ad blocks are here, they are sticking around, and they are making things difficult for many publishers. But, like all major challenges, ad blockers present an opportunity to change—perhaps even a much-needed opportunity for change, in this case.

At my organization, we’re fortunate in that we can use this change to strengthen our other offers; some publishers may not have that luck. But opportunity is out there—all you have to do is listen to your readers and customers. And right now, they’re saying that they expect more from you than boring display banners and obnoxious auto-play ads.

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