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How Forbes Failed: 6 Real Ways Publishers Can Stop Ad Blockers Stealing Their Revenue

It’s a new year, and that means new struggles for digital marketers, advertisers and publishers alike. One of the biggest challenges coming up… How to overcome the evil ad blocker.

For an issue that’s estimated to cost publishers over $22 billion per year (according to PageFair & Adobe), there’s no wonder ad blockers are striking fear into the hearts of even our most seasoned publishers.

[Tweet “Ad blockers are striking fear into the hearts of even our most seasoned publishers.”]

With that number hanging over publishers heads, and with Apple’s decision to allow ad blocking on their mobile products, it begs the question: where to from here?

Admittedly, I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say:

“I am one of the evil ones. I use an ad blocker as if my life depends on it.”

But, I’m also a content marketer and I understand and appreciate the necessity display ads have for most publishers as a business model. That was, until one of the biggest online publishers (here’s looking at you, Forbes), decided to completely shun the sizeable chunk of their audience who have an ad blocker installed.

While they do it ever so nicely:

How To Stop Ad Blockers Stealing Your Revenue - Forbes Example

The Content Marketing Institute discussed this heavy-handed approach in their podcast. It really boils down to the fact it seems like a shotgun approach from a publisher that just isn’t quite sure (even after rigorous testing) what to do about a problem that is costing them integral revenue.

For the sake of publishers everywhere, I’ll agree we need to come up with a solution.

To come up with a solution, I think it’s easier to have a look at why we have an ad block epidemic in the first place. That boils down to two words.

User. Experience.

People use ad blockers because they don’t like using websites when there is gaudy, in your face, tracking ads cluttering them. Steve Carbone from Mediacom told Adweek:

“We’ve created this problem together. It created a bad experience, and users are now voting everybody off the island.”

That’s exactly what’s happening.

Let’s not just talk about the problem – what exactly are the solutions publishers can put in place to fight ad blockers?

  • The heavy-handed Forbes blocking approach.
  • Have a conversation with your audience.
  • Pay wall/premium content without ads.
  • Work with ad blocking software to establish ‘acceptable’ ads.
  • Pay ad blocking companies to ‘whitelist’ your publication.
  • Native advertising and sponsored content.

From this list, it’s pretty clear to see there are some solutions that will work better than others. Ultimately – it’s up to the publication and figuring out what will work with your audience/consumers after rigorous testing.

Here’s a breakdown of each solution for you:

The heavy-handed approach

As we’ve discussed, this approach alienates a key number of your potential consumers. As the CMI podcast so eloquently put it, this is ultimately telling your audience “hey, we can’t stop you [from using an ad blocker]… But if you do turn off your ad blocker you’ll get a less shitty version of our website.”

This is the worst solution you can employ; however tempting it seems. By completely stopping people who use ad blockers from accessing your content, you’re putting all your faith in an out dated business model, and are ultimately refusing to innovate in the face of adversity.

No Innovation - Forbes vs Ad Blockers

It’s like when you’re a kid and a game you’re playing doesn’t go your way. Instead of working it out, you throw a tantrum and yell: “I’m not playing anymore!”

The goal for publications is to understand their audience and try to monetise them. If you just neglect a portion of your audience (those who use ad blockers), you’re cheating yourself and your revenue stream.

In the era of content marketing, consumers have a wealth of valuable websites where they can access information of the same quality without having to deactivate their ad blocking software. It boils down to this: if it’s too hard for a consumer to access your content, they’re going to go elsewhere.

[Tweet “If it’s too hard for a consumer to access your content, they’re going to go elsewhere.”]

If you’re leaning toward doing this, do it with caution. By telling people what to do and how to use their browsers, you run the risk of creating more enemies than friends.

Have a conversation with your audience

In the spirit of being open and forthcoming, there is the option of taking the time to explain to your audience that your business model relies on advertising. By opening the dialogue, you may be able to convince them to access your site with acceptable ads included, or with their ad blocker completely disabled.Defeat Ad Blockers - Have a Conversation

The key difference with this solution is that you are respecting your audience enough to give them the choice on how to access your content.

This may be as simple as recognising when someone is accessing your site with an ad blocker and initiating a splash page that reminds them of the fact that advertisers support your premium content, and asking them to add your website to their ‘acceptable ads’ list.

Alternatively, you can place notifications in the spots where ads would normally be present. Stock Imagery site Pic Jumbo does this really well and has even convinced me to turn off my ad blocker when accessing their website.

How To Stop Ad Blockers Stealing Revenue - PicJumbo

Get creative with this one. Take the time to understand your audience and implement something that will work with them. Remember: A/B testing is your friend.

[Tweet “Take the time to understand your audience and implement something that will work with them.”]

Yes, you’ll still get people accessing your site with ad blockers enabled, but having that conversation may position your publication as ‘trustworthy’ in their minds – giving you the upper hand when trying to convince them to whitelist your website.

Additionally, you may even educate a few people that they can indeed ‘whitelist’ websites they want to support – a feature of their ad blocking software they might not be familiar with.

Pay wall/premium content without ads

Defeat Ad Blockers - Pay WallThis is a popular option with most mainstream news outlets, but it also has its drawbacks. Since we mainly see this option implemented by established news outlets, it may not be suitable for small/niche publications.

If you’re not familiar with what a pay wall business model is, it is where publishers only make their content available to people who have bought a subscription to their website. This gives publications the ability to keep earning money, and it’s a great way to mine data on your audience.

However, if you are a niche publisher, it’s safe to say that this model may not be viable for you. For one, it is heavily reliant on brand loyalty. If you want people to exchange their hard earned dollars for your content, they have to know, trust and like you before they will even consider it.

[Tweet “If you are a niche publisher, it’s safe to say that a pay wall may not be viable for you.”]

Bear in mind that the conversion rates for pay wall/freemium models are quite low. This means if you don’t have a large audience or high traffic, you’re not going to make a significant amount of revenue from a pay wall.

If you’re charging people to access your content, there’s one big thing you have to keep in mind: quality. If you want people to pay for it, you need to be 110% committed to keeping your quality as high as possible. Take for instance popular online newspaper in the UK, The Sun – they just recently disabled their pay wall due to poor performance.

All in all, unless you’re a large mainstream news outlet the brutal truth is that a pay wall may just not work for you. If you do think you have the audience and the traffic to warrant one, my advice would be to: test, test, test. Don’t just drop a different business model on your audience and expect them to be okay with it. Dip a toe in the pool to test the temperature before you jump in headfirst.

Work with ad blocking software and advertisers to establish ‘acceptable ads’

The reality of digital advertising is that in order to be effective it needs to add value to the consumer’s life. This is where most advertising campaigns are going wrong – they are now about ‘trickery’ and terrible campaigns designed to win over a customer at any cost.

Terrible ads are why ad blockers were invented, and why people choose to keep using them.

[Tweet “Terrible ads are why ad blockers were invented, and why people choose to keep using them.”]

If we can create ads that are more compelling for the audience, we essentially erase the entire need for people to use ad-blocking software. The fact remains: if we have more valuable advertising that doesn’t impinge on the usability of a website, users have less need to use an ad blocker.

Take for example the rise of advertising in podcasts. Instead of people skipping over the ads, one company has worked with advertisers to create ads that are just as compelling as the actual podcast content. Listeners have no need to skip the ad because it’s adding real value to their lives.

This is where we need digital advertising to be.

Ad blocking software has caught onto this idea and most of the large apps have integrated an ‘acceptable ads’ list or a whitelist that advertisers can apply to be on based on the fact that their ads meet the apps requirements.

It may be a little backward letting ad blocking software have a say on which ads do and don’t meet the criteria – but it’s a large step in the right direction. Having a conversation with ad agencies about what’s valuable for an audience is going to help publishers and their audiences in the long run.

As Ben Williams, the maker of Ad Block Plus, told Adweek: “Blocking ads doesn’t necessarily mean users [are] refusing to see all content from advertisers, but voting with their feet – annoying ads should get blocked, so that only ones that aren’t annoying actually work.”Defeat Ad Blockers - Acceptable Ads/Whitelist

The problem with that, however, is that most ad block users simply block all advertising. Full stop. No questions asked. But, the more valuable advertising we see – the more people may start to choose what advertising to consume and what advertising to block.

No matter the size of your publication, you can open up the conversation with your advertisers to ensure your audience is getting nothing but the best from you. Ad blocking software, and your audience, will thank you for it.

Pay ad blocking companies to ‘whitelist’ your publication

This is a band-aid approach instead of a real solution. Not to mention, it doesn’t sit well with me from an ethical point of view. But, it is an option and this article is all about presenting the solutions…

Steve Carbone from Mediacom told Adweek that this whole idea reeks like extortion: “I don’t want to be in a space where publishers are paying to be whitelisted. I want the publishers to be whitelisted because they’re doing the right things.”

That’s exactly the way that publishers should be looking at it.

I recommend forgetting about this point and focusing your attention on point 4 – working with ad blockers to create acceptable ads that will pass through their ad blocking software.

If you pay ad blockers to whitelist your publication, you run the risk of harming your relationship with your readers. If a user is running an ad blocker to specifically avoid all ads, but they get to your site and see over the top display ads, that person is going to have an extremely negative experience consuming your content.

[Tweet “If you pay ad blockers to whitelist your publication, you could harm your relationship with readers.”]

But, in the spirit of giving publishers all the options, this is indeed something you can consider. I would think long and hard about it before approaching ad-blocking creators, though.

Native advertising and sponsored content 

You know what they say; you leave the best until last. This is by far the best solution publishers can put into place and will please advertisers, consumers and publishers. Imagine a world where you can keep everyone happy!

Imagine this: a person is accessing your site with an ad blocker enabled. When they get to your site they are faced with 50% more sponsored content and native advertising. They don’t have any in-your-face ads, but they’re still consuming branded content that is a source of revenue for your publication. And, most importantly, they’re okay with it.

No bad feelings for your publication, no bad feelings for your advertisers, and you get to sit pretty knowing your native advertising program is achieving results for brands.

Based on the fact your sponsored content is good sponsored content, you’ll hit the sweet spot in terms of pleasing your audience and your advertisers.

[Tweet “If your sponsored content is good, you’ll hit the sweet spot.”]

Amazingly, only under 8% of people can actually recognise when they’re reading sponsored content– so, even when you get those diehard ‘ad-haters’ you can fly under their radar.

Take for example the New York Times and a piece of sponsored content they ran promoting Season 2 of popular Netflix show Orange Is The New Black. The piece of content was engaging, well researched and well written. The example of what a piece of sponsored content can do.

Defeat Ad Blockers - Sponsored Content - New York Times example

Even PBS in America is an example of a media outlet using this model. It’s a commercial-free environment, but it’s clearly sponsored by certain brands. They make it clear that sponsorship is how they can deliver quality content with no ads. And, it’s working.

Essentially, you want to recognise that the segment of your audience using an ad blocker is an entity in and of itself – meaning you need to cater to their needs if you want to have them continue to visit your site.

I’m not saying that brands should: ‘go forth and create more branded content just because it can’t be blocked’, because we all know sponsored content is an amazing content marketing tool by its self. But, it is one way to help publishers innovate on their current business models.

But – publishers also need to bear in mind that ad blockers could potentially stop native advertising in the future. It all depends on their coders and how they want to approach this. I personally think that blocking native advertising is a touch too far, but anything is possible.


At the end of the day, we need to remember it’s not our audience’s fault for using an ad blocker. If we want to have any chance of solving this problem, we need to have a good hard look in the mirror and see what’s making our audience want to use an ad blocker in the first place.

[Tweet “We need to see what’s making our audience want to use an ad blocker in the first place.”]

Do you have another tip for publications struggling against ad blockers? Let us know in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you.

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