In May, Tomas Balžekas dropped a revelation on the crowd gathered at an internet conference in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital city.
Balžekas, the CEO of 15Min.lt, Lithuania's second-biggest news organization, was onstage with Vytautas Benokraitis, the CEO of rival Delfi.lt. He announced that in a month, 15Min.lt would launch a new plan to fight ad-blockers.
It was a risk, said Gabriele Burbienė, the deputy CEO of 15Min.lt. Following the announcement, some media watchers in Lithuania wondered whether 15Min.lt could retain its audience of about 1.1 million unique users per month after adopting an ad-blocking regime. Would they just go elsewhere?
A month later, Balžekas made good on his promise and put up a new defense against ad-blockers. But unlike many anti-ad-blocking campaigns, which feature a pop-up asking users to "whitelist" their sites (essentially allowing them to serve ads), 15Min.lt tried a different tack: They used journalists to appeal to readers directly.
On the first day of June, 15Min.lt published 12 videos that each feature a different member of its staff: Nine journalists, two photographers and one animator. They all make an impassioned plea to readers: Whitelist our site, or pay a €1 per month fee (the equivalent of $1.12) to support our journalism.
The videos are each associated with articles readers are searching for. A story on 15Min.lt's business section, for example, features a business journalist making the case for supporting the site, and so on. Meanwhile, the homepage remains unblocked so users can sample headlines and decide if they wanted to read more.
The goal, Burbienė said, is simple: humanize the struggle to pay for journalism by putting the staff front-and-center. The videos were produced by a creative agency, and each tried to evince warmth and solidarity with the viewer.
"They were saying this in their own words, and they even showed sympathy for people who use ad-blocking," Burbienė said.
The result? So far, about 400 of 15Min.lt's 1.1 million monthly unique users have decided to pony up the subscription fee, Burbienė said. A majority of those users opted to subscribe for a full year rather than six months.
But the number of users that have opted to whitelist the website is way up. Before the videos went live, 15Min.lt served about 500,000 daily pageviews users with ad-blockers. That number has since decreased dramatically, Burbienė said, to 130,000 pageviews per day. It's impossible to tell whether that decline was caused entirely by the videos, but another explanation hasn't manifested itself, Burbienė said.
"We cannot say very precisely of course — they might have also left for other news websites," she said. "But we do not see a decline in readership and a growth in other news websites either during this period."
To understand why the countermeasures were necessary, it helps to understand the state of news consumption in Lithuania, Burbienė said. About 20 percent of the country's 1.82 million internet users use ad-blockers, she said, a practice that makes advertising less valuable for the country's publishers. According to a May report from the anti-ad-blocking company Pagefair, about 22 percent of the world’s smartphone users are blocking ads on the mobile web.
Although 15Min.lt was pleased by the sudden drop in ad-blocking after the videos, the site isn't ready to declare the war on blockers over. The next step is to discern why some users opted to whitelist the site and why some opted to leave.
"We would like to know more about people who still blocked us," Burbienė said. "Maybe they read us on the front page without blocking our articles."
They also want to collaborate with other companies to see if presenting a united front from multiple publishers ultimately convinces more users. They plan to reach out directly to government institutions and companies to see if they'd be willing to turn off ad-blockers en masse, as well.
Those two steps, in combination with the videos, might be enough to turn the ad-blocking tide in their favor, Burbienė said in an email. But based on the preliminary results, she's glad 15Min.lt took the plunge, despite the initial skepticism.
"Brave, innovative solutions are part of our DNA, and we’re not afraid to take risks."
Correction: A previous version of this story cited incorrect pageview figures for 15min.lt. They are daily, not monthly. A previous version of this story also incorrectly referred to 15Min.lt's monthly users. There are 1.1 million, not 1.1. Thanks to Shan Wang for pointing out the error.