January 17, 2018

Last month, Associated Press media and technology writer Ryan Nakashima started an experiment on user behavior and online ads. On Wednesday, he published the early results.

“I think we confirmed a lot of suspicions that pop-up ads indeed are annoying and people try to get rid of them as fast as they can,” said Nakashima, who’s continuing work he started as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford.

Nakashima’s working with the Bay Area News Group, which made news earlier this week as its parent company, Digital First Media, announced plans to make more deep cuts to its newsrooms.

Nakashima details the experiment in his post on Medium and spoke with Poynter late last year about it, but the short version is he wanted to see how users behave when a pop-up ad came up and what that said about their other behavior on a site.

The results: 59 percent of people closed the ad pretty much right away. Twelve percent of people clicked through to the ad. The people who either clicked to close it or clicked through the ad were the most engaged.

For the money that ads earn from each user group, a little over a dollar to less than 50 cents, could the Bay Area News Group instead offer an ad-free experience for $1 a month?

Publishers spend a lot more money in other places, including delivering the newspaper, trying to get people to subscribe and offering discounted subscription rates.

“All those things are way more costly than this pretty simple, powerful way of getting people to interact with your product more,” Nakashima said. “I think that should be a key takeaway.”

He’s started looking into fellow DFM publication The Denver Post’s ad-blocker program, which asks users with ad blockers to whitelist the site or subscribe.

One thing he’s learned from the Post’s efforts so far is that the people who use ad blockers, get a message from the Post and turn it off are also very highly engaged with the Post.

“So I think there’s a sort of a niche group of ad blockers that are in fact huge fans of content,” he said.

He plans to do more experiments with the Bay Area News Group, and publishers should be paying attention to the results.

Last week, Facebook de-emphasized news from the newsfeed.

“This is another reason that publishers should tend to their knitting and improve the experience on their own sites and find ways to give people a good experience so they come back,” Nakashima said. “The days of relying on social traffic look to be troubled. It’s a good time to focus on the experience you’re offering from your own site.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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