April 3, 2018

Late last year, a journalist started an experiment to see if people would pay for ad-free news.

Ryan Nakashima, a technology reporter for the Associated Press, started working with the Bay Area News Group after getting a $13,000 grant from the Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund. In January, he shared early findings about what it would cost to replace digital ads.

Now, he has another update — letting people leave their ad blockers on actually drives subscriptions. Nakashima wrote about early results on Medium.

"Starting on Feb. 1, we started flagging visitors we detected running ad blockers and showed them what’s become a pretty standard message online: please disable your ad blocker on the site, or subscribe," he wrote on Medium. "There’s one key tweak in our wording: 'with or without your ad blocker on.'"

One hundred and seven people subscribed after clicking that message, and they all got a survey. (Since sending the survey, 155 subscribed in all.) Twenty responded, and all 20 left their ad blockers on.

“No one decided they’d just turn off their ad blocker if they didn’t have to,” Nakashima wrote. “While this could be due to inertia, what’s clear to me is this: When people pay for content, they expect to have an ad-free experience, just like they get at Netflix, HBO, Pandora, YouTube and many other online services.”

The test is a small one, and Nakashima isn’t clear how valuable people who use ad blockers might be as subscribers relative to other subscribers, he told Poynter. Another question – how long do they remain subscribers. That would take a long-term study, Nakashima said, "but now that we’re starting to track churn, we should see relatively soon at least if ad-blocking subscribers seem to be sticking around more than other groups."

These are critical questions to ask, he wrote, as ad rates fall and layoffs keep coming, including at the Bay Area News Group and fellow Digital First Media publication The Denver Post.

“Digital subscriptions, memberships and donations are now among the only bright beacons in a battered news economy,” he wrote.

Next, Nakashima wants to find out how many pageviews ad-blocking subscribers consume to get a better sense of what ad revenue a company is giving up. And he wants to compare the average revenue per user from a variety of subscribers.

"I would like the company to have a really granular view of the value of each of these segments of their audience so they know where to direct their energy and resources," he said. "My hope is to prove that the effort put into fixing the ad experience/reducing ads can lead to happier, longer term customers and create a better, more sustainable business for the publisher."

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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