News

The New Statesman has dropped Network Ads. Perhaps you should too?

Advertising supported business models have been a big part of the web for many years. However, with network revenue per impression dropping, and with its negative impact on reader retention and experience, we've been long suggesting that clients should take a different approach.

News

We’re big fans of New Statesman here at interconnect/it. A part of that might be because they’re a client of ours, using our Standfirst for Kindle product to deliver their Kindle edition to readers easily and quickly, but I like to think it’s more about their other values and excellent writing! So when they announced today that they’re dropping network adverts, I did a little squeal.

Why?

Because many adverts on websites have ruined everything!

If you like, there now follows a fair bit of analysis, charts and stuff. You may wish to skip this and just scroll down towards the bottom where there’s some advice on getting subscribers and paying customers.

OK, that might sound harsh, right? But there’s a reason for this graph:

This chart is out of date. The problem is far worse for publishers today. If you look at the issue demographically, ad blockers are huge with younger users. They don’t see ads the way we all used to ten years ago.

Why do they do this?

Ads became creepy, script riddled nightmares

I honestly don’t like that I investigated a tool for my garage yesterday and now, with adblock off, I see adverts for this tool and rival suppliers all over the internet. The worst is, I made the decision yesterday – I don’t need the tool! But for a week or two now, I’ll see these ads. I’ll see them in my Facebook feed, I’ll see them on Instagram, and I’ll see them on websites. Boo!

It’s a bit like picking up a lightbulb in Asda, being watched by various people with an interest in selling lightbulbs, and then finding them sidling up to me and saying “Pssst… wanna buy a lightbulb? I’ve got some great deals!” For a fortnight. Every hour. Nobody likes this! Sure, it’s all there in the terms of service, but get out of here!

So people who know how, have solved the problem as much as they can. Other people are slowly learning. Some browsers prevent cross site tracking. You’re getting pennies for allowing your competitors to sidle up to your customers and creep them out. Or worse, you’re installing that little Facebook pixel so that your competitors can then advertise, just so you can do the same to them!

I’m sorry, but the ad networks have a parasitic, short termist attitude that has driven away users. There are websites on which I have set it up so that javascript won’t run at all, just so I can actually read the content successfully without pop up videos playing in the corner.

We’ve often been asked by our clients to “make our website faster!” When we looked, we found it *was* fast. As in – it delivered everything to the user in less than 500ms and meant that few web pages would take longer than 500ms to start drawing and appear to be readable. However, when you analyse how a page loads, it gets more interesting. Here are two images from a report I did a while back for a client, showing the difference between their site with and without ad-block:

The site wasn’t perfect, at all. The client had also been asking for lots of features, in a hurry and cheaply. When code is written quickly, efficiency often takes a back seat. When code is written carefully with plenty of time it can be super-tight. However, the images show that the first draw of the page was done 20% faster without adverts… but the document load was just done in about 30% of the time. That perception, where the document has loaded and everything is now smooth in the browser really really matters. Ideally, you push out pages even faster. We’ve just built a SaaS application for a client where a page has typically finished being useful in around 500ms, often less. Things have usually started to happen visibly on a page within 250ms. This is how it looks when analysed in Chrome:

Now for fun, let’s take a look at a website whose adverts I hate… I wasn’t going to name names, but sod it – it’s an energy consuming horror show of a website when it comes to ads. Sure, it’s free local news, and I hugely respect the writers they have and many of their staff. But this approach just isn’t sustainable. In fact, after ninety seconds of profiling, the page started to reload! My CPU fans are now spinning as my machine heats up. That’s crazy. It’s a document with an article in it. How can it be so bad?

 

The above is a horror show. I can’t even begin to work out what the heck is going on. It’s ground my CPU to a halt and made using my computer worse. On a mobile device that means massive battery consumption. It also means more costs for you and your team if there’s an issue with your site as they have to work out which of the many scripts could be dragging things down. I reckon one client we have with lots of ads spends about 30% of their budget on resolving ad related issues.

Meanwhile, people wanting quality journalism will pay, but they should also receive a quality experience. They don’t expect to pay as much as they might for print, and rightly so – your distribution costs are lower when publishing digitally – or they should be. Subscribers are great, and provide you with a steady revenue.

How to win subscribers over

It’s not complex – have a good offering with unique content or data that can’t be found elsewhere for less. And for a subscription proposition, that data and content has to be maintained and managed. If someone is just interested in a set of articles, you should also offer an option to buy short term access at a low cost with no commitment and an easy path to cancellation. I’ve never subscribed to New Scientist, for example, but I’ve spent hundreds on their magazines because I like them when travelling. But when I’m home I just have too many things on to get a regular delivery – they’ll just sit in a pile and it’s poor value for me. I’d probably pay for a week’s access to the magazine’s site for £4, but the smallest unit that appears to be available is quarterly, for £55! No way! So I keep just buying the odd dead wood copy – however, at some point that will be uneconomical.

So key things to make digital sales work are:

  1. Make it super easy to buy in.
    When someone makes the buying decision the forms and subscription offering should be simple to complete.
  2. Low commitment.
    Why do so many magazines expect me to commit to a year’s worth of subscription? Is the data really that valuable? I can rent a supercomputer by the second. I should be able to subscribe by the week or month, ideally. Yes, I know, transaction fees. So give discounts to cover that for longer subscription terms. Simple.
  3. Clear proposition.
    Complex propositions feel like traps to the reader. You’re selling a magazine, not the ownership of a theme park. Keep it simple and obvious what’s being bought and what the ongoing price will be. If it’s £12 for three months on all the advertising but hidden away somewhere is the reveal that it’s then £12 a month, then people won’t trust you. Tesco made this mistake in retail. Aldi, if you notice, play it super straight with very little in the way of 3 for 2 style offers.
  4. Leaky paywalls.
    A leaky paywall allows people to browse some of your content, much as they might in a newsagents, and social sharing can still happen because people won’t hit a hard paywall. Tricky to pull of well, and some people will work their way around it, but people will feel guilty. After all, I could still tape my friends albums as a kid, but I paid for what I could from the bands I loved!
  5. Product bundling.
    You have a portfolio of products with overlapping interests. Let’s say you have a science, an engineering and a technology publication – you could probably bundle them all together and offer access to all three for just 30% more than a subscription to just one. That may not make sense, but if you check you may find that subscribers rarely overlap. If that’s the case the bundling will give great perceived value and increase revenues.
  6. Make it a club.
    People love being in a club if it feels actually advantageous. Find ways to make them feel special. Don’t just take their money then give stuff away through other means – they’ll find it unfair.

How to implement this?

We have experience of working with Piano an industry leader, and our own metering and native paywall solutions as well as many others. Sites like The Lawyer, eConsultancy, FamCap and have had paywalls of different types implemented or coded by us. We can also implement solutions in well developed custom PHP applications. Our firm’s team of software engineers, UX designers and systems architects have created many novel software solutions for our clients over the past twenty years and there are few challenges we’d consider too big to handle!

It doesn’t mean no advertising, however!

You can still make money from ads! What it does mean is that they must be respectful and in line with expectations. If your print ads made reading on paper unpleasant and slow, if they caused energy bills to go up, and if they got in the way of the content, nobody would buy your print products. So it is with the web. Either get that old advertising department up and running again and go for a studio process where you work with advertisers, or pick one or two selected networks to provide native adverts that don’t run a pile of creepy scripts. It’s possible, it’s doable. Again, we’re here to help if you’re stuck on this, but most web developers will know a thing or two on the subject. Give them a call! You may surprise yourselves, and you can try it on a smaller portfolio product first.

We offer free one hour consultations to any publisher during this Covid-19 crisis. If you’d like some help in improving your revenues and retention, please let us know.

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