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The hidden link between ad blockers and better news consumption

News media and ad blockers are often portrayed as arch-enemies. The common assumption is that ad blockers hurt publishers by depriving them of the advertising revenue they need to survive. The logic behind this is that users are supposedly willing to pay for content by tolerating a barrage of ads that may be intrusive and annoying.

But this logic is being challenged by the growing popularity of ad blockers. About 37% of Internet users now use ad blockers for some or all of their online browsing. This implies that users are not entirely happy with the trade-off between ads and content.

About a third of Internet users use ad blockers

Source: GWI/Hootsuite

One question that is often ignored is how ads affect the user experience in terms of engagement, specifically whether ads discourage users from returning to sites and following the news. Many publishers simply assume that users view ads as a necessary evil and will come back no matter what. But this assumption has never been tested, so a group of researchers took pains to do just that.

The 2022 study called "How does the Adoption of Ad Blockers Affect News Consumption?" compares the news consumption habits of ad blocking and non-ad blocking users, with some curious results. In particular, the researchers found that users who started blocking ads also started reading more articles and about more topics on a news site than those who browsed it without ad blockers. They also found that, perhaps, surprisingly, ad blockers may be a boon for news media. They discovered that ad-blocking users were more likely to return to the site, become loyal readers and hence potential subscribers. This way they could generate more revenue for publishers in the long run if the latter decide to move to a subscription-based model.

Key facts from the survey

For their survey, the researchers tracked 3.1 million visits by 79,856 registered users to a site for a "reputable European news publisher" the caliber of The Guardian and The New York Times. The users were divided into several groups based on their use of ad blockers. One group, dubbed the “control group”, browsed the site without ad blockers for the entire duration of the experiment (16 weeks). The other groups, dubbed the "treatment" groups, started using ad blockers at around 12th week into the experiment (early adopters) or slightly later. The researchers then compared the news consumption of the treatment groups to the control group, and whether the adoption of ad blockers by the members of the treatment groups changed the way they interacted with the site.

Users started to read more news and on more topics once they adopted ad blockers

Source: How does the Adoption of Ad Blockers Affect News Consumption?

The researchers did not reveal the name of the site, but they did share some statistics about its ads. The site had an average of five ads on the homepage and three ads on each article page.

After analyzing visits to the site and pageviews, the researchers saw what they described as “significant and consistent positive effect of ad blocker adoption on news consumption quantity and variety.” Here are some of the numbers they reported:

  • Time spent on the site per visit increased by 47.4% in one week and by 24.3% in five weeks post ad blocker adoption

  • Number of article views increased by 43.2% in and by 21% in five weeks post ad blocker adoption

  • Variety of topics increased by 29.1% in one week and by 13.4% in five weeks post ad blocker adoption

These numbers suggest that news aficionados, armed with ad blockers, were having a better experience on the site, which motivated them to stay longer, read more thoroughly, and explore more topics. This benefits both publishers who want to retain their readers and readers themselves who can broaden their perspective on things.

But why do ad blockers make such a difference? There could be many reasons, but one obvious one is that fewer ads mean less distraction. It is easier to concentrate on the article when you are not bombarded by pesky ads all the time. It is also arguably much more enjoyable to read a piece till the end when you are not interrupted by a pop-up ad midway through the text.

That is what the authors of the research also believe:

This result suggests that ad blocker adoption might have enabled users to devote more attention to the articles they read, even though they did not read more news articles within each visit. In particular, the usage of ad blockers may have affected users’ experience of the site (e.g., by enhancing their enjoyment), thereby encouraging them to visit it more frequently.

Moreover, the opposite is true as well: not using ad blockers means less effective news consumption and potentially also less exposure to different viewpoints. The researchers found that when users stopped using ad blockers, the amount of news they consumed dropped by 25.7%, while the variety of topics they read about decreased by 16.8% after one week.

What to take away from this?

The study suggests that using an ad blocker can boost your chances of staying informed, and since information is power in our time and age, it is not a trivial thing.

For publishers, the study also raises some interesting questions. First of all, it challenges the assumption that ad blocking is inherently bad for business and that ads are the only way to make a buck.

The researchers argue that, on the contrary, “the enhanced engagement of ad blocking users could translate into subscription revenues.” With more and more people using ad blockers, a subscription-based model seems to be a safe bet for the future, while an ad-based one may become a thing of the past (although big tech giants will disagree). The researchers note that ad blocking users are usually more willing to pay for subscription products than those who put up with ads. The study showed that when casual users started using ad blockers, they became more engaged and frequent visitors of the site, turning into “heavy users” who are easier to “convert” into subscribers.

To sum up, using an ad blocker can be a blessing for both news consumers and, surprisingly, news producers. Using an ad blocker can improve the quality of news consumption and create the potential for subscription revenue. So, contrary to popular belief, ad blockers may not be the enemy of the news media, but rather a friend, or at least a bedfellow. As for consumers, ad blockers have always been and will continue to be on their side.

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