Behind Ars Technica’s Winning User Experience

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User experience lessons from the Ad Blocker War are shaping both how publishers monetize their sites and the conversations they have with their readers about this. Successful strategies to address ad blocking are emerging and are typically varied. One of the key lessons is that focusing on the user experience challenges that drive ad blocking in the first place, is an effective strategy for improving ad revenues. I’ll explain how in this article, using a case study of a major US tech publication to illustrate the point.

Why is the user experience important?

We recently wrote about how a great user experience boosts revenue in which we explored what we mean by “user experience”. Be sure to read that article once you have finished this one too.

A Great User Experience Boosts Revenue

Mathew Ingram, in his Fortune article titled “Ad-blocking War Escalates as Publishers Block Readers With Ad Blockers”, identified two key challenges motivating ad blocker use.

But is this really what ad blocking is all about—a fight between publishers and software makers? As I’ve tried to describe previously, the real battle is between readers who want to read a company’s news or other content, and the publishers who clutter up and slow down their sites with dozens of annoying and intrusive ads.

In other words, consumers’ concerns fall into two categories:

  1. Poor user experiences.
  2. Little respect for consumers’ privacy.

Respecting consumers’ privacy is as much about making a cultural shift as it is about implementing technological solutions. Consumers tend not to delve too deeply into the protections publishers introduce to protect their privacy.

On the other hand, if publishers can successfully meet the user experience challenge, consumers will be less likely to block ads on their sites and publishers may see a more substantial result. As fewer consumers resort to ad blockers due to poor user experiences, publishers will earn higher ad revenue and be able to continue providing their readers with high quality content.

How Ars Technica’s user-centric approach

I outlined about Ars Technica’s history with ad blockers and its initial strategy of engaging better with its readers in the second part of our Ad Blocker Strategies series.

Ad Blocker Strategies – Publishers Strike Back

Digiday recently spoke to Ars about how this Condé Nast publication has been successfully defusing the Ad Blocker War on its turf. In its article titled “Carrot and stick: How Ars Technica cut its ad-block rate from 40 percent to 25 percent”, Digiday explained the following:

The digital media brand was in a position where ad-blocking rates had reached as high as 40 percent around five years ago. Now it has beaten that figure down to 20–25 percent by deploying what’s increasingly become the standard mix of approaches for publishers: cutting out intrusive ads, running pop-up messages asking people with ad blockers enabled to whitelist the site, and prioritizing page-load speed.

Ars’ approach is multi-faceted and that is increasingly common in the publishing industry. It’s success is largely due to its focus on poorly designed and resource-intensive ads and actively engaging with consumers about the need for ads to support their content.

An important aspect of addressing the site performance aspects of the user experience is ensuring that ad units are as efficient as is possible. This often necessitates open discussions with advertisers and advertising technology companies about optimizations that can be made to improve the overall experience. A useful insight from Ars Technica’s story is its experiences with ad agencies when they discussed ad unit load times with them:

“We often have to go back to agencies when we have performance issues where the ads are slowing pages. I’m often surprised to learn that people making the ads aren’t aware of the performance issues of these ads,” he added.

Publishers like Ars are finding that when they focus on the user experience and address pain points such as page load times and ad design, they will see positive results. Engaging meaningfully with consumers and clarifying misconceptions about how ad revenue supports publishers is also essential.

This user-centric approach was clearly demonstrated when Ars redesigned its website, only to revert to the previous design when Ars’ users pointed out unanticipated performance challenges and dissatisfaction with aspects of the new design:

Yesterday we launched an ambitious new redesign aimed at improving the site’s functionality and performance while putting in place the building blocks for new expansion plans, including secure browsing and more customized layout options.

We have now temporarily reverted back to the old site while we attempt to address a handful of challenges, including a show-stopping code issue that prevented us from even fully activating the site. The problem we’ve encountered did not show up on our staging site, our local mirrors, or even in the low-load test production environment. But once the full weight of the audience showed up, we instantly discovered a handful of problems that we now know are not solvable without some extensive downtime.

Placing the user at the core of your ad blocker strategy

Ars Technica’s insights into what drives ad blocker adoption doubtless fuelled its recent progress towards meeting users’ concerns about ads while maintaining an ad supported business model. The publisher’s strategy highlights the importance of a strong focus on the user experience which includes site design and performance as well as actively engaging with users about their concerns.

Although Ars Technica didn’t release revenue figures, reducing the ad-block rate from 40% to 25% in a market typically skewed towards ad blocker adoption speaks for itself. The message is clear: when publishers focus on the user experience, a solution to the ad blocker was is attainable.

Image credit: Pexels

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