James Cridland

“Give me an alternative to ads, and I’ll pay”

An experiment in offering alternatives to ads on the web

I’m prompted to write this after reading this excellent article about how bloated The Verge is. In short: The Verge is bloated with a massive amount of cruft — over 7MB of JavaScript per page — and it’s all advertising’s fault.

A commenter called Craig Maloney said that this was the reason why he ran adblockers. Owen Williams commented:

Blocking everything because “it’s all bad” is a pretty entitled way to say ‘I don’t want to pay for the content I read’.

He responded with:

Oh but I do want to pay for the content I read. I pay for Reddit and Ars Technica because they give me an option to pay for that content. What option do you give me?

I run a website which is funded by advertising. And I had a long and relatively unpleasant argument with a man called Andrew Dubber many years ago, which he helpfully put onto Storify so that you can see the futility of trying to have a nuanced discussion on Twitter. He, too, made the point (at some stage, in some place) that if there was a different way of supporting my website that wasn’t advertising, that he would do it. “What option do you give me?” could easily have been a quote from him, too.

From April, I’ve been giving people that option.
And here’s what happened so far.

Visitors to media.info now see, next to all advertising, a “Go Pro” offer to remove all advertising from the site. A typical page has three Google AdSense ad units on it, and article pages have “more from the web” style ads too. (Thanks to EU VAT rules, it’s difficult to offer this to people outside the UK so “Go Pro” is hidden for them: but most visits are from the UK anyway). Clicking through gives more detail of “going pro”, a price of £5.99 for a year, and a credit card payment button. “Pro” here works entirely automatically and flawlessly, via the Stripe API.

Visitors to media.info who use an adblocker — now 22% of all page impressions, by the way — see a big red notice with friendly words and a link to a PayPal account, where they are asked to make a donation for whatever they like. EU rules mean I need to give 20% of a “donation” to the VAT man if they are in the UK, and heaven knows what from other EU countries. “Pro” here is a manual process for me to edit a user record.

The website has 127,000 visits per month. Not massive, but not tiny: and certainly a good sample size. I ‘comped’ a few users as ‘pro’ to get the ball rolling; all posts from them are marked as being from a pro user.

Three months on, how have sales gone?

Total sales: 2.

Two people have bought a “pro” account. I have earned a total of about £11 (one was in the UK, one in South Africa). My own time coding the feature was free, but naturally got in the way of writing better content, so there’s a cost involved there. The payment system meant moving the site to https which has cost considerably more than £11 in ads and traffic. I’d have done it anyway in time, mind you.

More interestingly, both people who bought a “pro” account have done so on PayPal. Which means that they saw the “go pro” message in a window that only people running adblockers see. Not a single person has purchased “pro” as a result of seeing ads they wanted to remove.

So, when people say they want an “option” to support an ad-funded site in other ways than seeing ads, my detailed analysis is as follows:

No, they don’t. They just want free stuff.