The last time you encountered a paywall or a landing page asking you to turn off your ad-blocker, what did you do? Chances are you scoffed and lost interest in the content, or looked up a similar article from a more open source. If this was your reaction, you are most likely just one of many, many visitors who were alienated and completely turned off by these tactics.
So, if that’s the case, why are so many media companies continuing to use these methods to generate ad revenue?
Paywalls and Blocking the Ad-Blockers
Media companies are still missing where the real value of their data is. They still believe they are the only ones who can write good copy that people are willing to pay for. However, companies no longer generate value simply by producing content good enough to draw readers to the site. While the content does still need to be amazing, that is the bare minimum needed to be successful today. The value that media companies gain from their websites and their content is actually in the data they can collect about their readers/visitors.
For example, many print-turned-online media companies are still trying to generate income directly from their users, or keeping their content shielded from users who have ad-blocker browser add-ons. For example, Wired.com is still pushing ads on visitors, to the point that they block users with ad-blockers installed, while Forbes.com has mandatory timed ads before it serves any content. Are we to believe that these ads are really the only source of income of these two major publications?
Similarly, the Harvard Business Review uses a paywall that only allows visitors to read four articles for free every month; any more than that and they must start a paid subscription — or users can just clear their cookies, switch to incognito mode, or use many other methods to circumvent the payment requirement entirely. To the savvy reader, both of these strategies (forced ads and paywalls) smack of desperation — the dinosaurs are still trying to charge us for content that everyone knows can be found elsewhere for free!
The Real Value of Data
Meanwhile, look at Google and Facebook, two of the biggest and most successful names in tech today. Nearly every service they provide is free to users, because their revenue comes from the user data they collect.
Content should not be the only revenue stream for a media company, because it’s no longer unique. Users can almost always read another version of the same article for free somewhere else, and they know it. To capitalize on their user traffic, what media companies really need to do is collect small pieces of information on users and then sell it, or use it to sell highly specific, extremely targeted ads that are actually effective. Data about what articles a user reads and other user behaviors can be used to craft and target specific ads instead of blindly serving huge, generic pop-ups and splash banners.
The Value Equation
The main reason people get upset about timed ads before they get to content, a demand (or even just a request) to turn off ad-blockers, or any site that puts up a paywall is because it throws off the value equation — when users expect content to be truly valuable and unique, their tolerance for these types of things is much higher. But when the expectation is that the content is the same as what is readily available somewhere else for free, these tactics are upsetting and offensive.
This mindset and the tendency of users to shun paid content and intrusive advertising is much more extreme in Generation Z and millennials, who are extremely tech savvy and aware of ways around ad-based restrictions and where to find similar content for free. Generation X internet users tend to be more accepting of ads as long as they are not intrusive. Older consumers, who were accustomed to paying for content in the days before it moved to the internet (think Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, etc.) are more likely to value content more highly, and therefore tolerate more of these tactics.
But given the fact that millennials now outnumber baby boomers, and have many more years of consumership ahead of them, media companies ultimately have a couple choices they’ll inevitably have to contend with: 1.) Create truly unique content that is valued highly by the new consumers — and YES, millennials and Gen Zs are very likely to pay for unique content, or 2.) Learn to collect and monetize the data you collect willingly from the readers that enjoy your content, and are comfortable with the value equation you present.
To get started along the right path, you need to be honest with yourself. Ask the question internally, is the content you produce truly unique? And ask your customer base, how valuable do they really feel your content truly is? This hard examination will ultimately help you form a strategy going forward.