FanGraphs.com has become a favorite of the baseball-obsessed, with its data-backed insights about the art and science of baseball. But some readers have become so fed up by the site’s ad experience that they considered walking away entirely. Twenty percent of the site’s page views are blocked by third-party software, in the, ahem, ballpark of the industry average.
Rather than encourage readers to use ad-blockers, the publication in early January introduced ad-free memberships for $50 a year. A monthly version may also be coming, according to David Appelman, who launched the site in 2005 and still runs it.
FanGraphs averages about 1 million monthly unique visitors, many of whom are highly engaged, participating in daily chats with staffers and leaving comments on blog posts that can range from the somewhat specific (“The Mets Haven’t Done Enough”) to the extremely specific (“Aaron Nola Has Baseball’s Best Curveball”).
Readers also have long complained about the ads on Fangraphs.com, which works with ad networks, so the ad quality is more or less beyond the company’s control. “It got to the point where you debated about whether or not it was worth the bother to access the site, particularly on mobile,” one wrote in the comments of a blog post recently.
Appelman said there are no plans to block ad-blockers from accessing the site’s content, as other sites have done, but when FanGraphs launched the ad-free membership, it served messages to people using ad blockers to subscribe for the offering in place of ads.
Early returns on the ad-free membership option have been promising. Appelman said he has a target, which he wouldn’t share, for memberships that will reduce his company’s dependence on advertising.
Many online publications today are casting about for ways to get more money from readers as the fight for ad revenue becomes harder. Few publishers have succeeded in getting people to pay, though, whether for content or ad-free content, with all the free online content and ad blocking software available to them.
Other publications that have recently tested ad-free memberships include Wired and The Atlantic. Wired a year ago introduced ad-free access for $1 a week; the company said last spring it was going well. The Atlantic in October began offering a no-ad option for $4.99 a month, which a spokeswoman said was “exceeding our expectations.” The ad-free model has had limited success, though.
Keith Hernandez, who most recently served as president of The Slate Group, said people see more value in being able to skip commercials on a streaming site like Hulu, which charges subscribers an extra $4 a month to do so, than in paying to have the ads stripped off a news site. There’s also the potential to turn off advertisers by allowing readers to bypass ads.
But Charlie Fiordalis, chief digital officer for independent media agency Media Storm, said he’d think more highly of a publication that gave readers the option to see no ads. “It puts the equation out front. People have to look at ads because the publication costs money to run. If they don’t want to look at the ads, they can pay,” he said.