How Germany's Gruner + Jahr is winning the fight against ad blocking

German publishing giant Gruner + Jahr’s tough line on ad blocking appears to be working.

Since November, the parent of news title Stern and hundreds of consumer magazines has been barring ad-blocking software users from desktop content on its special-interest title, Geo (its equivalent to National Geographic). In the last few weeks, it deployed the same method for three other special-interest sites: food and recipe site Essen&Trinken and two interior design magazines, including Schöner-wohnen.de.

The test was first introduced on Geo.de. Messages were served to ad-blocker users, telling them to deactivate their ad blocker to view an article or buy a day’s access for 50 cents ($0.55) or a week’s for €2 ($2.22). The homepage was still accessible.

Before the ban, 22 percent of Geo’s audience used ad blockers, said Oliver von Wersch, G+J Digital’s managing director of growth projects and strategic partnerships. Three months later, that portion has dropped by 35 percent, with no loss of overall traffic apart from the expected seasonal fluctuations during the Christmas holiday, he said.

Encouraged by the early results, the publisher extended the same ban and payment offer to the three other titles in the past few weeks. They’ve seen results even faster: One week after rolling out the ban, the use of ad blocking on Essen&Trinken dropped by 30 percent, with the others seeing similar results, according to von Wersch.

The titles’ female-skewing audiences aren’t the typical ad-blocker users, who lean male, which von Wersh said could be a factor in the quick results.

The other part of the offer was the micropayments. Other publishers including GQ are exploring this option, though there’s skepticism about how much revenue it can deliver. Von Wersch conceded that the number of people who took this option has been in the “hundreds, not thousands.” But visitors to those sites come on a weekly or monthly basis, not daily, so the publisher didn’t expect big results overnight. And since the goal was to get them to switch their ad blockers off entirely, he’s OK with that.

“It’s not like the ‘big bang’ in terms of reduction. It would make more impact on daily news websites,” he said. “You have to be patient.”

It’s easy to see why German publishers are taking a tough line on ad blockers. Germany has one of the highest ad-blocking rates in Europe along with Poland and Portugal, with 42 percent of 16- to 34-year-olds online using an ad blocker, according to GlobalWebIndex.

Axel Springer’s German tabloid Bild was the first European publisher to enforce a blanket ban on ad-blocker users last year, telling them to deactivate the software or subscribe for an ad-free experience. It saw two-thirds switch off their ad blockers, creating additional “marketable visits” the publisher could sell ads against.

G+J’s hasn’t gotten many complaints over the ban, von Wersch said. “A large part of them understand that to pay our editorial staff, we need advertising. All the nerds out there usually come at you heavily, and the people who accept the [ad-blocking] solutions don’t comment at all,” he said. Some consumers are put off by the business models of the ad-blocker vendors, too, he said.

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The payment options on Schöner-Wohnen.de are similar to that of Geo.de, which charges 50 cents for a day pass, €2.50 for a weekly one.

But what works for one title doesn’t necessarily work for another. G+J will face a bigger test of its ad block strategy this quarter when it extends the test to its daily sites, including Stern. Stern is its biggest site, with 4.5 million desktop monthly unique visitors, according to comScore, and about 30 percent of the audience uses ad blockers, according to von Wersch.

Deploying an outright ban is harder on more general news sites, as opposed to the special-interest articles and content on the likes of Geo.de and Essen&Trinken. In that case, G+J will start with a message informing ad-blocker users that advertising funds its journalism before moving on to a ban and micropayment option, said von Wersch. It’s also not ruling out the polite approach, which it’s taking on other titles including Brigitte.de.