Carrot and stick: How Ars Technica cut its ad-block rate from 40 percent to 25 percent

For Condé Nast-owned tech site Ars Technica ad blocking isn’t new: It has been dealing with the issue for more than a decade.

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.

“Ad blocking is a challenge that we’ve taken as the default state of affairs. We’ve built it into the business model,” said Ars Technica founder and editor-in-chief Ken Fisher.

The 17-year-old U.S. tech-focused title, which has 6.3 million U.S. monthly readers and just under 700,000 in the U.K., according to comScore, was bought by Condé Nast in 2008.

Two years later it ran what was probably one of the first online ad-blocker bans. The results were mixed, as Fisher outlined in his blog at the time. In the post, Fisher explained to readers why using ad blockers was so damaging to the publisher, which is 90 percent reliant on advertising revenue.

“We turn down offers every month for [intrusive] advertising like that out of respect for you guys. We simply ask that you return the favor and not block ads.”

The ban had relatively positive results, with a large proportion of people stating they hadn’t realized they were harming revenue for the publisher by doing it, according to Fisher. “A lot of people told us they had thought we only made money if they clicked on an ad; they didn’t know it didn’t work like that,” he said.

Technology (and gaming) sites naturally skew higher for ad-blocking rates given the most active ad-blocker users’ profiles are male, tech-savvy, often gamers. In the U.K., the average number of adults blocking ads is 22 percent, according to the IAB, which means Ars Technica’s ad-blocking rates are at times over that average, but Fisher seems relatively relaxed about it — or more resigned to it at least.

“It won’t get any lower than 20-25 percent for us, because we have a lot of CTOs, CIOs of companies that install business script blockers, so there’s corporate-level ad blocking. It doesn’t really worry us at all,” said Fisher.

The publication also cultivates a community for its readers, with several forums in which they can communicate with each other, and with Ars Technica staff. “We encourage people to talk to us via those dedicated sections if they think we ever run afoul or do something they don’t like. If you want readers to whitelist you, you have to create a kind of informal contract with the reader.”

Like many publishers, page-load speed has been a priority for a while. In fact, Fisher claims that Ars Technica’s page-load speed is the fastest of all the Condé Nast titles. “When ad scripts aren’t loaded, page speed is in the milliseconds, whereas the standard is more like three seconds.” With ads loaded, that’s a bit higher. “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.

The site is poised for a redesign, both in the U.S. and U.K. in the next couple of weeks, and Fisher claims it has knocked off another half second from the page-load speed.

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