Ad-Blocking and the Small-Time Publisher


With the advent of iOS 9's new ad-blocking capabilities -- as well as desktop extensions like Ghostery -- there has been a lot of online discussion about this technology's impact on publishers.

As a publisher of an astrology website, this potentially impacts my income. But I wonder: are ad blockers mostly used by more tech- and media-savvy users, or are they prevalent among "normal" users? I don't have any data to back this up, but I suspect that an unsavvy new iPhone owner is not going to even know about ad blockers, so the sites that may suffer the most are those that cater to audiences that keep up on these technologies.

But let's assume that we are entering a period of disruption. My site has a lot of advertising and 3rd party Javascript, etc. However, with the prevalence of mobile browsing, I've already had to adapt. For example, a Flash-based video ad unit is not going to work on an iPhone, so I can't offer an advertiser those impressions. And in general, mobile advertising does not appear to be as effective as desktop advertising. 

So I've been developing other revenue streams. For example, I have a paywall for feature articles that are more than 30 days old. I don't even promote this feature on the homepage -- it is only when a user tries to read an article in the archives that she learns about the All-Access membership program. Also, I sell computer-generated astrology reports. 

Unfortunately, these revenue streams do not account for the majority of the site's income. If more and more users view the site on mobile and use ad blockers (on any size screen), I will have to either imagine new ways to "sell" users on features and products, or reduce my budget for freelance writers. (I would much rather do the former.)

I've tried PayPal donations in the past, and just don't feel good about it. Nowadays, I could set up a Patreon page, but it's essentially the same thing, and I don't think I'd want to ask for donations unless I removed all ads. 

I can't do RSS sponsorships (like Daring Fireball) because I don't think many of my readers even know what RSS is.

Ideally, the money a site earns should reflect its value to its readers. For example, Stratechery depends exclusively on a membership model, and Ben Thompson offers enough value to enough subscribers to make a go of it. But if a site is not geared toward affluent professionals -- if it's more geared towards entertainment -- how can it distinguish itself from all the other sites in its niche to succeed with a membership model?

There are a few astrology sites that forego advertising. They rely exclusively on a paying membership model, or on selling products and services. So it's not impossible. But I can say that as someone who has a full-time job and runs an astrology site in his spare time -- and as someone who no longer does readings or consultations (and who no longer writes astrology content, for that matter) -- that's not possible for me. I burned out on astrology writing years ago, and since I already had a popular website that was earning money, I didn't want to just abandon it, so I outsourced the writing to others, and I took on the business/editorial roles. 

So perhaps I am "imposing" ads on my readers because I am not willing to put 100% of my eggs into this particular basket, but that's not a risk I am willing to take. As it is, I do make decisions to not further alienate readers. Ad companies contact me frequently, but I am unwilling to make readers endure pop-unders or -overs, or just about anything that prevents them from reading new content without having to click an X to make something obscuring it go away. I hope I have reached a happy medium, a place in which a reader can, for example, get her daily horoscope without feeling annoyed. If she does not want to be tracked around the web and installs an ad blocker, I will not begrudge her decision. (I currently have Ghostery installed on my desktop, and will test iOS 9 ad blockers once I get my new iPhone.) If enough readers make this decision, then -- as I mentioned above -- I will have to pivot. Maybe that means creating an Information Product, or offering more exclusives to readers to make a paying membership more attractive. But the web is always changing, so what choice do we publishers have other than to adapt, anyway?