Web publishers need to come up with ad formats that don’t frustrate readers

Pranav Dixit July 1, 2016 5 min

Camaraderie is not something that India’s leading news websites are known for. Inside newsrooms, harried editors have one eye on traffic, usually displayed as a giant number on a Google analytics dashboard, and the other on what the competition is doing. Sometimes, these intense battles spill out into the public.

On the last day of June, India’s largest news publishers — Times of India, Hindustan Times, and India Today among others — set aside differences and shook hands on one thing: users who visited their websites with ad-blocking software enabled were not welcome. They were not welcome because the ads, the great big, glorious ads that take over entire home pages, and turn mouse cursors into brand logos, and stick un-skippable videos smack in the middle of your story, are what keep the lights on, and isn’t it reasonable to demand that you see them or see nothing at all?

“Don’t like ads? Neither do we, but they help us bring all this content to you absolutely free,” says India Today if you visit the website with an ad-blocker turned on. The Times of India is less cutesy: “You seem to have an Ad Blocker on. Please turn it off in order to continue.”

This, says The Quint founder Raghav Bahl, is an inevitability that had to happen. “It’s simple,” he says. “Content creation needs resources. You need money to report, shoot, travel. Content needs to recover its cost.”

Digital marketers agree. “Imagine picking up the newspaper and not having even a single advertisement and the cost of the paper goes up by 5 times,” says Rahul V, Business Head of digital marketing agency Isobar India. “Content has always been subsidised or made free by advertisers,” he said.

Bahl says that digital publishing is in the middle of something of a revolution right now. “In the beginning there was print,” he says. “Then the world shifted from print to television, and the advertising formats too evolved with that medium change. With the web, we are witnessing the same thing, and publishers are experimenting with different ad formats.”

None of these formats, however, seem to be cutting any ice with readers — primarily because the way they are implemented is, well, less than thoughtful.

Here is how the websites of some of India’s leading online publishers look with an ad-blocker turned off (left) and turned on (right). Use the slider in the middle of each image to compare.

The Times of India

Hindustan Times

Dainik Bhaskar

The reason why this has come to pass is simple: India’s leading publishers, so far, have had little incentive to take the web seriously since their primary source of revenue has been and continues to be print advertising. And while the print advertising industry is decades old, advertising on the web is complex and requires a thorough understanding of both the medium and the technology that powers it.

Publishers, especially in India, therefore, currently use only one major metric to get advertising on their websites: page views. The higher the number of people visiting your website, the more money you can make off advertisers in exchange for slathering your pages in banner ads (and other creative formats) — something that ad-blockers render useless.

“We need to keep the user at the core while looking at ways to address this issue,” says Sreejith Sivanandan, former Head of Asia, Publishing Services at AOL. “The collective efforts of publishers to highlight their side of the story is understandable, but they will eventually have to align to the demand of the forces that control their ecosystem today,” he says.

But annoying advertisements is only a small reason why most users use ad-blockers. On the same day that FactorDaily broke the story about the ad-blocker blackout in India, the Columbia Journalism Review published a piece titled “What media companies don’t want you to know about ad blockers.”

Most advertisers on websites track users as they go around the internet without their consent to eventually build a profile of them and serve targeted advertising. A study by non-profit research group Citizen Lab, that surveyed the top 100 news sites last year, found dozens of trackers running on most of these websites.

Similar studies for leading Indian news websites aren’t available, but a quick test using open-source ad-blocking extension uBlock Origin that FactorDaily did threw up the following results: both The Times of India and Hindustan Times had 10 trackers each on their home pages; The Indian Express had 12; India Today had 13; and Dainik Bhaskar had 14.

Worse, loading advertisements and trackers slows down page load significantly, and often results in websites consuming much more data than they should.

“The publishing ecosystem will have to provide a satisfactory answer to users who use ad-blockers to save data costs that arise out of data-guzzling trackers,” says Sivanandan. “Would data providers be able to set a threshold for data consumption by page load? Would publishers agree for a chargeback if the optimum thresholds were crossed? Could this motivate these users to turn off ad-blockers? These are all questions that the publishing industry should be thinking about.”

The flipside is that if something like this becomes standard practice across most big Indian publishers, it might eventually result in a hybrid model of paid and free ad-supported content being available across media sites. That would be a significant move, considering how hard it is right now to make users who are used to consuming news for free on the internet, pay for it.

But ultimately, it all boils down to one thing: the current model of display advertising that Indian publishers use is broken and unsustainable in the long term.

“I’m not opposed to this practice in principle but I think publishers who do it need to have their ad-tech houses in order first and I don’t think it should be an industry stitch-up,” says a top editor at one of the country’s biggest newspapers that is a part of the group of publishers that has gone against ad-blockers.

Would you disable your ad-blocker to get your news? Let’s talk in the comments section below.