Hug it out
[Webmaster Dojo is a column where I share my experiences running Destructoid, one of the last sites not owned by a media conglomerate or venture capital velociraptor. I'll sling exotic coffee bean water to keep servers on.]
Relax. We're still friends.
Last month, I learned that the primary way we support Destructoid was quickly shrinking due to a browser plug-in: the ad-blocker. On the bright side, it brought some closure on why our ad checks never quite kept up with perky site traffic or growing bandwidth bills.
No, I'm not going to chainsaw your face for installing an ad-blocker. Chances are, though, you understand that blocking ads denies us some coffers and you probably feel a little bad about it, but all ads intrinsically annoy you. That's okay. Still, it is enough for me to say that it's a problem facing my site and other sites like it, and a few weeks ago, I started to appeal to readers to whitelist us -- that mostly failed.
Is asking for nickels the best way to future-proof a gaming site?
"Almost half of your readers block your ads. We don't think we're mistaken."
BlockMetrics was easy enough to set up and monitor. At first, it was about 10%, then 20-something. When I dared to blink it just increased faster. Over a few days it never got better, averaging at an ominous 42-46% block rate. I thought their tech might have been flawed, so I performed my own tests and contacted another company who returned a similar result.
This means that we're working twice as hard as ever to sustain our company, as if keeping a group of game writers fed isn't difficult enough. We see gaming sites shut down or selling out so often these days. Feeling my pain yet?
So, what would you do, standing in my one shoe remaining? I took these sobering stats to Twitter, and this is what people close to me said:
Nobody wants ads in the way while they're trying to read something
I know there's a fine line a publisher must walk when inviting ads in. We work with a very reputable outside company that respects our readers and is quick to ban ads we don't like.
Destructoid does not allow ads that play automatic audio, and also doesn't allow ads that automatically expand without your interaction. If you ever see any of those, please report them. Also, if you stay logged in on our existing free accounts, you'll never see a full-page interstitial advertisement (the skip to continue kind). We've also moved most of our new videos to YouTube, which allows ad skipping in most circumstances.
Despite adhering to what I believe are best practices for all parties involved, we're having this conversation. Still, I assume most of you haven't singled out blocking Dtoid for malicious reasons, so I went onward with my appeals.
Would you kindly un-block Destructoid?
BlockMetrics' technology allowed me to overlay a special message to those who have Ad-Blocker installed. I didn't mince words: My appeal read something to the effect that ad blockers primarily hurt our writers, and if you are reading our site, we'd like your support.
Indeed, our ad rate dropped slightly overnight. I didn't like guilt-tripping our readers, but it seemed like a better option than hijacking the site away from them. Ultimately, the best feedback came from one reader who, despite willingly denying our passive revenue, thought I was being too bold.
A frank letter to the editors:
What was most annoying about the letter is that he was right, and I knew it.
When I first read the letter, I felt like I was reading those kinds of hippie stories on the news where the guy comes into your house to rob someone; then when he gets beat up, he wins a lawsuit for aggravated assault. The principles of the matter don't matter -- you're just wrong and you can't punch your way out of it. It didn't help that my appeal was presented in a red floating box, and my tone was all wrong. Dating site OKC had the right idea. (Thanks, Chris) Still, I had to say something to this person that I've offended. Deep breath:
Re: "I certainly was not expecting a reply."
If this were a movie, I'd dramatically turn to the camera with puppy eyes and blurt a dramatic call to arms: "Where were you when your favorite gaming site died?"
Maybe I've won this battle, but I've lost a war I wasn't even aware I was fighting. I'm not alone -- ArsTechnica once fought back by limiting access to those running the plug-in and saw an immediate backlash. Clearly, fighting your readers head-on is not the right solution.
Ad-blockers have gone mainstream. Actually, it probably hit gaming sites the hardest because gamers are some of the most savvy computer geeks. We're tinkerers and tweekers, so what's a simple browser plug-in? Only 4% of our Internet Explorer users block our ads, which the tech elite have written off years ago. Another citing: When GameSpot's Total Access program ended three months ago, the news was met with the most ghastly of comments. It's one thing to see it on a spreadsheet but when you see your readers bragging about it, it's pretty fucked up:
The solution must be weirder, more creative. No wonder Valve is selling hats
If left unchecked, small publishers like me may face an ad block rate of 75% or higher with no way to pay my bills. I'm not going to lobby congress to make ad-blocking illegal. That ad block percentage is not really negotiable, and is only going to go up. Other technology trends are also closing in on independent publishers: ad rates are dropping, mobile adoption is booming and dragging old ad models that don't work into them, and (let's be honest) my Internet generation expects everything to be free, cheap, and plentiful.
As a pro-consumer site operator, I'll be the first to admit none of that sounds unreasonable, so it's on me to figure it out. Yes, I can raise capital and wait for the market to evolve. I'm not going to do that. Everyone that's raised capital gets sold to someone they will later wish hadn't bought them. To quote a founding editor of a recent downsized publication: "Never lose control."
"Just disable the flash ads"
[Updated April 11]:
If I've not made this clear, let me spell it out: I don't necessarily ever want Flash ads on the site, expanding ads, hovering ads, audio ads, gutter ads -- I didn't build this site to have ads on it. Those ads are a means to an end: they support a staff. By removing Flash ads it would mean removing half of my writing team. You simply can't have GIF or Static ads at our size and expect to keep a time of this size fed. It's just not realistic. Allowing even semi-obtrusive ads (rollover to expand) is a difficult reality to explain, and one that I admittedly stumbled over while on an NPR talk show.
I appreciate the well-meaning comments proposing that we simply remove Flash ads, but if it were that easy I would have done that long ago. In the words of our ad rep, they make us "competitive". That is to say I haven't fired anyone in the last seven years over the matter.
Advertisers are also in a desperate position to use the web to advertise their products inexpensively. We're talking thousands of people the cost of a fast food value meal. Ad agencies are even more desperate: they're trying to keep their clients happy and also win more business by wining design awards. The most cunning (or annoying) ads win the clicks. Go punch a monkey.
While we can afford to turn away auto-expanding and auto-audio ads, we simply cannot turn away all interactive ad units. There isn't a professional ad sales company that would take us as a client. I'd lose half my team, and there's no data that supports a mass ad-block appeal would lift even if we did. Let's also not be idealistic: there are plenty of Internet users who hate ads on principle or wants ultimate non-tracking privacy will eventually just use a different ad-blocker that doesn't have a whitelist policy. Just skim through the comments and you'll see that some people are above appeals, no matter how much we bend the advertising industry.
If you're big enough you're in a better position to try this, though. Indies, not so much.
Larger websites with massive inventories with in-house control of their ad supply chain can appeal Ad-Blockers to whitelist them, but unless you're at the massive scale of Reddit you're not going to convince lazy/busy media buyers to specifically create ads for your smaller website. We're a medium-sized site and it wouldn't fly. Sites smaller than us are in an even worse predicament: They solely rely on the wild west of ad networks where quality control is all over the place. An ad network will call a script or two, not have an ad to display, and will bounce it to another provider. We've seen happen upwards of 25 times per page. The tech sucks, but then again, the Internet ad industry has only been around for so long. Its improving every day, but some of these ad serving systems are really showing their age.
Destructoid will somehow offer you an awesome membership program this year
I needn't point out to anyone that the videogames press has shrunk at record speed this year. Whether you're a freelancer for an established site or well-fed at a temporarily funded business that relies on ads, this ad-block trend will eventually take a slice from your livelihood. Take stock, do your diligence, and have a quiet conversation with your staff and readers about it. Yes, it is a business issue, but it also a matter of the viability of the independent press.
If you had to choose one single editorial or swag perk, ad-free browsing aside, what would make an annual membership on Destructoid worth your while? That's the magic question.
To offset ad-blocking or advertising altogether some top bloggers are trying the unspeakable: asking their readers to become the customer. Giant Bomb, ScrewAttack, and Penny-Arcade have all famously made this work. From the research I've done, the perks that these programs offer seems like the most respectful alternative to slinging the advertising hustle. We'll follow suit, and aspire to do the right thing. I certainly wouldn't put up the sites you know today behind a paywall. Instead, I'd challenge my teams to justify a network-wide membership with a bunch of bonus stuff, and the money we earn would go towards making even more perks. We're having those conversations internally right now, so we're open to ideas. Speak up.
This is an interesting time to arrive at these crossroads, as our company turns seven years old next week. To be clear, we're not going out of business anytime soon nor will I be using this an excuse to lazily panhandle for dollars. No offense to those which have gone the one-time crowdsourcing route, but you won't find me on Kickstarter shopping for a temp quick fix.
We want to remain a 100% independent and are willing to work that much harder for it by offering our readers something MORE, not by hiding what we already do behind a pay-wall. In the 7 years of our company we have never irresponsibly raised venture capital money, or have had massive layoffs. We believe in running a company the good old-fashioned way and want to stand the test of time. That's what makes working at Destructoid such a great place.
Thanks for sticking with us, blocked ads or not. We'll make it our way.
[sad keanu by implyingrope]