By the mid-1990s, a new kind of media made a troublesome appearance. One question was on everyone’s mind: Would advertisements be able to finance it?

In France, many people said it was the end of the press as we know it. Newspapers, radio shows, TV, and politicians all pondered whether this was a cancer or a sign of the future.

You probably think this is about the Internet. But this debate mainly began when free daily newspapers appeared in Europe. It was the first time the broader public became aware there was a financial threat to the media.

Far from initiating a change, this led more people to believe that all content could be free, or even should be provided freely.

Ten years later, the situation is rather bad. As little was done to understand what kind of advertisements would be tolerated or accepted in a free-access media culture, people have massively adopted adblockers, thus depriving editors from most of their revenues.

In recent months, many French publishers have united to fight against consumer use of adblocking technology. The hope is that limiting access to content will encourage readers to accept advertising again.
In recent months, many French publishers have united to fight against consumer use of adblocking technology. The hope is that limiting access to content will encourage readers to accept advertising again.

Today, online media outlets are not subjected to a mere business downturn, but to the consequences of a collective cultural misstep that involves the media, audiences, and the authorities.

A strategy developed in 2016 by Geste, with the strategic and technical support of Adback, marks a significant step in turning back the tide.

For one week in March and for a month in September, a group of French media companies decided to block or restrain access to their Web sites for all adblock users. Depending on the media outlet, a user with an adblocker in place was either invited to deactivate their plug-ins, or informed of the consequences of using an adblocker.

Adblock users may receive a message asking them to deactivate their adblocking plug-in before they are able to view content. This is designed to discourage use of adblockers.
Adblock users may receive a message asking them to deactivate their adblocking plug-in before they are able to view content. This is designed to discourage use of adblockers.

This messaging strategy was designed by Adback based on the long-term analysis provided for our media partners.

These actions showed both encouraging and disturbing results. An encouraging 18% of users deactivated their adblocks, freeing 38% of the ad pages! However, it was frightening that up to 76% of users reactivated their adblocks in the days following the end of the campaign. This shows that adblocking is a fully deliberated choice by readers.

Beyond these results, Adback had the opportunity to analyse more than 250 million sessions. This was the first time such a large sample was studied worldwide, and it proved quite useful.

Some messages are designed to educate consumers about why advertising is necessary to support the press. While many readers have responded well to the messages and have chosen to disable adblockers to view content, most choose to turn the adblockers back on at a later time.
Some messages are designed to educate consumers about why advertising is necessary to support the press. While many readers have responded well to the messages and have chosen to disable adblockers to view content, most choose to turn the adblockers back on at a later time.

This study gave us unprecedented insight into who chooses to block ads, and also revealed that content quality and creativity is where value resides. This calls for tailor-made approaches. For instance, TV network Web sites should block access to their live streams rather than to RSS feeds.

Beyond this first step, there is a dramatic need to find new ways to engage audiences. One way would be to launch a qualitative study to understand why the audience chose to reactivate adblockers, and what emotional or cultural levers are at play here.

For instance, Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign was controversial, but it proved the success of combining Big Data and empiric cultural assumptions in reaching a target. This approach could be adapted to our issue.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the limits of the subscription model. Rattling the cage about free dailies never proved to be a reason good enough to spur new subscriptions 10 years ago.

We need to be humble and rely on emotional intelligence to discuss with our audience what would be an acceptable payment: it could be micro-payment, quick marketing polls, subscription to newsletters.

These options need to be pondered as soon as possible. After desktops, adblocking is now reaching mobile devices. In 2017, the number of adblockers on android or iOS nearly doubled. Our efforts need to be tripled. At least.