How one Austrian publisher is seeing success with ad-free subscriptions

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To combat ad-blocking rates and prepare for GDPR compliance, Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard created a tracking and ad-free subscription. Almost three years later, the decision is paying off, and could be a blueprint for other publishers.

The takeaways:
  • Der Standard was suffering with high rates of ad blocking; around 25% of traffic blocked all advertising, and on some parts of the site that was up to 35%. The publisher was also considering how to comply with incoming GDPR laws without risking ad revenue, with only minimal guidance about how key principles would be applied by regulators.
  • A “Der Standard PUR” subscription was soft-launched in 2018. It offers an ad-free and tracking-free experience of the site for €7 a month. 
  • Since the launch, Der Standard has added 11,000 new PUR subscribers to its existing 70,000 print subscribers, according to WAN-FRA.

Crucially, the ad-free subscription was launched alongside an ad blocking wall. This is a common tactic, where messaging is put up asking users to disable their ad blocker and consent to tracking and advertising in order to be able to access content.

  • Most of Der Standard’s users with an ad blocker who saw the message simply disabled it
  • 1 in 20 users took out a subscription to Der Standard PUR rather than allow tracking

Bonus points: The subscription also has good retention rates of 59% after the first 12 months.

The bigger picture

Ad-free subscriptions aren’t a new phenomenon, but they’ve historically had very low take-up. 

  • Increasingly, publishers have been taking a carrot-and-stick approach, blocking access to content unless the user agrees to whitelist their site in their ad blocker. 
  • For users not comfortable with tracking or whitelisting, or who simply don’t want to see ads, the subscription option then gives publishers a way to allow them access without compromising revenue.

The Mercury News, a site run by Bay Area News Group, has also reported success with an ad-free upgrade subscription.

  • The team ran tests to determine the best price for an ad-free experience and settled on $4 per month; almost a third higher than the price of a regular digital subscription.
  • A fifth of new digital-only subscribers chose to pay this extra amount for the ad-free experience, and others have since upgraded their existing plans
  • Engagement among this group is higher, with users reportedly consuming 1.2 pages more for every day they visit the website than other subscribers.

The bottom line: Ad-free subscriptions may not bring in big numbers on its own. But implemented in tandem with other monetisation strategies and clear messaging, it can be a good way of offering a loyal audience a premium website experience.

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