Handling Ad Blockers and Paywalls

Over the past few years there has been a large decline in newspaper and magazine subscribers, but consumers still read their favorite publications’ articles online. Publishers now have to deal with consumers accessing content online for free, instead of paying for a subscription.

To stay profitable many publications use advertising and paywalls to generate revenue. However, consumers often find ads distracting and install ad blocking software. This has led to a battle between consumers with ad blocking software and the publishers who need revenue from online advertising.

There are a variety of ways that online publications have reacted to users accessing content online without paid subscriptions. Some websites handle this situation gracefully, while others have room for improvement. I will review how Wired, Business Week, The Economist, and The New York Times handle this use case.

Non-subscribers and users with ad blockers are betrayed by Wired. When first navigating to Wired’s website and clicking on an article everything seems normal, but after spending some time reading and getting involved with the article’s text the user is presented with the following message:

Wired’s Warning

The user is now stuck. He or she either needs to become a member, whitelist the website, or pay a weekly fee to finish the article. It is understandable that Wired needs monetary support to continue to produce content, but blocking a user from completing an article will cause frustration and annoyance.

Business Week:
Users with ad blockers that navigate to Bloomberg’s Business Week website will be prompted with the following modal warning:

Bloomberg’s Warning

Although the message initially interferes with the user’s ability to access content, after three seconds the modal can be dismissed. Once the modal is gone, users can read as many articles as they please without another warning. An initial interruption is unpleasant, but ultimately users can access the content they want without being blocked. 

The Economist:

Visiting The Economist’s website will trigger an initial welcome modal:

Economist Welcome Modal
Economist Welcome Modal

The modal encourages the user to subscribe to the magazine, but he or she can dismiss the message and begin to access content on the website. Once a user completes reading three articles another modal appears:

The Economist Article Limit
The Economist Article Limit

The second modal looks almost identical to the first, but it alerts the user that he or she needs to sign in or subscribe to continue accessing content. Although the user is not initially warned about the three article limit, The Economist’s approach of providing a clear message once that threshold has been reached is user friendly. The Economist’s strategy of ending users’ access after they have reached the three article limit and before beginning a fourth article is better than Wired’s method of interrupting users once they have started an article.

The NYTimes was best at handling ad blocking and access limitations of the four publications. The first time a user accesses an article on the website he or she is presented with the following modal in the bottom of the screen:

NYTimes Modal
NYTimes Modal

The message encourages the user to sign up, but does not hamper the readability of the article. If a user continues to use the website and access five articles a new modal will appear:

5 Article Warning
5 Article Warning

The second modal alerts the user that he or she has read five of ten free articles for the session. It also has a button for exploring options to extend the number of articles that can be read. The modal is useful because it updates the user about his or her article limits and offers a call to action for removing the limit restriction. The NYTimes strategy of warning users before they reach their access limit is better than The Economist’s implementation which only presents a message once the limit is reached. 

A third modal is presented if a user reads ten articles on The NYTimes:

NYTimes Limit
NYTimes Limit

The last modal informs the user that he or she has reached the ten article limit and must sign in or subscribe to access more articles. The NYTimes multi-step approach to limiting readers’ access is the most clear because it warns users as they progress towards an article quota.


– Restricting access to an article after a user has started to read it is poor design

– Dismissible modals can be a non-invasive way to warn users of access restrictions

– Presenting ways for users to avoid pay walls in warning modals give users more control over their experience

– Providing warnings as readers progress towards a pay wall is a user friendly implementation

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