The FT’s ads on paywalls

By Felix Salmon
February 3, 2010
Ultimi Barbarorum, doesn't have an FT subscription, and as such is prone to running into its paywall. Recently, however, he's noticed something odd: when he visits the FT after having reached his quota limit, the page loads fully -- including all of the ads on it -- and then the paywall popup appears, preventing him from reading it. He wondered: does this mean that advertisers are being charged when the FT serves up impressions that can't be seen?

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Bento, from Ultimi Barbarorum, doesn’t have an FT subscription, and as such is prone to running into its paywall. Recently, however, he’s noticed something odd: when he visits the FT after having reached his quota limit, the page loads fully — including all of the ads on it — and then the paywall popup appears, preventing him from reading it. He wondered: does this mean that advertisers are being charged when the FT serves up impressions that can’t be seen?

I asked FT.com publisher Rob Grimshaw about this, and he said that yes, that has been happening since “the final few weeks of last year”. The fix, he says, is going to be a two-stage process. First, he’ll “take temporary steps to ensure that all campaigns on the site receive a full quota of unobscured impressions”. Second, he’s going to move the paywall popup, “so that it only obscures the portion of the page below the ad position”.

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah here: the FT is happy to prevent would-be readers from seeing its stories, but it’s going to make sure those readers can still see its ads — the equivalent of giving magazines away if you’re happy to read a version where all the editorial content is redacted and only the ads remain.

The problem, of course, is that the FT’s advertisers are buying inventory based on the idea that their ads are being served up against high-value FT content, as opposed to a negative-value paywall popup. Does any advertiser really want to send a message of “this paywall is brought to you by IBM”? It seems, if they’re going to continue to buy space on FT.com, that they might not have any choice in the matter.

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