In our first of this three-part blog (Is there Good Internet Advertising?), we presented results of independent research showing that different ad-display modes can either produce a strong negative reaction amongst users or can be entirely neutral to the user experience. Our second blog (Do Ads on Council Websites Affect the User Experience?) looked at whether this research was also applicable to council websites by reviewing the statistics before and after ads were displayed. The conclusion was that there was virtually no difference in page views, average session duration or bounce rates with or without the “Good Ads” displayed by the Council Advertising Network.
In this blog, we ask what is arguably the most important question – what do residents think about ads on council websites? Some CAN partners had surveyed their residents before putting ads on their websites, and the overwhelming sentiment was that as long as ads did not interfere with the user experience, the council should indeed look into generating income from their website, helping to protect vital public services. Our goal was to find out how residents had reacted after ads were placed on council websites.
With this in mind, we formulated a survey for our council partners to complete. We received 31 responses – a strong response rate of over half the survey population. These 31 councils are home to over 7 million people. In the first half of 2017, we displayed over 50 million paid-for ads to this population so we can be confident that many residents would have been exposed to commercial advertising on their council’s website.
Over 70% of the councils had not received any negative feedback from residents as a result of having ads on their websites. Over half of the remaining councils had just a single complaint, while 3 had between 3 and 5 complaints. Only 1 council had more than 5 complaints, but in no case did any of our partners have negative feedback from more than 10 residents. To put this in context, that is 1 complaint for every 40,000 unique visitors.
With this as with any other income generating project, it is very difficult to please everyone. As one would expect, from the small number of complaints received, the most common was the resident thinking it was inappropriate to have advertisements on the council’s website. The only other complaint heard more than once was from residents who did not believe a particular ad was appropriate.
Staying with the latter point, CAN utilises a robust filtering technology to ensure that only properly categorised ads are displayed; but it is not perfect. On rare occasions – CAN’s error rate is 0.00001% – a rogue ad makes it through. These are normally of the bingo or wine offers variety and are blocked quickly – usually in less than 5 minutes – to prevent re-occurrence.
In the “comments” section of the survey, many councils were surprised not to have received any complaints. Some of them, in fact, remarked that the only complaints had come from colleagues inside the council. Others noted that they had had queries about the advertising but no complaints. One council even reported that the only comment they received was from a resident who asked why there weren’t more ads on the website!
Back to where we started. We opened this blog series to report on our investigations into whether councils should be concerned about using their online assets to generate income via advertising. External research concluded that while ads can be highly detrimental to the user experience, responsible publishers can display ads in a manner that is completely neutral to the user. Data collected from council websites supported these findings as there was no change in user behaviour across the three primary variables. And responses from over 30 councils that have displayed a collective 50m ads since the beginning of the year showed a negligible minority expressing any misgivings about ads on their council’s website.
We can conclude with confidence that it is highly unlikely that ads will interfere with the council website’s transactional or information objectives, and that residents will be neutral about the appearance of ads as they review a planning permission, renew a parking permit or query their council tax. In fact, they might just see it as a sign that their council is doing its best to make use of public assets to safeguard the delivery of critical local services.