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March 25, 2020, 12:59 p.m.

Scroll and Mozilla’s Firefox team up to bring ad-free news to a wider audience

For publishers seeing their ad revenue crater amid coronavirus, Scroll’s pitch of a paid ad-free experience sounds awfully appealing.

When we last checked in with Scroll, the ad-free-news-experience startup was launching to the public after a yearlong beta. Over that time, Scroll CEO Tony Haile (the former CEO of Chartbeat) had sharpened the product’s twin pitches:

For readers: Wouldn’t you like it if the news sites you read didn’t have so many ads and trackers and general internet gunk on them? And wouldn’t you be willing to support the journalists who produce that news you love with a low $5-a-month payment? (Most of your five bucks goes to publishers, with the sites you visit most getting a larger share.)

For publishers: Your ad revenue is profoundly uninspiring. Google and Facebook ate it. And all the annoying ads you’ve plastered across your sites alienate some of your users, or lead them to install an ad blocker to get rid of them all. Wouldn’t you like to improve the experience of some of your best customers and get a revenue stream from people who might not be willing to pay $15 a month for your paywall, but still like you and want to help?

Now, a few (albeit very long-feeling) months later, Scroll is reporting a conversion rate from their free 30-day trial that they’re very happy with — 18.5 percent become paying Scroll subscribers — and rolling out a new partnership with Mozilla expected to yield another subscriber boost.

The partnership is called Firefox Better Web, building off Mozilla’s web browser. Enable it and Firefox users will see “pages load faster while using less data and the anonymous trackers selling their data disappear,” they say. The price is the same as with straight Scroll: a discounted $2.49 for your first six months, $4.99 per month after that.

Firefox may have lost the browser wars to Google Chrome (and Safari on iOS), much as its predecessor Netscape lost to Internet Explorer in the first browser war. But it has retained a small but devoted following in part because of its independence — not being owned by Google, Apple, or Microsoft, standing up for open web standards, and a focus on user privacy. (“Internet for people, not profit.”)

That made the joint venture a natural match, Haile said. Mozilla and Scroll, who started talks a year ago, both recognized the growing tension between users who wanted a private, faster web and the way publishers have traditionally sought to make money online. “We care about the same things. Mozilla believes in an open web where sites are thriving independently and the user comes first,” Haile said. “All the things that are close to my heart.”

When early tests showed Mozilla users also cared about funding journalism, the partners felt confident in launching the program that rolls Scroll’s ad-free experience into a larger privacy-minded browser experience.

Haile, like the leaders of many young companies, unfortunately declined to give an exact headcount of paying members. But he said that, within the first 24 hours of launch, Scroll saw five times the signups they thought they would see in the first month. (Impressive! Or they are bad at estimating things!) Converting 18.5 percent of those signups to paying subscribers easily beats what Haile described as the industry benchmark for similar product offerings according to their research, 3 to 4 percent. Those who signed up for a trial via a particular publisher’s encouragement converted at an even higher rate.

The coronavirus crisis is, in a way, an opportunity for Scroll, whose pitch to publishers sounds especially great when their ad revenue is evaporating around them. (Though the growing economic crisis might not help with potential paying customers who now feel less willing to part with those five bucks.) Scroll says it is fielding interest from hundreds of publishers, many of whom are seeing huge surges in website traffic but having trouble monetizing it. Haile said that even though publishers are dealing with “the mother of all firefights” right now, so many are reaching out to Scroll that the team built and released a self-service onboarding option for more nimble, tech-savvy sites who didn’t want to wait. (They’re also looking to hire to meet demand.)

The interest is coming mainly from publishers who had previously told Scroll they were interested, but wanted to see how the startup fared before partnering, Haile said.

“Many of the ones reaching out have been the ones who said, ‘This is interesting but we’re going to wait and see how it goes,'” Haile said. “I think the thing a lot of the publishers have realized is that a wait-and-see approach to new models of revenue is not going to be viable in this kind of environment. We have to be moving forward and we have to be testing.”

Haile also reported publishers were seeing $30 to $40 in revenue per thousand pageviews and wrote those figures were “double what the sites would have earned from those visitors from advertising.” (In January, Haile estimated that $25 to $30 would likely emerge as the standard as the network continued to mature.)

Firefox may have a relatively small user share, but those users are still a huge potential market for Scroll. It’s unclear, though, how much effort Firefox will put into pushing Better Web to its users. (Firefox calls it a “test pilot,” its beta-like term for more experimental products and features. It’ll initially only be available in the United States.)

This isn’t the first time Mozilla has teamed up with a content-adjacent company. In 2017, it bought Pocket, the read-it-later service, and eventually integrated its content recommendations into Firefox itself.

Amid the influx of inbound interest in Scroll, the Mozilla rollout, and a team scattered across the country, Haile said he was feeling “shell-shocked” but encouraged.

“Now, more than ever, this work is important,” Haile said. “That’s what is keeping us going.”

POSTED     March 25, 2020, 12:59 p.m.
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