By Lloyd Clark, CAN Managing Director. Originally posted 19 June 2017

Councils are no strangers to advertising. Many have had print publications and most still have outdoor space and events that are sold to companies and agencies. It makes sense making use of public assets to generate income is good for the council and the taxpayer.

The council website should be no different. Its an asset. Its in high demand. And the Council Advertising Network has proven* that it is possible to deliver the right kind of ads, safely, and with minimal to no impact on website performance. But there’s a twist. While putting advertising on a bus shelter doesn’t affect the user experience of waiting for a bus, there is a concern that displaying ads on councils websites will detract from the primary purpose to provide a transactional platform for citizens to access council services.

In our last blog (Is there Good Internet Advertising?), we reviewed the results of research showing that if ads were displayed well, then users had a very similar reaction to a page with or without ads. All ad placements on the Council Advertising Network adhere to the Good Ad standards fixed placements without countdowns, pop ups or takeovers. In other words, they co-exist seamlessly with the content and do not hinder the user.

If the research findings hold true for websites on the Council Advertising Network, then we should see very little difference in user behaviour on a council website regardless of whether ads are displayed. To test this hypothesis, we collected Google Analytics data from CAN partners before and after ads were placed on their websites. To ensure we were comparing like-for-like, we used data from the same months and excluded any websites that were refreshed in the intervening period.

Lets first examine the raw data. As shown in the table below, sessions, users and page views are pretty similar before and after ads. Our population consists of roughly 1.2m users, engaged in 2.5m sessions and viewing 8.5m pages.

 Before AdsAfter Ads
Page Views8,371,9298,910,672

Now lets look into the user behaviour metrics, starting with pages per session. If our Good Ads are having a negative impact on users, we would expect to see a change in the number of pages they are accessing per session. The most likely movement would be down users leaving the site due to ad disruption. The actual pages visited per session, however, is roughly the same 3.34 before ads and 3.42 after ads.

Let us move on to session duration, where bad ads could affect users in either direction. They may cause users to leave the site, driving down the average duration; or they could confuse users, making them spend extra time to complete their transaction. As with the pages per session metric, the actual data shows very little movement average session duration of 2.85 minutes before ads and 2.94 minutes after ads.

Our final metric bounce rate may well be the most important. If users are repelled by ads on the councils website, they are more likely to leave before completing their transaction, so bad ads should result in a higher bounce rate. But for CAN partners, that was not the case. The before ads bounce rate was 40.1%. After ads was 40.6%.

So in all three measures, Good Ads on council websites have no measurable impact on user behaviour. Our findings are consistent with the results of other research in this area, but they still leave open the possibility that, while not affecting behaviour, residents are unhappy to be confronted with ads when they log into their councils website.

*[Update: 4 January 2019] Over a billion ads have been delivered to CAN partners since the beginning of 2018 with an error rate of 0.00001%.