“The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today's column is written by Allison Mezzafonte, senior vice president of operations at Bauer Xcel Media.
For the typical digital publishing employee, the holiday season looms in the distance like a wave over a surfer. Ride the wave right, and you might come out on top. Make a mistake and pay the price. Unfortunately, too many publishers end up paying a hefty price but fail to learn from the painful years before.
The holiday season is a time of advertiser spending frenzy. Among stiff competition, publishers often end up promising elaborate custom sponsorships, tricky new technical features and unrealistic audience scale, all in the name of closing the deal. Sure, these crazy and admittedly often cool campaigns might bring in the top-line revenue needed to hit that end-of-year goal, but few publishers seem to learn or change.
Year after year, creation of these custom experiences cut deep into their margins and often force publishers to press pause on long-term strategy development for the upcoming business year. Things don’t have to be this way, but publishers need to be ready to change some deeply ingrained Q4 traditions to break free from this grind – and ultimately reap the rewards.
The first thing a publisher can do to get Q4 back on track next year is to say “no” to custom campaigns that are outside of a publisher’s standard offerings. At one major publisher I used to work for, we were asked to create a custom user-generated content environment for a single sponsor at the 11th hour. When no one engaged with it, unsurprisingly, we had to pay extra to drive traffic. Not only was the venture unprofitable, it distracted the design and content teams at a key time of the year.
It’s easy to overlook the true cost of custom deals when chasing those top-line dollars. Publishers need to factor in the costs of designing and maintaining a custom deal and also determine the potential problems and accompanying costs that could arise given the uncertain nature of the project. Publishers should be wary of any deal that involves editorial staff and must weigh the costs of reduced content production and possibly even lower traffic if a writer isn’t producing what they’re supposed to be producing.
Then there’s the development team. Publishers should be especially wary of deals that require technical development for one-time custom use. Unless the new product or feature enhancement adds value to the larger strategic vision – meaning, it’s something already on the road map – publishers should not waste their coveted technical resources on one-off product development.
Publishers also need to resist the urge to artificially increase their scale by purchasing third-party traffic or tapping into network traffic that is lower-quality than their own. This will lower the performance of the campaigns they run, which will ultimately erode their value in the marketplace. Now that advertisers are worried about fake news, any unfortunate discovery of an ad next to unsavory content could have very dour consequences.
Improving end-of-year performance isn’t just about avoiding unprofitable tactics. Publishers that eliminate bad deals and time-consuming sponsorships will find that they actually have the resources to increase profitable tactics. The end of the year is a time when programmatic competition heats up. It’s actually the perfect time to analyze and improve on audience segmentation, experiment with pricing floors and even try new programmatic partnerships. I’ve also seen a lot of value created by optimizing for standard industry metrics, such as viewability, during busy season.
Editorial teams can be free to double down on content quality or production, driving more people to the site, which creates a virtuous circle with programmatic advertising demand. This is a time when they should be delighting viewers, not advertisers.
Above all else, creating a more focused and calmer end of the year empowers the entire staff to look ahead to create a well-considered strategy for the next year. Not to mention, it also just makes employees happier. Too many publishers let planning and strategy come to a halt for months as they race to deliver against unrealistic goals. I’ve experienced the scramble to pull together a full annual plan before the exhaustion from the holiday season has even worn off. Our quality suffered as a result.
Breaking the cycle of dependence on elaborate Q4 campaigns can be a transformative exercise for publishers. As programmatic advertising gains traction, publishers that focus on more streamlined, purposeful selling will find that not only does Q4 become more profitable, but the entire year does, too.