Publishers Don’t Have An Ad Problem. They Have A Product Problem.

The Sell Sider” is a column written for the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Justin Choi, founder and CEO at Nativo.

Today’s publishers are under pressure from seemingly countless external forces. They face downward pressure on ad prices, consolidation of spend within the duopoly (and now, the triopoly), intermediation by platforms, shortening attention spans and shifting consumer habits. The headwinds are real, the fight is uphill and there is plenty of talk about it.

The one thing that’s not talked about much is the one thing publishers have the greatest control over: themselves.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

Beyond external pressures, today’s publishers also suffer from inertia. Their products are outdated and maladapted to changes in how we all consume information. Product is a critical part of solving the monetization challenge. Understanding what’s wrong with the product is the first step toward getting it fixed.

Let’s start with the legacy layouts and stagnant experiences of today’s online publications, which make practically no sense to younger audiences who grew up in the digital age.

The homepages of most digital news publications today look like digitized versions of a print newspaper’s front page. There’s competing content scattered across the page, and it’s surrounded by competing ads. Every visitor sees the same selection of headlines, regardless of where they live and what topics interest them most. The headlines might refresh a few times throughout the day, but not often enough to warrant constant return site visits.

On the flip side, if readers fail to visit the homepage on a given day, that day’s headlines are lost to them – no matter how relevant they may have been to their interests.

You’d think I was describing the internet in 1995 – and I am. Many publishers’ mindsets haven’t changed much since the “you’ve got mail” days. But if someone were designing a new app today, such an experience would be unthinkable. So why is this the dominant model among publishers today?

Updating a publication’s online design and content flow for the modern age requires publishers to rethink the user experience in a very fundamental way. Publishers must find creative ways to optimize content discovery in a way that makes people want to come back – again and again –throughout the day.

The need for speed

Consumers operate in an internet that is getting faster, and at the same time, many publishers’ page load times are getting slower. They’re aware of the problem, but few are treating site latency as the real emergency it is. From a product standpoint, the lag on most publishers’ sites today would be considered a four-alarm fire at any Silicon Valley tech company and warrant an all-hands emergency response.

Latency is the enemy of engagement. There’s no way for publishers to build repeat visits when they’re forcing consumers to wade through quicksand to get to their front doors. A 2018 analysis by Google found that, on average, today's media and entertainment sites take about 9 seconds to fully load – well above the recommended threshold of 3 seconds.

For years, publishers have been loading an increasing number of tags in hopes of improving their header bidding, enabling greater transparency and capturing more audience data. But they’ve pursued these noble goals at the expense of user experience, and it’s costing them –literally. Slower page loads throttle engagement and revenue, whereas even minor speed improvements can boost conversions dramatically. Publishers have sacrificed too much performance for revenue, and now revenue is suffering as a result.

Unsustainable ad experiences

Similar to speed tradeoffs, too many publishers today are swapping long-term user engagement for short-term ad revenues.

As the standards set by the Coalition for Better Ads continue to take root, browsers like Chrome have started to actively block ads that don't comply with best practices, while others are clamping down on behind-the-scenes ad tech that slows page loads. If you build your business around bad ads or aggressive ad load, get ready to be one of 2019’s publishing casualties.

Publishers shouldn’t simply look to clone the ad experiences being delivered by Facebook and Google – quite the contrary. The duopoly is all about direct-response ads. Publishers need to focus their energies elsewhere in the customer journey or else they just compete for the duopoly’s table scraps. Publishers need to become something different and to seek the greenfield spaces where there’s still opportunity to be had.

Publishers can’t control everything, but they can control their own products. If publishers want to take matters back into their own hands, they can start by shedding old layout paradigms, prioritizing site speed and building more sustainable ad experiences that solve different problems for advertisers. They don’t need to become the next Facebook. Journalism deserves something better.

Publishers can build a smarter platform that rises above cheap engagement and preserves the value of editorial curation and oversight, all while building better products. Publishers need to help themselves. 

Follow Nativo (@nativo) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

 

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