Undoubtedly publishers were concerned about relinquishing control over their sites when they first started to work with third party ad networks.

Trailblazing ad networks convinced publishers of the benefits of outsourcing most of their ad sales by promising healthy revenues, operational cost savings and big brand advertisers.

Publishers have become so comfortable with working with third party ad providers that it’s now the norm, but when something becomes so normal, it loses what makes it unique, and consequently, its value.

For the most part ad formats are now 'standard', fitting industry agreed dimensions and functionalities. This has seen ads become commoditised.

As more publishers give their space over to standard ads, the amount of inventory available to advertisers through third parties has increased massively, and the value of each ad placement has plummeted.

Typically, publishers wanting to compensate for the decline in CPMs have committed even more space on their pages to ads, either in terms of the absolute number of ads displayed or in terms of the size and impact of the ads, or both.

It seems to make logical sense that the more distracting and interruptive the ads on a page, the more potential revenue the publisher should earn. Yet the outcome has been that the revenue achieved from each ad placement continues to fall.

Zurich Insurance/NewStatesman I

It’s reached a point where many publishers are handing over a chunk of their ad revenue in return for irrelevant, low quality and highly interruptive ads being run next to, or even over, their content.

The creative of even the least interruptive banner ad is often horribly at odds with a publisher’s brand, displaying graphics that conflict with the look, feel and overall aesthetic of the page.

By giving too much control of their ad inventory to ad networks, publishers are diminishing one of their greatest assets: their own title’s brands.

The intense pressure many publishers are under as CPMs keep falling has meant they have become so concerned with creating a space to promote advertisers’ brands that they have neglected their own.

Many publications have developed a strong brand in terms of the content they publish and the aesthetics of the editorial on each page. Site users develop an affinity with the publisher’s brand – come to trust it, and even identify themselves with it.

The more carefully the publisher nurses the consumer’s trust and affinity with the media titles’ brand, the greater the value proposition to advertisers. Yet consumers’ ability to build an affinity with the publishers’ brand is being diminished as the editorial and look and feel of the publishers’ pages are overwhelmed with too many or too intrusive ads.

Publishers need to adopt monetisation strategies which fit, rather than fight, their brand.

As the status quo clearly shows, continuously increasing the number of ads displayed or permitting ever more intrusive ads to run on sites won’t work.

Publishers need to start asserting more control: over the ad networks; over their brand and over the ad formats they permit on their site.

1. Know thyself

When launching a media title, publishers start with a concept of what they and their audience stand for. These brand values are interpreted into an aesthetic, a look and feel of the site which will resonate with visitors.

Publishers then develop well-designed, high quality digital sites with excellent editorial for users. After time these sites often become cluttered with visually abrasive advertising, which may mean the site’s brand values start to get forgotten.

Having a sense of self, and re-asserting those values helps publishers to assert control over the ads. They can start identifying ad technology providers that work with and enhance the aesthetic of their site and exclude those that run ads that dissonantly conflict with it.

By choosing technologies that enable publishers’ ad operations teams to tailor the look and feel of the ads on their sites, publishers become empowered to run ads which match the look and feel of their site, instead of ads which conflict with quality content.

Zurich Insurance/NewStatesman II

2. Be picky with the ads that run

It’s astonishing how many publishers are running ads which aren’t relevant to their publication. There are some famous examples of breathtakingly insensitive ad placements if you look for them.

Yet even formats which ensure some relevancy aren’t doing enough to match the outlook of a publication’s users. Publishers who have spent time developing a brand and have nurtured loyal consumers should place greater value on what they have to offer advertisers.

Instead of trying to suit third party ad networks, publishers should consider selecting advertising that suits them. Greater value can be achieved for both publishers and marketers by using advertising that truly matches the mindset of each media title’s consumers.

Publishers which display ads that are responsive to their readers’ affinity with the media title’s brand when browsing content enable marketers to advertise to consumers in a mindset which is of value to them.
Example from The Atlantic of an ad which matched the publisher's brand

3. Put a limit on the number of ads on each page

Instead of the ‘race to the bottom’ we’re seeing across the industry of running a huge density of ads above, below, next to, and over content, publishers should consider the benefits of limiting the number of ads on their pages.

This idea might cause some publishers unease, however by limiting ad availability and maintaining the quality of the ad placement, publishers are empowered to maximise demand and revenue, by minimising supply.

The next stage is creating a more premium environment for advertisers by prioritising ads which are sensitive to their site, congruent with their brand and in keeping with media title’s ethos. 

This enables publishers to create an environment where they can offer truly premium ad spots for a truly premium price.

4. Build pride in the sales team

The sales team needs to embrace the media title’s brand and appreciate its value. Part of this process is giving the sales team exclusive rights to sell certain ad format on the media titles’ pages – formats and creative that cannot be bought anywhere else.

By doing so, third party ad networks cannot compete with the direct sales team for particular premium ad placements, as only the publishers’ own sales team can sell them.

A savvy sales team will show advertisers that formats which occupy key positions near the content and that are closely associated with the media title’s brand are of much greater value to advertisers than generic or interruptive ad formats.

5. Be direct with advertisers

Once publishers’ sales teams have something unique to sell to advertisers, they can build direct relationships with marketers. Doing so makes it far easier for publishers to assess, anticipate, and respond to advertisers’ specific needs.

This opens publishers to being able to customise ad campaigns to marketers’ needs. Being able to tailor ad campaigns to each campaign’s needs enables publishers to offer a far better service to advertisers, and thus charge a premium, which is vital to publishers’ long term strategy.

It’s likely that the current methods being used to generate ad revenue on digital sites will seem ridiculous in ten years time. It simply isn’t sustainable to keep pumping irrelevant, interruptive clutter at consumers.

The impact of doing so is decimating CPMs and CPCs, as well as the qualities that establish media titles as 'premium'. The only way to stop this decline is for publishers to assert greater control over their sites, their users’ experience and their relationships with advertisers.

Guy Cookson

Published 23 October, 2013 by Guy Cookson

Guy Cookson is CMO and co-founder at Respond and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect on Twitter, FacebookLinkedIn or Google Plus

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Comments (3)


Matt Lovell, Head of Customer Data, Insight & Analytics at Eurostar International Ltd.

Really interesting article Guy.

For me the problem we've hit here is that advertisers naturally expect their Display activity to perform poorly (i.e. CTRs under 0.01%, very few clicks or post click conversions) and as a result many feel the only way is to buy 'targeted' ads from a DSP or real time bidding solution (as they need the CPM to be low and to guarantee they hit the right audience).

The problem with this is as nice as it is to insist on hitting the right person at the right time, when you look at how most of these companies are prospecting, the logic of lookalike modelling is so flawed that ultimately it isn't working favourably for either advertisers or publishers. Instead the only person who wins is the middle man at the technology provider who is taking a nice chunky commission to provide the advertiser with very average or poor performing display and the publisher with a disruption their users could do without.

The difficulty is it's rare that an advertiser has the resource to start sourcing things directly while a lot of the time, when they try, the budgets they are asked for are astronomical so they revert back to type and try again with RTB assuming that it must be something they did wrong or that maybe, just maybe, all those cookies they bought really did drive some active post activity response...

almost 5 years ago

Guy Cookson

Guy Cookson, CMO and Co-Founder at Respond Native Advertising Platform

Thanks for your comment Matt, you've raised some really interesting points, and it's great to get an advertiser perspective on this.

We do seem to have arrived at culture of low expectations when it comes to display advertising, and yes, it is too often the tech players in the middle that extract the most value.

At Respond, the way we've tried to address these issues is by working with publishers to create ad placements that are worth buying at a premium. Standard ad formats are by definition a commodity, so they lend themselves to RTB and other trading mechanisms, and I guess there will always be a place for that.

But truly custom ad placements that are in keeping with the site design, contextually relevant, respectful of the audience, that offer user initiated in-page experiences - these are the kind of ad placements worth paying more for.

We don't set the pricing, or take a commission (we're simply a SaaS provider), but we're mindful of the fact that anything non-standard needs to be affordable, so we've made it possible to utilise existing creative in new ways, e.g. presenting a microsite in-page. This lowers the cost of the creative significantly, and requires no work on the publisher side.

I think 2014 will be fascinating as brands start to look again at how to win hearts and minds.

almost 5 years ago


Pavol Hollosy

Very interesting. Hey Guy ,do you want to work/partner with us? Pavol Hollosy, CMO Global Catalog ... global catalog dot com


almost 5 years ago

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