Team Publishing: Stop Whining

Full disclosure: I am tired of hearing publishers whine about the declining value of the online display advertising they sell. They did this to themselves. Can you name any other medium that forces consumers to view more than one advertiser at the same exact time the way online publishers do?

Television (or movie theater) screens don't break into multiple boxes and run multiple advertisers simultaneously. Radio stations don't play two commercials at the same time. You can tell me Outdoor does -- but that's if you look at Times Square as one ad spot. Each billboard, however, displays one advertiser per sheet.

Only the classified sections of newspapers and magazines run multiple ad messages on a single page. How much branding value do buyers and advertisers place on these cherished sections? Does anyone know the name of the creative award classified advertisers vie for every year in Cannes? Multiple ad messages on a single page view are to blame for the diminished value of online display advertising.

But if clutter is really the issue, why haven't buyers and their clients insisted it be cleaned up, the way they demand competitive separation and full edit adjacencies in their print insertion orders? Buyers are far from dumb -- so why do they allow this clutter to continue without taking exception?

Because they intuitively know clutter allows them to a discredit the value of branding that does occur with online display ads, paving the way for them to focus exclusively (if not predominantly) on the performance of the campaign, which helps further drive down the cost of what they get paid to purchase. That's why they look the other way, instead of recognizing clutter as an issue they should likely care about.

And if you ask publishers about the number of display ads they have on their pages, they are likely to smirk like a young boy pointing at his sibling when he gets caught with his hands in the proverbial cookie jar: "We only have three ad spots. Forbes.com has seven on theirs."

So online publishers eat their cookies and dine on denial that their greed degraded their own value. Then they bellyache that the lack of "creative excellence" is to blame for their dismal value proposition. They're unable to see they haven't provided the one-ad-at a-time proposition other mediums deliver, in order to invite excellence to rise above mediocrity. Less is more has always been lost with online publishers, who mistakenly believe more sophisticated targeting will overcome this fundamental anchor lowering the value of the exposure they sell.

The error of publishers' ways can be tied to the medium's age. Online display advertising is only 14 years old. The insecurity of not knowing who they really are is the core issue contributing to online publishers' self-inflicted wounded value. Peer pressure has led them to believe they are a direct response vehicle; having multiple ads on their pages is like their version of acne. They want to be a branding vehicle but don't believe they can be. They try to fit in by being great at both but fail to excel at either.

At some point, many online publishers will learn what some have already figured out. Online display advertising is a dynamic, time-sensitive promotional outlet for branded advertising communication. I am Dove and I have something new for you to try. I am a movie release and here is a sneak peek. I am a car with a nifty new offer on a nifty new vehicle. I am a soda, a snack food, a fast food chain or a cell phone plan, and I want to introduce you to my product and its cool promotional cousin. In order to ensure that this form of ad communication advertisers pay for can be seen, heard and valued, we need to allow advertisers the opportunity to speak one at a time.

This wouldn't negate any of the targeting wizardry we can offer. We can still do that in conjunction with stripping our page view souls down to two ad units above the fold, and serving the same advertiser into both spots all of the time -- not some of the time or by accident. One hundred percent page view exclusivity for display ads is the solution to online publishing's problem. Unsold inventory will decrease, ad recollection will increase, site aesthetics will improve -- as will the perceived value for the brand exposure publishers seek greater recognition for creating. The only ones who lose in this overhaul are the ad networks that have driven prices and value down for inventory they didn't create.

Fuller disclosure: online publishers need to stop whining and start winning back their value by earning it from one advertiser at a time.

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15 comments about "Team Publishing: Stop Whining".
  1. Devin Gladstone from Food For The Poor , March 5, 2009 at 11:37 a.m.

    I agree 100% with this. During my last major redesign at a local newspaper web site we went to one unit per page with a 300 by 600. This allowed us to charge a higher CPM, create scarcity, and the advertisers got bigger and better ads that got better click throughs. It's just really common sense, but so many Publishers still do the opposite.

  2. M. eileen Long from Nature Publishing Group , March 5, 2009 at 11:49 a.m.

    SO true - -So true - -surprisingly the education around appreciating the value & sophistication of an audience online continues. The basics of planning & optimizing ad campaigns remains the same. 14 years is just not enough time? Perhaps this will be one great lesson taken from our current industry challenges.

  3. Durant Imboden from Europeforvisitors.com , March 5, 2009 at 12:05 p.m.

    >>Television (or movie theater) screens don't break into multiple boxes and run multiple advertisers simultaneously. Radio stations don't play two commercials at the same time....Only the classified sections of newspapers and magazines run multiple ad messages on a single page.<<

    Sorry, but the apples-and-oranges comparison doesn't work. TV, movie theatres, and radio stations aren't delivering text pages. If you're going to insist on using that analogy, then we should be asking why interstitial ads (commercials) haven't taken over the Web.

    Second, newspaper pages frequently DO have more than one display ad, and even high-end magazines often have more one ad on a spread (the counterpart to a computer screen). What's more, magazines devote entire pages to ads--something that Web sites don't (and can't) do.

    It's true that many online publishers go overboard on ads, but the notion that a "one ad per page" rule will lead to blockbuster CPMs is wishful thinking. The real problems facing many Web publishers (especially general-interest publishers such as online editions of newspapers) is that they don't have the same local monopolies and control over audience demographics as they do in the offline world, and--just as important--niche sites that reach highly motivated prospects offer a better value proposition for advertisers who aren't looking for a mass-market audience.

  4. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC , March 5, 2009 at 12:17 p.m.

    Durant, you missed the entire point. Apples and oranges are both fruit and given the opportunity to show one advertiser at a time versus showing multiple ads, the folks paying for the space are inclined to value exclusivity at it's barest level over running their ad up against another.

    So your apology is not necessary.

  5. Bruce Christensen from PartyWeDo , March 5, 2009 at 1:27 p.m.

    I like the idea of one host for one event - Keeps the clutter down. The smart networks are those who monetize without the need for the advertising support. These networks can then offer one sponsored message as the focus on the page.

  6. Dave Kohl from First In Promotions , March 5, 2009 at 1:45 p.m.

    Great points, but I'd like to suggest one more step. Before web designers run with this and suddenly start creating additional web pages to spread out content and "allow" more exclusive web ads (and drive visitors to the site nuts), we might suggest having a rotation of single ads on the page.

    This way, several advertisers could enjoy an equal (or pre-determined) number of impressions on a page exclusive basis, and not lose out on their ability to be specifically where they wish to be placed.

    Without this element, I fear sites suddenly going from 3 pages to 10 web pages and endless clicking.

  7. Kamran Razavi from RGM , March 5, 2009 at 1:47 p.m.

    If an advertiser is interested in a branding component to engage a user one on one, the answer doesn't lie in a standard ad unit. Rather it be the exclusive unit on the page or one of three. Smart publishers offer solutions enabling the brand to own a specific section of the site and or create a sponsorship specifically for the brand, in which they are the sole advertiser involved. Utilizing unique, custom made creative solutions. The standard ads have their purpose and as noted above in the newspaper example, serve their purpose as a user scrolls up/down, left/right through content and the ads are placed next to this content.

  8. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields , March 5, 2009 at 1:49 p.m.

    Ari: I think you called it right in this article.
    Advertisers should be granted more virtual
    real estate for clutter free exposure.

  9. Joseph Guerriero from DMD Mobile Holdings , March 5, 2009 at 2:05 p.m.

    The entire media eco-system is changing. In order to remain in the game, web publishers need to take a look at everything from how to use content and real estate to provide advertisers with the best possible value to the go-forward role of ad networks. Eileen is correct. 14 years was more than enough time to get these things right. Unfortunately, the "irrational exuberance" most publishers displayed by thinking they could do just about anything from a planning and optimization standpoint and find a network to deliver profit yielding CPMs was terribly misguided. If you can't invest in everything from great content to great sellers, perhaps you shouldn't be on the field!

  10. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC , March 5, 2009 at 2:07 p.m.

    Kamran, I understand your point but why make it an either or proposition. Can't we offer the type of branded integration you astutely refer to, AND offer page view exclusivity?

    Dave, I understand your fear, but even with this recommended overhaul, there will still be plenty of impressions to be sold.

    As for the sites who continue to game the system by running three, four, five or more advertisers per page view, and or artificially inflate their page views, well they will stand out as a minority and won't be seen as a valuable vendor when/if the majority of publishers offer the kind of exclusivity I encourage.

    Thank you both (and others) for weighing in so thoughtfully on my column.

  11. Kamran Razavi from RGM , March 5, 2009 at 2:36 p.m.

    Ari, I agree with you. Shouldn't be an either or, ideally you have both options. I am just saying in terms of reality, the way you do that right now is by going the integrated/custom route.

    Heck, I'd like to see an IAB law going into place completely redoing the page layouts of sites. Here's a novel idea, why not set an industry platform for the ad layout on sites. Or at least provide three options for publishers to use... ;)

    Nice article....

  12. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting , March 5, 2009 at 3:28 p.m.

    Ari, et al,
    This is a great discussion, to keep it going I would like to add one more thought, BT. I believe that having one ad unit per page is valid and will lead to more "action" (branding or clicks) but there still needs to be another layer of technology so that the ads served actually go to those that are most likely to be interested in their content. By limiting the ads per page, with simple supply and demand economics, you will help start a scarcity issue, thus putting upside pressure on ad pricing. By adding a BT layer you will further put upward pressure on the real estate.

    So, the large ad networks might start requiring their member sites to redesign based on one or two creative units, with both going to the same advertiser (the second as a value ad below the fold) add a BT solution which will put the right ad in front of an individual who has shown an affinity for the product in one way or another (and do this autonomously) at the most likely time for that person actioning it. Then publishers will maximize the value of their real estate.

    Standards anyone!?!

  13. Keith Ritter from Keith Ritter Media , March 5, 2009 at 5:25 p.m.

    Amen, brother. I could never understand why the basic laws of supply and demand didn't seem to register. Interestingly, this is even changing in TV (which, as you point out is one ad at a time) where Fox has reduced avails in some shows and CBS may be following.

    Next we can have the "rate integrity" discussion. Anyone remember that?

  14. Jim Sofranko , March 6, 2009 at 12:56 p.m.

    Ari, Amen.

    I work for the premier network for reaching creative, web and design professionals, The Deck (www.decknetwork.net) and one ad per page is in our DNA. It resonates with those interested in reaching our highly influential audience as we sell out virtually every month and produce results month after month. Furthermore, we only accept advertising that is relevant to our audience.

  15. Andy Atherton from brand.net , March 6, 2009 at 1:19 p.m.

    Interesting article Ari. Here’s what I wrote about it on the brand.net blog (http://www.brand.net/company/news-and-events/blog/):

    Many interesting points raised here. Certainly an interesting take on one of the reasons for the current predominance of DR over Branding in online advertising and I agree wholeheartedly that online display ads are a far better branding medium than it’s currently fashionable to believe. (I found myself thinking, “AMEN!” as I read that paragraph. Well put.) I also agree that the more compelling the creative opportunities for brand marketers the better, as long as a standard approach can be developed. I’m not sure that the tethered ad approach that’s recommended is the right solution, but that doesn’t detract from the argument against clutter. A publisher choosing to go to with 100% tethered ads would likely execute that choice operationally the same way they would execute any other new ad unit, so the real question is, “What’s the most effective ad unit for brand marketers?”. Certainly a worthwhile question. Would also point out that networks as whole wouldn’t necessarily lose in the scenario outlined. Many certainly would if the new unit was less effective (lower ROI) for DR campaigns, but Brand marketers and Branding-focused ad networks would welcome any new standard unit that improved results for online branding.