Content publishers not only make up my current base of clients but are also where I “came from” in this business. So it breaks my heart to say this, but this game is just about over -- and content publishers have only themselves to blame for losing it. The simple reason why they have lost this battle may surprise you.
But first, let’s understand the fight. This battle is between audience targeting and contextual targeting. The former was primarily introduced by behavioral targeting companies propelled by ad networks, further elevated now by the exchanges and associated acronyms. The latter has traditionally been delivered by established, single-destination, well-branded content sites (think Time.com, for example).
This battle, which is really fought on sales calls, unfolds something like this;
I am a salesperson at a well-branded content site. I have arrived 15 minutes early, well-dressed and well-prepared for this sales meeting. I will explain how my company has some of the best journalists and editors in the business working around the clock to produce high-quality, engaging content greatly respected by those who choose to consume it. I will point to some awards as a form of validation of this point, and then note that advertisers seen within this well-respected, highly regarded content are perceived to be equally well-regarded and respected. This intrinsic value is easier to see than it is to define -- so now pay me a premium CPM, and let’s have lunch at a very expensive restaurant where the maître d' knows me by name.
I am a technology salesperson running late, dressed casually -- and I did not feel like shaving. I am here to explain that the “train has left the station” or another cliche that will make you like me a little less but listen to me a little more. I will detail how my company can identify exactly who will be seeing your ad defined by that person’s interests based on a myriad of data points captured and categorized into neat buckets. I will say that you can now bid the price you would prefer to pay for these highly targeted impressions, so you feel like you got the “right price” to reach the “right person” regardless of what site this ad may actually be seen on. Oh, and by the way, I remind you that your ads “will work.” I then thank you for your time and promise to email you an invite to that party.
The holes in each of these stories can be easily
found, but I am not going to waste time pointing any of them out. Instead I will point you to a screen grab depicting the loss I referred to above:
There are thousands of examples like these of advertisers appearing within edit they would never choose to be near, via audience-based targeted ad buys that are, by the way, often off-target (I am not even close to being in the market for buying a car). Yet clients have collectively turned a blind eye to these ad-serving train wrecks. Why?
You may think, who cares if Chevy Malibu is seen adjacent to “child mauled to death” content, because the ads are “working.” I'm sure there are some folks at Chevy who would disagree -- but that’s subjective, while math doesn’t lie. If an impressions starts out cheaper ($2 CPM) it has to almost always work better than an impression priced higher ($20 CPM) regardless of the suspect “targeting” or inappropriateness of the edit environment.
Content publishers' sales teams know that this math is what they are up against in the battle for client’s online budgets, which means they have to collectively tell a much more compelling story about why their content is worth the premium they charge. This is where they have failed miserably in the online display advertising space: They are terrible at telling this story.
This story should start with site metrics that paint a picture of a typical site visit session, so clients have the proper context of how the site is used. Ask three sales reps selling the same content site what their average visits per unique and average page views per visit session are, and you won’t get the same answer.
This story should then include a robust and intimate knowledge of the content being embraced by those who visit, in a manner that maps back to these site metrics. Instead you will likely hear broad, ambiguous overviews revealing the real crime here -- which is how little time content sales reps spend reading their own sites.
The content reps of years gone by read every word of every issue of their magazines as well as those they competed with, and then constructed a story about their content superiority based on compelling examples fueled by their personal passion. The battle back then was much easier, which means today’s content reps have to be that much better at telling this story. Unfortunately, today’s content site sales reps go through the motions, often talking about ad capabilities and other factors that are disconnected from their true responsibility of telling a great story about the value their site delivers to those who visit.
This game was lost on our home turf: the story-telling battlefield.