Publishers Need To Scale Back Their Story In 2014

The business of publishing starts with capturing the attention of an audience and then selling access to this attention by charging for ads.  It’s not any more complicated than that.  The price publishers get for these ads reflects the perceived value of their audience and this access.

The prices for online display ads premium publishers sell have been declining for a long time now.  Buyers have dominated this conversation on how ad value gets defined.  Buyers have all but said, “There is no value in these ads for just being displayed” -- and sellers are bowing their heads and buying into that story.   As a result, the confidence of salespeople paid to obtain greater value for these ads is at an all-time low.

Native programs are a life preserver buyers have thrown to publishers, which will help keep CPMs afloat for a little while. “Viewability” should help publishers increase prices, which is likely why buyers are not pushing this as emphatically as one would think.  Programmatically, the promise the ad tech stack companies make to premium publishers to help increase display CPMs is well-intended but fatally flawed.  The collective tech stack businesses are built upon volume, so where is the incentive on their part for prices to continually rise?



These tech and contextual solution currents may change directions at times, but online display ad prices for premium publishers will continue to sink for the foreseeable future.  That means publishers have to bring change into 2014. I believe that change starts not with a shiny new ad toy, but rather, with a brand new story about the audience they really deliver.

In online, site metrics tell the story about what a typical visit session looks like on a publisher’s site.  I learned the following definition of an online engagement story from Kevin Mannion:

Site Metrics + Site Engagement = Online Engagement Story

The dirty little secret affecting these site metrics is that a very small percentage of a site’s users make up an overwhelming percentage of that site’s total page views (as well as time spent).  Subsequently, these core users see a majority of the ad impressions served.  So while advertisers think they are buying online based on scale, what they are really getting is a whole bunch of frequency against a site’s core audience.

Scale has always struck me as an odd buying objective with online because, unlike print or television where ads are priced based on the audience reached, online is sold by impressions, not audience size.  An advertiser that runs 10 million impressions on a site with 10 million unique visitors doesn’t mean the ad reaches 10 million people.  Common sense aside, scale has driven online buying decisions, which is why publishers (& buyers) ignore the impact of “bounce rate” (the percent of people who come to a site and leave immediately) on site metrics and subsequent online engagement stories.

Premium publishers should stop ignoring this impact and instead embrace it.  In 2014, the story publishers pay good salespeople to tell well should fly in the face of scale by getting smaller.  This new engagement story should focus only on the people who care the most about the site by eliminating the visitors who care the least from the plot. 

Let’s look at an example of what happens to these engagement metrics when you take out “site bouncers.”

Old Scale Story

Total Uniques: 10,000,000

Total Page Views:  50,000,000

Page Views per Unique:  5.0

Time Spent per Unique: 1 minute, 40 sec


NEW Core Audience Story

Total Uniques: 10,000,000

Bounce Rate:  50%

Core Uniques: 5,000,000

Core Page Views:  45,000,000

Page Views per Core Unique:  9.0

Time Spent per Core Unique: 3 minutes


This new “core audience” story would simply be defined by the metrics generated from every person who visited a site and did not bounce.  By default, these engagement metrics have to improve considerably, and the message changes from scale to “core” and “elusive.”  Moving forward, I would explain in sales collateral that “our” site numbers are adjusted down to reflect our “core uniques” and the omission of the people who get counted as traditional uniques, but bounce and deliver very little value.

Now combine this new core audience story with a direct-sales-only ad package offering ad impressions that exclusively reach “our core uniques.” CPMs will immediately increase and then begin to consistently rise -- and, even more important, so will the confidence of your sales team as they tell a better story they are more comfortable telling.

Telling a better story about the value a site delivers to those who visit is critical in obtaining greater value for the ads sold.  I recognize how counterintuitive this new story reads, but what is being said now is just not working.  Premium publishers have a better story if they move away from scale and embrace the value that comes with being smaller.

3 comments about "Publishers Need To Scale Back Their Story In 2014".
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  1. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, December 19, 2013 at 1:34 p.m.

    Ari, there is another side of the equation you might want to consider. First off the true key to the campaign is not the banner, it is the text link that takes you to the designation page you are pointing to. In fact you don't even need the banner. I sell the major Fortune 1,000's and their ad agencies the text link. Then we take the text link and input this into our sweepstakes program. Why? Because we can get up to 100 times the number of sweep entries/clicks to the same page at 10 percent less than going through a banner distributor or ad network. Does it work? Yes, we get more Facebook sweepstakes entries than Facebook and this comes from two of the big ad agencies in the country. The other side of this is you are talking about old technology, not new. Meaning, we use a heavy dose of Silverlight in our programs that allow our members to create their own internal favorites list called My Lucky List. This next generation of programming greatly reduces the total page views because My Lucky List doesn't refresh. Further and because of this, many of our members stay on the same page for 20 minutes or longer per day. Simply better technology and cheaper for the sponsors.

  2. Tony Anderson from Incline Video, December 19, 2013 at 2:45 p.m.

    All good points Ari! Would love to hear your views about online video sometime as well.
    There have been lots of IPO's and M&A activity as of late.

  3. Daniel Ambrose from, corp., December 20, 2013 at 1:55 p.m.

    Ari, I agree with you. Just posted this on my own blog about publishers strategy. We can't control how much new inventory is being created every day. We can do a better job of creating demand with better marketing and sales processes to take control of the "needs" that go into RFPs. If we let others define the needs, then they get the business.

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