It's Time To Smarten Up Your Ad Serving

Advertising revenue at Google and Facebook last year grew by 60% and 40% respectively, while all other publishers saw a one percent decline. The Internet hasn’t worked out as it should for publishers, per Digital Content Next, a group representing digital publishers.

The problem isn’t insurmountable. Yet getting this market back on course can only be achieved through a wholesale change. One place to start is by ripping up the accepted norms of static online advertising and going dynamic.

Back in 1996, the Internet Advertising Bureau, comprised of a handful of publishers and advertisers, began standardizing ad units to achieve scale. And so the ad server, designed to insert cookie-cutter ads in predictable parts of web pages, was born.

The trouble is, outside of the realm of enhanced targeting, the fundamentals of ad serving have not changed in nearly 20 years. As performance of display has decreased, so has the money which advertisers are willing to pay. That has left worried publishers stuffing their pages with more ad units, in a bid to recoup lost spend – and that in turn, leads to ever-greater consumer disgust.



We are now into well into a spiral in which publishers are naively turning away their precious users. They have sacrificed user experience for monetization, and are having to spend thousands daily buying back traffic to make up the shortfall.

It’s time to smarten up.

It starts with putting the customer first. Publishers should start accounting for the whole of a reader’s potential on-site journey, not just by trying to wring every cent possible from a single page view.

There is now evidence to show dropping the amount of ad units on a site results in longer session length. Better user experience results to higher perceived value and more organic returns. Ultimately, publishers need to start thinking more about customer acquisition costs and lifetime values.

One efficient way to do this is through dismantling the concept of traditional ad serving and rethinking how to advertise most effectively. The conventional mechanism is based on pre-designed ad templates, that lack visibility into the existing content on the page, and how users behave on that particular site.

This system remarkably mirrors the notion of the “news hole” employed in the print-newspaper era. It makes a world in which every article must be similar in order to meet the needs of the ads around it.

One option, dynamic ad serving, throws out the preconceived notion that pages should include predefined inventory locations. Instead, it redeploys many of the tricks of the programmatic trade to customize the page layout – and, therefore, the ad volume and context – based on what we know about visitor and their current session.

Hard-coded, pre-defined ad placements are yesterday’s melody. We need to do away with the lazy placements of banners at the top, right or bottom. Instead, the approach should be entirely flexible and based on understanding how the content is actually getting consumed.

Today, you won’t find dynamic ad serving and inventory creation of this sort widely deployed. Only in the last couple of years has this technology become available. But adoption is another matter. The big ad server providers out there have not dipped their toes in the water, much less dived in.

For a player like Google’s DFP, for example, moving from the age-old method of ad serving to something more dynamic would be a tremendous overhaul. Even with a huge army of developers on staff, such a fundamental change for would be a huge undertaking for the world’s biggest ad server entity.

Publishers are on borrowed time. 2017 must be the year when they more closely align their site monetization with consumers’ sensitivities and real behavior – or they risk falling down the news hole.

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