Ads. They’re complicated.

The Publishers Playbook Newsletter

Hello, and welcome if this is your first time reading. 

In today’s email I want to talk about ads. If you have no interest in ads or don’t run ads and never will. Feel free to skip this email. 

In what may seem like a bit of a cop out, I don’t have a single stance on ads. As with all codependent relationships: it’s complicated. 

So the aim of today’s newsletter is simply to share some knowledge and observations from both sides of the fence. In the hope that this added context will help you to think a little differently about why and how you run ads. You’ll find some links included through to quite well written pieces to help form a view. 

In other news: I’ve launched a new venture that ties into the digital publishing world, which is called Publisha. A subscription service providing support to publishers with the right strategic and technical advice to help them thrive. Do check it out if you’re interested, and do let me know if you have any questions about it.

Ads. They’re complicated.

At the heart of it, a publishing business needs revenue to exist. And for the longest time, running ads has been one of the most heavily lent on survival strategies.

Let’s start with what’s good about ads. 

Ads democratise content, information, news. 

The paywall is an obvious way to make audiences fund the content they consume. But this approach assumes your audience has the means or disposable income to pay for that privilege. And as more of the world heads into recession, this issue becomes even more pertinent.

To play this scenario out, how much sense would it make for a local news organisation to put a paywall on an article that’s warning of a COVID19 outbreak, or the risk of imminent bush fires?

This point is made so well here: The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free

Performance & Privacy

I was recently rewatching one of the best conference talks I’ve seen; Maciej Ceglowski’s “The Website Obesity Crisis” from 2015. His arguments line up pretty closely with Media Analyst Thomas Baekdal’s recent column: “If we want to fix ad tech and privacy, 2020 is the year to do it“.

If you’re at all interested in the future of digital publishing, I highly recommend checking out these two bits of content. However, the basic summary is that over the last five years, the ad tech industry has made the internet slower and is continuing to infringe on individuals’ privacy. 

The truth is that publishers wag their finger at big tech like Facebook and Google about privacy, while simultaneously choosing to run all kinds of ad tech that often is far more questionable. 

The supply chain from advertiser through to publisher is pretty much broken. In Maciej’s talk, he references some research (albeit 2015) where the cents per megabyte, just to download and run all the ad tech, was actually greater than any CPM a publisher would ever see. 

So a page impression is being monetised, but by the telco – which is a pretty extraordinary concept. What if we took the page bloat out and instead that micro payment goes to the publisher rather than the telco, before we even consider the actual ads. It’s a pretty fundamental shift, but it’s not out of the question. 

A partial solution: Dumb Ads

“Advertisers will tell you online publishing must be supported by advertising, and advertising has to take the form that is does”  – Maciej Ceglowski

I think most people would agree that there’s a pretty significant case for the first part of that quote. But what needs to evolve is the form that ads take.

This is where the concept of Dumb Ads emerges as a suitable replacement.

I recently listened to an interview with Scott Brodbeck, founder of Arlington Now about how his publication has eliminated reliance on programmatic ad tech. By taking a hyper-local attitude to advertising, they’ve been able to deliver solutions direct to their target market. 

“Our clients have had some really significant success because [the ads are] providing useful information to readers in a format where they know it’s an ad, but they don’t care because they’re getting useful information that’s relevant to them, whether it’s lists of open houses in the area or it’s our local beer columnist who runs a local beer and wine store” – Scott Brodbeck

The gap in the market 

The ultimate goal for any future-thinking publishing business should be to:

  • Have greater control over an ad-based revenue stream
  • Be less dependence on big tech ad networks 

From what I’ve seen, a gap in the market exists in the service of matchmaking smaller niche publishers with those advertisers.

At a minimum, and something you could do, today, is build an “advertise with us” page.

Encourage and incentivise those who already know about you to consider direct advertising campaigns.

Services like Linkby show a lot of promise, matching advertisers and publishers through native / editorial coverage. 

If you know of a service that isn’t programatic, but allows for advertisers to find publishers – I’d love to know about it.

Ben May

Ben is Managing Director of The Code Company. He is passionate about working with publishers on clever and innovative ways to solve complex problems. He works with The Code Company team on all projects, bringing his perspective and problem solving skills to deliver great outcomes.