‘It can be a money-printing machine’: The incredible revival of auto-refreshing ads

Historically, media observers called out the use of auto-refreshing ads as a bad practice, something geared to the short term and rather mercenary. But this view is changing and the practice is hardly en route to extinction.

Over the last few months, the number of publisher sites with such ads has been on the rise: The ads within these sites auto-refresh based on triggers, such as the amount of time elapsed, delivering more impressions and thus boosting a publisher’s ad revenue. This is not a new tactic, but one coming back into fashion as publishers are squeezed to extract more value from their advertising businesses. But as is the case with other tactics designed to drum up more ad revenue, publishers must contend with how flagrant examples of this practice impede the user experience.

Similar to autoplaying video ads, ads that auto-refresh help boost the number of impressions served to users but do not always work in their best interest. According to AdPushup, which sells ad optimization services to publishers, 90% of the 300 global publishers within its network (including U.S. publishers like CNET), use some form of ad refreshing on their sites. Six months ago, the statistic was closer to 20%.

“We used to pitch against people by saying that we don’t refresh ads every X seconds back in the mid-2000s,” said Canton Marketing Solutions founder Nick King, adding that the revived tactic is being used to boost the amount of inventory available for publishers to sell.

“Selling time on page was a key benefit on the site; that’s what you were buying into” when the practice was initially deployed, added King, who formerly served as digital commercial director for Future Publishing. “Why would [advertisers] buy an audience that doesn’t spend much time on the page? Otherwise, premium publishers can go down that route of giving away what makes them more powerful.”

Today publishers are grappling with how to increase ad revenue as they are confronted with multiple challenges, such as declining ad rates on Apple Safari audiences.

“With new compliance requirements and the eventual deprecation of cookies, there is increasing pressure on publishers to find alternative ways to maximize revenue and manage user experience,” said Maggie Mesa, vp of publisher partnership at ad tech platform provider OpenX. This “may be why we’re seeing new auto-refresh strategies resurface.”

Publishers considering the tactic need to calculate the amount of revenue they would actually generate serving more ads on a page via the refreshing technique. AdPushup estimates a potential net revenue increase of 20% to 45%, depending on how long on average users spend on a publisher’s site and whether header bidding and bid caching are concurrently deployed with the refreshing technique.   

But with each additional refresh, an ad’s cost per thousand decreases. For ads on a desktop, the CPM decrease was 13.5% for the first refresh, with a lower percentage decrease for each successive refresh, according to AdPushup’s observations across its network. For this reason, publishers might want to calculate the potential revenue to be generated per page, rather than by impression, and balance that with the goal of keeping overall viewability high.

“Auto-refreshing can be a money-printing machine, allowing publishers to print an infinite amount of inventory,” said Ian Trider, a director at ad tech platform company Centro. “So it needs to be done in such a way that creates value. We will blacklist sites that use unacceptable auto-refresh.”

Indeed, bad examples abound.

“Industry-wide, ad refresh is pretty rampant,” said Vishveshwar Jatain, head of marketing at AdPushup. Two of the worst offenders from a user experience perspective involve what’s called a background refresh, with the ad and the editorial content refreshing after every 30 seconds or so. The other relies on a blind refresh, whereby ads are refreshing without any accounting for whether they are in view or the user is active. If the ad unit refreshes without a viewability check, publishers’ viewability score can easily drop below 10% to 15%, making the inventory less valuable to buyers. “It becomes a slippery slope,” Jatain added.

“Anecdotally, there is a correlation between bad auto-refresh practices and poor viewability; it’s a common pattern,” Centro’s Trider said. “For a site that has a low average for viewability, [say] under 10%, typically the reason is poor auto-refresh activities.”

Indeed, auto-refreshing can result in an effect quite the opposite of what’s intended and damage the extent to which a publisher can monetize an ad. One news publisher opted to not increase the number of times an ad auto-refreshed since the new request to serve the ad would lower the CPM and value to buyers, according to an ad-tech source.

Yet, advertisers are buying refreshed ad inventory, so there is demand. Some small ad tech vendors are offering ad refreshing while protecting viewability scores, so buyers won’t lose confidence in the value of publishers’ inventory. But not all bigger vendors offer this.

Advertisers are buying auto-refreshing ads on some publishers’ sites — on pages using infinite scroll or when user activity is detected through mouse movements.

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“A site with low dwell time and a high bounce rate is no place for an auto-refresh,” said Ed Blakeway, head of programmatic and social at performance marketing agency Journey Further. “However sites with rich, engaging content with low bounce rates are ripe for refreshing.”

Google Ad Exchanger supports ad refreshing as long as the practice is declared so buyers know they are buying refreshed ads, the triggers that cause the refreshing, like whether a user scrolls or if another feature on the publisher site updates, and a minimum interval between refreshes elapses.

“In general, the longer the interval between refreshes, the more desirable your inventory is to buyers,” Google has noted. “We recommend using user action or event-driven refreshes when possible.”

But when an auto-refreshing is rigged on a timer, regardless of other criteria, that’s when the practice wanders into fraud territory. So where should publishers draw the line?

“We know 95% not viewable is not valuable but there’s a lot more [that’s in the] mushy middle,” Trider said. “Multiple DSPs have stated that excessive or inappropriate auto-refresh does not meet their requirements. Publishers need to be careful, it’s not fundamentally unacceptable but you could find DSPs blacklist your supply.”

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