‘People are bombarded with ads’: Confessions of a publishing vet on user experience

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

User experience has often taken a backseat to monetization needs at publishers, leading to the rise of ad blocking, and tech giants like Google and Apple cracking down on ads that slow down page speed.

But letting go of annoying, obtrusive ad formats which are still big revenue generators isn’t easy for publishers. For the latest in our Confessions series, we spoke to a digital media vet, who until recently was a senior publishing executive at a national newspaper, but has also spent time on the ad tech side, about the challenges in fixing the user experience.

How would you describe the current digital advertising user experience?
People are still bombarded with ads, their computers stuffed with tags and cookies. They have autoplay video, with the sound off by default if they’re lucky, and all these things affect the page-load speed. In a real-life situation it’s the equivalent of throwing soapy water under a customer, or hitting them with a bat while they walk through a store. They’re then stalked all the way to the bus stop or inside their car, and told to buy products they’ve likely just bought. It’s a parallel reality that premium publishers have allowed to develop. It’s a shame, because trusted quality publishers are so vital today for societal and democracy reasons, and for the new generations.

This has improved since ad blocking became an issue though, right?
Yes, it has improved. But there was a long period when publishers showed a kind of “how dare they” attitude to people blocking ads. Naturally, ads need to be shown to fund quality content, but that doesn’t authorize or justify publishers showing ads of any format, size or weight, which is what had happened, and what caused consumers to respond. These bad practices haven’t been all under the direct control of the publisher, but they need to regain that control, and really X-ray what goes on their pages.

What’s holding this back?
Usually positive changes come down to certain publishers willing to take certain pioneering approaches, which everyone else follows. That’s typical of publishers. They’re followers when they should all be leading. There is a historic opportunity currently, due to the social and political situation. But many publishers are still allowing themselves to fight in a race to the bottom with low quality publishing and allowing themselves to be cornered by agencies.

Cornered how?
Agencies have parallel agendas so they prioritize reach over quality. When I’ve worked for premium publishers in the past, despite having better data than any competitor, we were discriminated against by agencies because we didn’t have the biggest reach. It’s a disservice to their clients. It’s also putting publishers under a lot of pressure. I wish advertisers and publishers talked directly more. That’s happening more, and it should be the way forward.

Who gets to decide that approach?

It can come down to communication breakdowns and internal agendas. I’ve seen situations where a certain strategy is decided by good people, with good understanding of technology. Sales teams have different agendas because they’re just thinking of their targets, or they simply haven’t been involved in the discussion, so things like frequency capping and other horrid ads slip through. It can even be down to youth and inexperience. Publishers and agencies both hire young people, and if you’re going to put a 22-year-old to work on open real-time bidding, without mentoring or training, and they feel under pressure to perform, then things happen.

Some European publishers don’t think they should drop autoplay, only turn the sound off.
That’s why it is a parallel reality. It’s like a restaurant forcing you to eat a dessert you don’t want, because it makes them more revenue. We’re trying to bend reality. Publishers jump on new things without thinking things through because of the need to meet short-term revenues. Then they complain about the duopoly. But Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon — they were built on long-term strategies. How can traditional publishers even think of fighting back when everything is done for short-term revenues.

Explain this bending of reality.
We need to accept that traffic is limited, that reach is not infinite. Accept that we have limits and boundaries we need to live within, not try to bend the reality by looking for reach at all cost, or by autoplaying videos because you don’t have infinite users. If we can do that, the good publishers will move on and bad publishers will die. That at least is reality. Not trying to turn the other way, and telling each other it doesn’t happen.


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