Publishers: Beware of Fool’s Gold

Perhaps no other industry has undergone the seismic changes we’ve seen over the past decade than media. Content publishers still struggle to find the right mix and methods for presenting ads that yield revenue and attract loyal consumers.

Even if a publisher builds a great audience, it is left with the uncomfortable fact that most people hate being marketed to when they’re consuming content. The killer advantage of search is that it perfectly marries the ad experience with the user experience. Ads in search, on the whole, are more often helpful and relevant than not. That’s not the case with content properties. How many times have you stopped yourself from pressing “skip this ad” to view a video ad in its entirety before getting to the content you want? Probably never. Display ads are also a distraction and largely ignored, as evidenced by industry-average click-through rates near zero.

Ads need to be integral to the content experience itself. Every year brands spend tens of millions of dollars launching new ad campaigns during the Superbowl. It’s probably the only time of the year that the audience actually makes it a point to pay attention to ads. Why? Because these ads have become a part of the entire Superbowl experience — a part of the Superbowl “content.” This is the kind of holistic approach that must take hold in online media.

Publishers need to challenge the perception of what is an advertisement. Ads can no longer be separate from the content. The ad must be part of the content itself. Product placements within television series have been the most visible examples of this to date. The online world may not yet provide that same level of integration, but finding a way to weave the brand in with the content that is contextually relevant is key. People don’t hate ads – they hate the disruption of their content experience. For example, when a discussion develops around a piece of content, publishers should look at those as opportunities to layer in ads that are relevant to the background and interest of that audience and the issues they are discussing.

Publishers must also realize there are no shortcuts. For content to have longevity, it must first be impactful. Consumers are well aware that advertisers pay to get their brand message in front of potential customers. However, if the ad resonates with an audience, make it frictionless for them to share it. An organic, earned view through transparent customer advocacy is marketing gold.

The New York Times Co. recently launched a new social-media advertising program that attempts to address this media monetization challenge. Called Ricochet, the program lets marketers pick a select number of articles that are relevant to their social media audiences and create special links for sharing those stories. Anyone clicking on the social-media links will see the marketer’s ads next to the stories for a specified period of time. This is a good start, but there remains a huge opportunity for innovation, both in terms of business practices and new technologies to disrupt the status quo. There’s no reason Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr should be the only ones thinking of “native monetization.” Content publishers must, too.

Those publishers, advertisers and technology innovators who are successful have a lot to gain. Web advertising has already surpassed print. But the only way online advertising can begin to crack TV budgets is if publishers make changes to how they treat the ads around and within their content.

Cali Tran is a principal at North Bridge, a venture capital firm.

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