When I’m asked about my views of where digital marketing is headed, I often tell an anecdote about the past. I may have told it here before (5300 posts and ten years into this blog, I sometimes forget what I’ve written), but it’s worth another spin.
The year was 1994, the place, Wired headquarters in San Francisco. As I recall it (and I’m perfectly willing to admit I may not be getting this exactly right), a small group of us were in an editorial meeting – a weekly affair that included our founder, CEO, and Editor in Chief; our Executive Editor; and our Art Director. The subject of our new “HotWired” project came up – Wired was devoting significant resources to the launch of an ambitious Internet publication – one of the first of its kind.
We were hiring literally dozens of editors and writers, convinced that this new medium would prove revolutionary. We wanted to be at the forefront of it – and looking back, I think it’s fair to say HotWired certainly was.
In any case, the question came up: How are we going to pay all these people?! At the magazine, of course, we sold subscriptions and we took advertising. That model was well understood, and it worked. HotWired had a lot of expenses, and it needed a revenue model.
This was a puzzle. At that point it seemed inconceivable to charge for access to the site (and counter productive, because we wanted as much traffic as possible.) Online, information wanted to be free – at least, that was what we believed. Without the distribution and printing costs of print, we figured subscriptions were unnecessary. So that left advertising. But as we sat in that meeting, the question remained – what should the ads be like?
This is when I spoke up with, given hindsight, what may have been a pretty bad idea. Since the late 1980s I had been a subscriber to many online services, including Compuserve, AOL, The Well, and even Prodigy, which was perhaps the worst of them all. I paid for those services because they connected me to content and communities I cared about (and allowed me to send email). But now that you could simply pay one fee for “Internet service,” the subscription was decoupled from the value proposition of content and community. Besides our belief about information wanting to be free, we couldn’t ask folks to pay twice – once for Internet service, and again for HotWired.
The Prodigy service, I recalled, also featured advertising – in the form of a very irritating, blinking, ugly banner framed at the bottom of the service’s window. You couldn’t turn it off, you couldn’t “scroll” it away (online services didn’t work that way), and it was one of the main reasons I didn’t like the service. But for whatever reason, it was the only model of advertising I had seen online that I could recall clearly. Perhaps, I suggested in the meeting, we might put something like Prodigy’s banner on our new service, but figure out a less irritating approach?
That’s when our founder’s eyes lit up. He understood the power of a web page – it had a scroll bar! “We could put it at the top of the page,” he proclaimed, “and people could scroll it out of view!” (Please take this quotation with a grain of salt. This is what I remember him saying.) The team at HotWired took our founder’s idea, iterated it, and in October of that same year, the banner was born.
I can’t speak for others at Wired and HotWired, but personally, I want to say, with a bit of a twinkle in my eye: I’m sorry. I’m sorry because over the proceeding two decades, we’ve managed to take the banner, place it in second-class real estate on most sites (at the top, on the side, away from the content), and train an entire generation of audience members to ignore the voice of marketers. And that was not a healthy move for the ecosystem of digital publishing.
Now, let me explain the twinkle. The fact is, the banner – and its descendants the box, the tower, the wide tower, the Rising Star, the expandable, Project Devil, the Conversationalist and on and on – these units have been very good to the web. They’ve gotten us to where we are – to billions and billions of revenue, and countless hundreds of thousands of web publishing sites driven by that revenue. It’s been a scalable, consistent, efficient platform for marketers. Federated Media Publishing, where I remain Chair, has served up banners by the hundreds of billions over the years – it now serves nearly 30 billion a month across its network.
So I’m proud of the banner. It’s been a workhorse. But as I wrote in my last post, we’re at an inflection point in the display ecosystem. Banners continue to evolve, and I don’t think they’ll ever go away for good. But if you run a high quality site that has to pay its creators, and you want to make a business of it that includes marketing as a core piece of your revenue, I believe it’s once again time to ask that question: What should the ads be like?
My answer is this: They should be like the content they support.
Now, before you scream bloody murder about the wall between editorial and advertisement, let me remind you that successful ad models have always mirrored the vocabulary, grammar, and visual nature of the medium they inhabit. Open any issue of Vogue for proof of that. And tell me whether or not the Old Spice Man thirty-second spots employ the same visual and narrative vocabulary as the shows where they appear. Truth is, television and print are storytelling mediums, and they provide marketers a scaleable place to tell a story. Yes, they also interrupt the flow of the editorial. But that’s the price we pay to insure we can access the content. Period, end of sentence. If you do not believe advertising has a right to at least a portion of your audience’s attention, you should not be selling advertising.
Until recently – and upon reflection, quite incredibly – most web publishing was based on the idea that advertising did not have the right to that attention. Relegated to the top and right rail, ads on the web moped from the sidelines, hoping that they might prove relevant enough to possibly elicit a click. Quite understandably, this pushed the entire display ecosystem to be driven by the metrics of “below the line” or “direct response” marketing. Of course we’ve innovated along the way – with page and site takeovers, expandables, and clever one-offs here or there. But while those may work at scale on a very large site like Yahoo, marketers hate inefficiency. They don’t want to make unique creative for every single site that they might wish to support. They’ll do it for large platforms that have proven return – Google, Twitter, Facebook. But for smaller content sites? We can do better.
The independent web is a fractured place. There’s no single template for what a website should look like. That’s what makes it so wonderful – and so difficult to monetize efficiently. So I’d like to offer up some recommendations for sites who want to have a profitable relationship with marketers. Some of these might strike you as going too far. And I’m certainly not suggesting we have to adopt them all. But if we want to create a lasting digital publishing industry that supports the efforts and product of talented content creators, we best adopt at least a few of them.
*First, we have to retrain our audiences to understand that high quality content costs money, and advertisers are our partners in providing that money. If you want our content free of charge, you have to give our advertisers a portion of your attention as well. That’s the deal. We’ve not done a good job of making that explicit across the quality independent web, but we must. For some more thinking on this concept, see my post on Do Not Track from June.
*Next, we need to think about designing our sites so they can accept standardized, high quality ad units that actually work for all involved. The traditional blog (like this one) is not well suited for such units, but it’s not too hard to rethink it so as to accept them. At the very least, this means adopting some standard “ad friendly” templates on our sites. For more, see info on the NCS below.
*Third, we have to work with our marketing partners to create advertising content that measures up to the quality of the content our audiences have come to enjoy. While there’s a lot of amazing creative out there on the web, I think it’s fair to say that most creative agencies – the folks who make ads – don’t consider digital to be nearly as important as television or even print. That must change. Ads on the web need to be creatively compelling, and they need to be “native” to the environment in which they live. Publishers can help with this – see the section on content marketing below.
*Fourth, we need to give advertisers ad products that have scale, and enough of a canvas to tell that story which is native to the environment. Boxes and rectangles relegated to the sidelines check the scale box, but not the creative canvas box. Here are a few new units that I believe, with scale, give advertisers that canvas:
*The interstitial/overlay. Many high quality sites have already adopted this unit. It shows you an ad when you first land on the page, before you get to the free content. It’s often video (marketers are nuts for video these days.) It interrupts the flow of the audience member’s intent – usually he or she is coming in from a social or search link intent on reading a specific story, right now – but it certainly checks the box for getting our attention. I think the interstitial can and should be adopted widely – and evolve to the point where it appears as a reward for engaging with content, rather than a prerequisite.
* The Native Conversational Suite. (Scroll down to see it) This group of products – from Federated Media Publishing, so I’m clearly biased – lives in the editorial well of the site itself. Just as the ad unit at Twitter is a tweet, or at Facebook is a post, with the NCS, the unit is a piece of content that lives natively on the site. It’s clearly marked as sponsored, but it’s given the same respect and space as any other piece of content. To me, that’s a lot like a page of a magazine – it may be a story, or it may be an ad. The trick is getting the ratio, the creative, and the scale right. FM is leaning into driving the NCS across our entire network – which has a reach past 200 million in the US alone.
* The full page ad. I’ve always like the magazine model of full-page and two-page ad spread. You can quickly flip past them as you browse, but if an ad really speaks to you, you pause and absorb it. With the rise of tablet design models, I believe the time is near for the equivalent of a full page digitally-enhanced ad, similar in nature to what you see on Flipboard. It needn’t be relegated to just one app.
* The Mobile Moment. I’m calling this a “moment” because on smaller mobile devices, it’s even more true that traditional boxes and rectangles don’t work very well. Independent publishers must design our sites for mobile, and for advertising units that can appear at the right moment for both the audience and the marketer. An easy example of this is an interstitial video that appears as a player is “leveling up” during a game. For a publisher, that moment might come at the end of a story, or before a second one is chosen.
* Content marketing. This could be an entire post, and probably will be, but for now I’ll summarize. Again, FM has been a leader here, and it’s a part of our business that is growing nicely. To me, content marketing is a broad category that includes a range of activities, but the short of it is this: Content marketing is a publisher helping a marketer act natively in the environment a publisher knows best – in short, helping a brand do all the things I’ve been on about above. It’s a publisher helping a marketer create content that works – that engages an audience in various ways.
If you’re going to be a serious publisher on the web, you need to devote part of your energies to working directly with marketers to help them express themselves both on your site as well as across the web in general. This is an area where FM and many others are investing significant resources. Content marketing can be as lightweight as helping a marketer create sponsored posts, or as significant as becoming a partner on a brand-driven media platform like openforum.com or makeup.com.
There are certainly other examples, but I’ll stop there. Imagine if all major publishers across the independent web banded together and implemented a few of these ideas. Then marketers would have broad, engaging canvases, great content to associate with, and that most important of check boxes: Scale.
But there’s even more publishers can do. Foremost among them is getting smart on how to leverage social platforms, and how to lever our own data through programmatic platforms. First, on social: Not having a strategy for social is akin to not have a search-engine optimization plan five years ago. Social drives more than traffic, it drives customer engagement, and just as brands can’t afford to ignore it, neither can publishers. But we have to be smart – don’t put your taproot in the soils of social, but rather leverage it to take care of your audience.
Next, on programmatic. Traditional banner inventory is already undergoing significant change, and publishers need to understand that change, and get smart about how best to navigate it. Programmatic buying is growing at double digit rates, and by some estimates, will account for more than half of all display advertising budgets within two years. That’s stunning given programmatic buying platforms barely existed just three years ago. I believe publishers need to consider who they’ll partner with on programmatic platforms, and how their data and inventory will be used. It’s going to become a crucial publishing skill to either manage your own inventory wisely, or trust a third party who shares your same interests – a partner who is on your side. Again, this is why FMP combined with Lijit Networks, and is investing so much in driving that business forward.
Within five or so years, I believe, most inventory, even the units I mentioned above, will in some way be purchased via a programmatic platform. That might leave us wondering what the people will do. Currently our industry employees tens of thousands of people who market, sell, manage, flight, optimize, and report on display advertising. There’s going to be disruption in this marketplace, to be certain, but the crucial thing to remember is this: we want to employ people to do what people do best, and machines to do what machines do best. People are very good at creating content (machines, not so much), and very good at working in a consultative fashion with marketers. They are very good at coding and tending machines. And most importantly, we are exceptional at insight. The best publishing teams of the future are going to be partners to brands, publishers, and agencies, creating integrated, native experiences that leverage the machine’s scale and real time algorithms. The future, to me, is bright. Getting there, however, means we embrace change. Let’s get to work.