Aiming Higher

Digital publishing and advertising shouldn’t settle

There are two cynical forces that have dominated digital publishing for too long. The social web and shrinking screens have the potential to squelch them and I embrace the revolution wholeheartedly.

The first of those forces is about generating as many pageviews as possible — and by extension, impressions and ad inventory — without regard to how they are being generated.

The second is a blatant, unapologetic attempt to jam as much advertising as will fit into every corner of the screen in pursuit of monetizing those pageviews.

The problem with the publishing industry

In and of itself, the pursuit of pageviews isn’t cynical; it’s simply a business model for purveyors of content (Om Malik has been exploring similar — and other — conundrums recently). The problem lies in the crass manipulation of this ecosystem to drive up these numbers without consideration of their value to readers or society or even, therefore, to advertisers. The irony is that, as a result of these rampant practices, publishers have created their own nightmare: low ad rates; user experiences that dilute their brands; and business models that are more precarious, not stronger.

Many advertisers and ad sellers have been complicit in this system, by measuring the success of ad campaigns using oversimplified metrics (like clickthrough rates) and consequently ensuring the proliferation of high-volume, low-priced, under-performing commodities. In fairness, CMOs and the people who work for them are hard-pressed to prove results to others in their organizations, so any data showing ROI is helpful. But we all know that the CTR is a blunt instrument that barely tells the story. (I won’t begin to get into the very real issue of click fraud or the sorry state of third-party and first-party measurement tools in this essay.)

Brand advertising has always been difficult to measure. Yet there has been an understanding that high-quality, strategically placed ads—such as the powerful, beautiful Apple billboard in downtown Manhattan…the lush Ralph Lauren spread in Vogue…the eTrade commercials that make everyone laugh…the Game of Thrones billboard on my commuter train — all have an impact on the viewer or listener that may turn into action at some point.

Digital was supposed to answer the age-old conundrum of which 50% of one’s advertising spend was the effective half—but it hasn’t, because the same conditions that plague other media persist: it’s still very difficult to prove that an ad was read or seen, let alone who saw that ad and the effect it might have had on their actions or attitudes.

The thing that digital has created is a low barrier to entry for “content creators” (publishers). In the early days, when search generated a much larger percentage of a site’s traffic, it was smart to game the Google robots using keywords and hyperbole and even inaccuracies to grow traffic, and ad inventory. You could also buy traffic through paid search. A low barrier to entry + a mechanism to artificially and rapidly grow audience = a glut of ad inventory and mediocre content. This glut, in turn, has driven advertising prices lower and lower every year and created a culture of commoditization that has led to increasingly unimaginative advertising and a vicious cycle of lower performance leading to lower pricing and vice versa.

In our endless chase for eyeballs, we seem to have forgotten the readers behind them. When the only consideration in leveraging ad networks or other commoditized buying mechanisms is to get eyeballs at a low price, user experience suffers. When publishers jam interstitials, boxes, buttons, and banners into every corner of the screen in the relentless pursuit of ARPU (average revenue per user) or RPM (revenue per thousand impressions), users move on to something else and, worse, start to resent your brand. These practices are universally despised, but we all tolerate them because publishers can charge for this crap and advertisers can either get it cheap or enhance a CTR with inadvertent clicks and fat-fingerings.

Engage people, not eyeballs

At a conference I attended earlier this year, a young, independent blogger touted the fact that all these mechanisms—hyperlinks, pop-overs, etc.—were great ways for him to monetize his site. He noted with satisfaction that his advertising was so well-veiled that his readers often wouldn’t know it was advertising. There wasn’t an ounce of concern or skepticism about the model in any countenance or question in the room—instead, there was a lot of nodding and note-taking.

Is this really what we should resign ourselves to? I don’t think it is and thankfully, the combination of the social and mobile revolutions are going to force us to a better place.

In 2006 and 2007, a confluence of critical developments—the birth of Twitter and the iPhone among them—jumpstarted the rise of traffic growth by social shares, and it’s been snowballing ever since. People voting your content up or down on Reddit or Digg, sharing it on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, email, or IM is how content is spread today. This is an important change.

The social revolution has created a content meritocracy. Rather than finding content by clicking around on a site’s homepage or via the unsatisfying results of search, we’re relying on trusted, human sources to recommend content they themselves have consumed and determined worthy of our time. In this ecosystem, it’s harder to game the system because people won’t share or vote for something they don’t think is good—their “push” reflects on them and so they’re more thoughtful about it. For advertising, this implies both an opportunity and a cost. The cost of bad advertising is that it won’t travel. But for great, interesting advertising, the opportunity for amplification by social referral is significant.

The mobile revolution provides further opportunity (and pitfalls) because the devices are more intimate and screen sizes smaller. We’re less distracted and more protective when we use them than when we’re sitting in front of the larger screens on our desks or laps. We burrow in and read or watch or game more deeply and we absolutely despise intrusions. As publishers and advertisers, we have to be very careful in here. We have to respect the user experience—that means adding to it, not interrupting it.

For advertisers, the opportunity is a powerful one because, unlike the “blindness” that plagues ads relegated to right rails and below-the-fold boxes on larger screens, mobile ads command more of the screen and can engage deeply if they are good. But the pit to fall into is even deeper in mobile. Ads that take us out of where we are when we fat-finger them or take over the screen when we land on a recommended page annoy and turn off readers even more than their ignorable cousins on desktop.

The challenge, and opportunity, before us

The rich interactivity of the digital media consumption experience combined with the lush image quality that we’re now able to render on any piece of glass gives us the opportunity to draw in and delight users like never before. So why are so many of us squandering this opportunity with terrible experiences? Publishing and advertising were once proudly known as two of the most creative industries in the world. I pose that it is beneath us to settle for a lowest-common-denominator user experience in the pursuit of myopic, incremental revenue streams—rather, it is our obligation to advance the medium for our readers, which in turn will open up stronger, more sustainable revenue streams.

At Quartz, we’re seeing the results of our attempts to aim high:

1. Revenue growth: Between Q1 2013 and Q1 2014, Quartz revenue from advertising grew 426%.

2. Advertiser growth: During this same period, the number of ad campaigns running on Quartz grew 320%.

3. Advertiser satisfaction: 80+% of Quartz advertisers have returned for future campaigns.

Our large ad formats, natively embedded within the reader experience, coupled with our higher standards for content marketing are leading to more shares, interactions, and yes, even clicks. By orienting ourselves around the user’s experience, we’re able to introduce effective advertising into it, and thereby justify a more sustainable pricing model. The resulting feedback loop is a positive one: happier users, better advertising, fairer pricing models, and investment into continuous improvement. I’m determined that we as an industry can break the cycle of cynicism in the pursuit of a path more worthy of our efforts and imaginations. But first, we must aim higher.