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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Latency: the devastating tax that publishers are ignoring

February 17, 2020 | By Justin Choi, Founder and CEO—Nativo @JustinCie

In recent years, the industry has focused a great deal of attention on the “tech tax” on programmatic spending. This refers to the fees being paid to the various DSPs, SSPs, exchanges, and other parties that sit between publishers and advertisers. Unfortunately, that’s only part of the story. Publishers are losing hundreds of millions of dollars every year to another hidden tax on their sites: latency.

Due to the volume of ad tags on today’s sites—and the slowness they inject into the site experience—publishers are losing untold impressions to ad technology that’s supposed to improve their monetization. Unfortunately, unless publishers actively address this problem, the latency tax is only going to go up. Here’s why.

Latency begets countless other ills for publishers

The true scope of the latency tax on publishers encompasses many sub-taxes. One of the most notable in this regard is viewability. Viewability measurement doesn’t start until an ad has been fully rendered on a page. Thus, laggy load times on a website have a direct impact on viewability. This, in turn has a direct impact on revenue. After all, today’s advertisers are increasingly relying on viewability metrics. This is only when selecting publishers with which to work, but also when determining the impressions for which they will pay.

With regard to latency, the viewability conundrum for publishers goes even deeper. Whether or not ads are viewable—and whether they’re appearing on brand-safe content, for that matter—is gauged by third-party ad tags on publishers’ sites. These tags, ironically enough, contribute to the latency on a publisher’s site, which in turn reduces viewability. On top of it all, thanks to ad tags that fire late or incorrectly, there’s typically a discrepancy between what’s happening on sites in reality and what these third parties say publishers can charge advertisers for. That’s another ding to publisher revenue that’s rarely considered.

And then, of course, there’s the user experience. On average, most publishers see several seconds of latency on their sites before the content loads and then ads begin to populate. The late incoming ads tend to shift content around on the site while users are already in the process of trying to consume it. That’s a bad user experience—and it has a real, tangible effect on a publisher’s bottom line. Latency results in user abandonment. Overtime, it contributes to wholesale ad avoidance, either actively (via ad blockers) or passively (via chosen platforms like iPhone and Safari). This is a direct result of the poor experiences being created by today’s ad tech and the resulting reaction on the user and browser side. 

And yes, it’s going to get worse

The latency tax is already taking a heavy toll on open web publishers’ already-razor-thin margins. And this isn’t a problem that’s going to correct itself. On the contrary, technology advances on the near horizon promise only to exacerbate the issue. Take 5G, for example. As 5G networks and devices gain greater traction over the next two years, consumer expectations for speed in their mobile experiences are going to skyrocket. Unfortunately, faster speeds are only going to call more attention to legacy ad technology on publisher sites that drags down site performance and, correspondingly, monetization via ads. 

For publishers, now is the pivotal time to be seeking new opportunities to streamline site experiences and reduce legacy latency issues within the ad experience. All the ad tech in the world isn’t going to help publishers better compete in the digital landscape if it’s ultimately contributing to a poor user experience and countless lost impressions. Publishers today need a new site-serving paradigm that removes the latency burden of today’s ad tags from their pages and accelerates the overall site experience, ads included. 

Publishers have been quietly paying their latency tax for far too long already. In doing so, they’re ignoring a fast path to revenue that’s already there. It’s time to take a hard look at their current tech stacks. Then they need to make the changes required to get back to a place of speed, good user experience, and profitability. 

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