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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Revenue or readers: Which one should you choose?

April 28, 2020 | By Jon Fletcher, Content Editor – Marfeel @Marfeel

There’s a saying that what’s good for the scorpion is bad for the frog. For a long time in digital publishing, the same was true about advertising. What was good for advertising was bad for the reader.

By flashing auto-play ads, full interstitials, and full-screen scroll over ads, publishers could earn big revenue from ads that demand all of the reader’s attention. But we know that readers hate them. These ad types were also named and shamed in the Better Ads Standards “least preferred ad experiences.”

These ads don’t come without a price. Users may see the ads and they may even get duped into clicking them. However, the power of consumer choice kicks in later down the line. Unhappy users will simply leave these sites and find content elsewhere. By prioritizing pennies in the short term, a lot of publishers cost themselves dollars in reader loyalty and longer-term ad revenue.

The final straw

Either knowingly or not, publishers found the tipping point where the success of a short-term strategy has a worse effect on their long-term prospects. The cost is readers for revenue.

We have measured the effect of this “tipping point” for years. In order to get the balance right between the user experience and monetization, our platform measured 275M sessions over 23 publishers to land on a UI/UX specialized and optimized for digital content. We found that, by analyzing user behavior, you can find the exact point where mobile publishers’ monetization and engagement strategies start to damage your bottom line, even if your superficial metrics, such as CPMs, are going up.

There’s a simple philosophy that works. It’s better that a user reads two stories and sees two ads, rather than reads one story with two ads. This approach increases long-term user engagement as well as loyalty. We’ve distilled some of the tactics from our Publisher’s guide to ad-supported UX design to help media leaders balance readership and revenue in order to fine tune their individual strategies.

If users hate all ads, they really hate mobile ads

First and foremost, we need to understand that no reader likes mobile ads. A Blockthrough report shows us that readers block twice as many ads on mobile as on desktop. Hubspot research says that users find mobile ads annoying or intrusive, and that they slow the page down and disrupt the reader experience.

We know from years of print media, TV, and online content that users will accept ads. When done right, they even love them (wassssup?). This is all because these mediums found the method and message that consumers will accept when it comes to balancing an experience with adverts. For mobile publishers to monetize for long term growth, they need to find the optimum point where users consider their experience a worthy trade-off for the advertising they serve.

More content is the best way to serve more ads

If you take away one thing from this article, it should be that the reader, not the advertiser, comes first. Happy, engaged readers read more content. And they’re more receptive to the ads that accompany that content. Over-exposed bombarded readers are not forced to stay: they can leave the page, find alternative content, or simply block the ads. 

By optimizing your ad density, lazy loading ad impressions, and sticking to approved ad formats, advertising won’t overshadow the content. Adding recirculation and re-engagement features such as swipe navigation and push notifications will guide your users onto more content. By looking at metrics such as recurrency, scroll depth, and page views per user, rather than ad request volume, you can isolate techniques that keep your readers engaged.

Don’t ruin a good story with a terrible ad

There’s a good reason premium magazines get away with so many ad pages, even before the content begins. The ads form part of the experience. These top publishers incorporate the highest quality creatives and hyper-target them to their audience.

The same needs to be true of mobile publishers. It may seem intuitive to use as many ad networks as possible and prioritize high-volume networks that deliver inventory. However, publishers that want to keep their readership should stick to premium networks.

Don’t let bad creatives pull your reader out of the story and drag your brand reputation down by featuring low-quality products or services. By appearing in your publications, ads get a tacit endorsement from you. By limiting this to premium networks, you keep your reader immersed in a high-quality environment. You won’t turn them away for the sake of a higher volume of impressions. Measuring the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), rather than just page CPMs will show the effect a more premium  ad experience has on your long term revenue.

Every action you take as a publisher has an effect on your readers and your revenue. Adapting best practices and using new metrics to see the effects of individual changes helps publishers walk the most profitable line between readers and revenue. 

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