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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Consumers and advertisers are overwhelmed by the tyranny of choice

June 22, 2020 | By Bruce Brandfon, Chief Media Officer – Duration Media @DurationMedia

Maybe we already know this, but let’s all pause for a minute or two to consider some mindboggling numbers. Globally there are nearly 2 billion websites of which 400 million are active. More than 500,000 new websites come online every day. This adds another 200 million sites to this massive universe every year. More than half the world’s population uses the internet with nearly 4 billion users who are averaging almost seven hours per day online.

Remember when Springsteen was worried about “57 Channels and Nothin’ On”?

Are we too late?

It is no wonder that many of us in the industry (not to mention our family, friends, and customers) feel overwhelmed by this avalanche of news, information, gossip, click-bait, facts, “alternative” facts, opinion, and social media that is consuming roughly half of our waking hours. And let’s face it, the call to action for supply chain optimization, brand safety, fraud protection, and commitment to cleaning up the overall digital ecosystem is way past due.

The consequences of further foot dragging about this mess will be dire. This has been made clear by recent events including literal threats to our democratic traditions and commonly accepted norms for civilized behavior. The fact is that we need to take ownership of these issues and figure out a way to improve consumer experience online by better surfacing quality content (and thereby providing optimized ad experiences).

Too much of a good thing

“Logic suggests that having options allows people to select precisely what makes them happiest. But, as studies show, abundant choice often makes for misery.”

–Barry Schwartz, PhD  Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, in Scientific American

Consider for a second the stress, second guessing, uncertainly, mental fatigue, and overall feeling of dissatisfaction when you are confronted with the menus at Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Now consider the tyranny of choosing from 400 million websites. We can never turn back the clock. but we can make things easier on ourselves and fellow human beings by focusing on quality and accuracy and engaging in behavior that reduces stress and anxiety and increases engagement and satisfaction.

Less is more

Imagine if there was a way to reward publishers of premium content with increased advertising revenue based upon the duration of their users’ engagement. Let’s call this User Activated Engagement, or UAE. The greater the time spent reading content, the more impressions that individual users would see. Your audience would be served ad impressions only when they are engaged in the content on your site. And these ads would produce a higher return because they would become available for purchase only when they are in view, and adjacent to content that is relevant to the reader.

Moreover, since the primary beneficiaries of this newly found income will be premium publishers, an inevitable thinning of the herd will occur. We will all have fewer choices in the marketplace of ideas and those of lesser quality will fade. Advertisers will become more confident in the supply that is available. And audiences will benefit from time better spent, rewarding entertainment, and intellectual fulfillment.

Smart investments

The key pillars of effective advertising investment would be met: the right time and place for an ad message guaranteed to be viewable when purchased and served. And despite the imminent disappearance of the cookie, these ads will be contextually relevant. This is not necessarily because of the advertiser segment and editorial content, but because the context will have been determined as being relevant and engaging to the reader.

High quality, premium publishers would be main beneficiaries (along with advertisers who could expect that their ads will be viewable and therefore worth more). The long tail, 80% of the over 400 million active websites will become obsolete. The tyranny of choice will fade into distant memory. The supply chain will be rehabilitated. And quality will reign supreme in the kingdom of the internet.


About the author

Bruce Brandfon is Chief Media Officer of Duration Media. Prior to that he was Executive Vice President of WebSpectator. He was Vice President and Managing Director at Publicitas. Prior to joining Publicitas, Bruce was Vice President of Sales for the Philadelphia Media Network. He has also held leadership positions at Scientific American, Newsweek, and Time Inc. Brandfon is Director of the Board of Advisors at Planet Forward and an Adjunct Professor of Media Studies at Westchester Community College. He contributes frequently to industry publications.

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