It’s difficult to track the true cost of ad fraud, with
estimates varying from $5.8
billion to $23
billion in 2019. But no matter what the estimate, fraudsters are taking
advantage of the programmatic ecosystem’s complexities to funnel ad dollars to
fake websites that should be going to legitimate publishers.
Yet digital publishers have power in the fight against ad
fraud. In fact, the websites that are doing everything right can be a major
part of the solution to the digital ad fraud problem. Publishers can take steps
to reduce fraud and get rewarded for their quality content and audience.
The impostor problem
Media buyers have thousands of sites to choose from when
buying ads programmatically. Their problem isn’t a lack of options; it’s having
assurance that the sites are legitimate with human audiences. Fraudsters
can create bots to look like humans, and fake sites to look like premium
That’s where the fraudsters are winning. They enter the
advertising ecosystem with an army of bots that look legitimate enough to fool
media buyers into believing they’re placing an ad in front of their target
audience at a lower cost than a premium site. Quality sites end up competing
with illegitimate sites that look legitimate, though they don’t offer advertisers
Fake websites and fake users give advertisers no return on their
investment. Both publishers and advertisers lose because the money intended for
a legitimate publisher is diverted into the pockets of bad actors.
One solution isn’t
There are many valuable anti-fraud tools available today
including fraud detection software and inventory/seller verification
initiatives such as ads.txt. While
it’s important for publishers to incorporate accredited solutions into their
anti-fraud arsenal, it’s also important not rely solely on any one solution.
For example, the 2019 ANA/White Ops Bot Baseline report revealed
that less than half of all ad impressions are able to be fully, transparently validated
by measurement tools. Fraud detection companies use
different methodologies that produce varied results whether the ad campaigns or
the publishers’ pages are tagged.
As another example, sourced traffic may be engineered to
pass through fraud detection technologies. A publisher may think that the ad
fraud detection tools they have in place are preventing fraud from occurring on
their website, but sourced traffic may introduce bots unknowingly.
Since there are many angles to the ad fraud problem, it
takes a multi-layered, integrated approach to confront the problem as well. Publishers
have opportunities to go beyond current solutions and stand out as quality
What publishers can do
It’s important that publishers use a holistic approach to ad
fraud prevention and detection that incorporates a variety of solutions to ensure
all aspects of a website are covered from traffic sources to ad delivery. There
are several steps publishers can take to limit their exposure to ad fraud and
reduce the risk to their media buying clients.
Follow best practices for driving traffic to your site
Take advantage of your content that attracts human audiences
and promote it through legitimate marketing methods such as paid ads,
e-newsletters or social media. Don’t source traffic, which can invite invalid
traffic to your website. Monitor traffic sources to identify any suspicious
patterns. Filter traffic from bots and data centers to prevent ads from being
served to invalid traffic.
Educate your clients
Communicate how your quality
content gives media buyers a greater return on investment. Inexpensive ads may
generate lots of clicks at a lower CPM than ads on premium websites, but nonhuman
clicks will never convert into paying customers. Quality content attracts human
audiences. Next time you have a client meeting, simply ask, “Are you sure you
are advertising on quality sites?” An educated advertiser will understand the
value of investing in human audiences and quality publishers will get rewarded
for their hard work.
Implement industry solutions
While no one solution can solve the entire ad fraud problem,
integrating multiple tools into your overall fraud protection plan can go a
long way. Adopt tools such as ads.txt, IAB Tech Lab’s OpenRTB Version 3.0, and
accredited ad fraud detection software.
Engaging in an independent, third-party website audit can identify
areas of risk and help publishers make improvements. A website audit also
assures advertisers that steps are being taken to provide them with the highest
level of transparency and a safe place to reach their target audience that will
provide a greater return on their media investment.
Brands have long supported the creation of content, whether
through traditional advertising or by more direct means such as brand tie-ins,
product placements, and brought-to-you-by sponsorships.
But moving forward, their support may be more critical than
With Facebook and Google cannibalizing publishers’ ad
dollars over the last 10 years, myriad new revenue streams have emerged to help
publishers sustain their businesses. Among them we find banner ads, e-commerce,
and sponsored content.
Sponsored content is defined as any material in an online
publication (written, video, etc.) that resembles the site’s editorial content
but is paid for by an advertiser. The content is often intended to promote the
advertiser’s product or values. In contrast, editorial is independently created
by a publication and posted on their site, with the goal of educating,
informing, or entertaining their audience.
Letting brands fund the creation of sponsored content is an arrangement that benefits both parties. This kind of content allows brands to leverage the reach and influence of publishers. At the same time, publishers earn the revenue necessary to continue both their editorial and advertising programs.
Marrying the two can produce outstanding (and better funded)
results, but many worry about the slippery slope. While editorial and sponsored
stories often exist in their own worlds, opportunities for overlap are everywhere.
Beyond simply producing thinly-veiled content that ties into a brand message,
these days brands are working with premium publishers to create quality content
that might not otherwise make it to the market. In fact, the success of
sponsored content has supported the growth of a new model: brand-supported
Devil and angel, church and
Let’s step back for a second.
Although sponsored content as we understand it is a
relatively new phenomenon, journalists and content creators have been
disagreeing about the ethics behind it for decades. As far back as 1975,
American essayist E.B. White expressed outrage when the Xerox Corporation announced
that they had commissioned Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Harrison Salisbury
to write a piece for Esquire Magazine.
remarked, “Sponsorship in the press is an
invitation to corruption and abuse. Wherever money changes hands, something
goes along with it — an intangible something that varies with circumstances.”
There have been other problematic instances of sponsored content in the past. In 2013, The Atlantic published (and quickly removed) a piece of sponsored content titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” The article extolled the virtues and accomplishments of Scientology’s venerable leader. Blowback was immediate, with industry leaders criticizing the publication for publishing content antithetical to its journalistic principles.
The problems aren’t siloed to sponsored, either. We’ve seen how the relationship between advertisers and publishers can affect editorial content, too. Some sites will promise advertisers an editorial story promoting their business if they buy a real ad; others will refuse to cover stories if they don’t. While the pervasiveness of this practice is still up for debate, it raises real questions about the durability of the line between church and state, sponsored and editorial.
Sent from above
It’s not all bad news, however.
There’s also been a lot of social good brought about by sponsored content.
One of the best examples comes from Variety’s campaign “Abilities Unlimited,” made in partnership with Easterseals. The collaboration provided illuminating research on just how underrepresented people with disabilities are in the entertainment industry. Featuring interviews with high profile actors, directors, and writers, the pieces offered tangible advice to members of the industry for how to ensure their projects are more inclusive.
Original journalism like this can be incredibly expensive. For example, ProPublica’s 2013 to 2015 “Overdose” series, which exposed the FDA’s inaction regarding a dangerous ingredient in Tylenol, cost an estimated $750,000 to produce. This is content that could save lives. But with shrinking budgets and newsrooms, publishers may lose the ability to create it.
Sponsored content can also give the public access to information they otherwise would never have seen. Last year, Siemens brought their full technological capabilities to the table in a campaign with The Economist, which visualized the relationship between fan enthusiasm and team performance.
There’s no doubt these programs
have helped people, whether through information or entertainment. So how do we
make sure we can have our cake and eat it too?
The future of editorial and sponsored
Even as publishers investigate subscription models and e-commerce solutions, it’s clear that branded content remains one of the most critical sources of revenue for publishers. Our research suggests that branded content will continue to grow over the next years, with 90% of publisher survey respondents saying that they expect branded content revenue to increase moving into 2020. But if this is the future, how can we ensure that it’s ethical and sustainable?
First, if we want to retain the value of sponsored content, editorial content must be prioritized. Sponsored content works due to its association with a publisher’s journalistic standards and high-quality content. It’s a matter of pattern recognition. When we see a brand partnering with a reputable publisher, our brains take that as a signal that the company shares the same values and reputation. Keeping a ratio of content that prioritizes editorial over sponsored content, not just on-site but also on social feeds, will help maintain that authority, benefiting both advertiser and publisher in the long term.
Second, we need to embrace brand support in the newsroom. This doesn’t mean letting Coca Cola write your next feature or interviewing BP as an expert on oil spill mitigation. It also doesn’t mean deciding what stories to pursue based on an external party’s agenda (or conversely, ad budget). But it does involve partnering with companies to fund important stories — including those couldn’t be told otherwise.
Third, publishers need to say no —
as frustrating as that is for advertisers. Say no to partners that don’t share
your values, no to ad dollars tied up with editorial promises and no to content
that doesn’t benefit your readers. Otherwise, you risk losing your readers’ respect,
which translates to less traffic and fewer ad dollars.
And fourth, we need to constantly question what stories we’re
telling, why we’re telling them, and who we’re telling them for. The line between sponsored and editorial is such a
polarizing and emotional topic, so it’s important to unravel it — no matter how
many knots we find along the way.
For the foreseeable future, publishers are pinning their hopes on digital subscription, on reigniting the direct relationship they initially lost in the initial pile into digital publishing. A recent study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 69% of US and European publishers employ some form of paywall around their content, with the vast majority following a metered or freemium model.
Regardless of which model of subscription or membership each
outlet has deployed, they each
have similar challenges when it comes to the acquisition and retention of
users. In that sense they are very similar to other subscription-based products
in the entertainment space, from the OTT video services to the innumerable
video games subscription services that have been launched in the last year.
The challenges are especially acute for news publishers, however, since news has become a commodity. The news market is flooded with free alternatives and news is not the subscription product most consumers opt for.
as the challenges are similar, there are success stories around other
subscription products that news publications should consider emulating in their
own approach to consumers.
One of those increasingly lucrative consumer subscription
products is that of the subscription box.
These generally take the form of a batch of products curated and
delivered directly to you monthly,
sometimes in partnership with a publisher. The range of products offered spans from apparel to hot sauces to
sustainably sourced fruit and vegetables.
And consumers are responding: Royal Mail predicts the market will be worth £1bn by 2022, and that over a quarter of
the UK population has already signed up for a subscription box.
Katie Vanneck-Smith is the founder of Tortoise, a “slow journalism” publisher with a focus on membership. She told me that publishers can take valuable lessons away from the rise of products like subscription boxes, and that publishers have “only just started to catch up with the consumer behaviours in the industry”. So what can news publishers learn from the growth of those products, particularly around engaging and retaining subscribers?
Curation as a service
The value of a subscription box lies in the fact that its
contents have been specially selected for the
consumer base. Subscribers trust that the brand behind the box has the
expertise required to choose only the best goods to serve up. And this is doubly true when the box
contains luxury products rather than staple goods. Boxes like Loot Crate and
Stitch Fix trade off the fact that they have the connections and knowledge to
deliver products that are relevant to the receiver. Crucially, they both play
up the fact that human editors are the ones ultimately doing the curation, rather
than just an algorithm.
In that sense, those subscription offerings are very similar to products from high-end publishers. This includes The Times & Sunday Times, which make the curation of stories relevant to their audiences a core tenet of products like The Brief. Both leverage the fact that, in a sea of products, there is value in having an expert pick out only the best ones on your behalf.
Churn is a fact of life, so cater for it
It typically costs around five times more to acquire a new
subscriber than to retain an existing one. That’s why so many publishers are avidly
focused on the development of
their own internal engagement scores, to determine when people are
likely to jump ship and hopefully to intercede. The Times in particular has
invested a huge amount of money in reducing churn along every part of the
process, but it is effectively a universal concern among subscription-based
However, while the quality of the provided service is ultimately the best guarantor of user retention, sometimes factors outside of a publisher’s control will inevitably cause people to consider dropping off. In that case, as with subscription boxes, publishers need to offer solutions that cater to their audience’s changing situation. Ecommerce platform Cratejoy found that customers typically gave financial reasons as the cause for cancelling a subscription box, and advises that subscription boxes offer a “downgrade” option.
Increasingly, publishers are doing the same. They offer flexible options or
discounts to the subscribers who contact them to cancel. Some publishers are also considering a wider rollout of a pause
option for subscribers. This has
the dual benefit of keeping them within the logged-in ecosystem for marketing
purposes while also negating the high cost of reacquiring a lapsed subscriber.
Have a mission
Subscription packages like ODDBOX make a social mission part of their sales strategy: much of its messaging is based around the notion that food wastage is a significant issue, and that subscribing is the right thing to do to combat a problem. Similarly, the Guardian found that the rhetoric it employed around its membership scheme had a significant impact, and that choosing to support open access to journalism for everyone was frequently cited as one of the most important reasons people chose to donate.
Notably, when the Guardian reached its milestone of a
million paying users, it chose to change the messaging from one of survival to
one of sustainability. Consequently, it saw its best week ever in terms of
donations. This ran counter to internal
misgivings that fewer people would choose to support it no longer appeared in peril.
The fourth subscription
At the World News Media Congress in Glasgow, co-editor of
the Innovation in News Media World Report Juan Senor suggested that a consumer
is likely to pay for four subscription services. The first two would likely
be entertainment services, the third a general news subscription, and the fourth to a niche site they
have a personal interest in.
While people typically feel affinity to newsbrands, the trend towards personalization of content means that publishers can typically serve up content tailored specifically to them. Effectively, they are increasingly hybrids of the third and fourth subscriptions. For example, The Telegraph recognized that its rugby content was of particular interest to its audience. So, it recently made all its content around the sport a key part of its subscription proposition, one of only three types of article to sit exclusively behind the paywall.
When it comes to marketing that specific content, publishers
could do much worse than to emulate the techniques employed by subscription
boxes, which are by their nature niche. The products themselves – news and
goods – are very different in nature, but the lessons around messaging and
retention are universal.
Consumer interaction on digital platforms is a key driver of
revenue for entertainment and media companies. With increasing affordability
and availability of broadband, mobile continues to be a strong contributor to the
growth of this segment. However, according to the new PwC’s
Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2019–2023 Report, further
innovation and personalization will significantly change how we access and use the
PwC predicts that creative new offerings and business models will increasingly revolve around people’s personal preferences. New applications will involve artificial intelligence in combination with digital assistants. Media companies will strive to build products that empower consumers to set their individual preferences and curate their own context.
The PwC Outlook Report cites personalization as a central theme in overall entertainment and media revenue growth. Global spending is expected to rise 4.3% over the next five years, with revenues hitting $2.6 trillion in 2023. The report provides a strong and notable resource for revenue estimates in the both the US and global markets.I
Additional forecasts from PwC’s Outlook Report include:
Subscription TV revenue in the U.S. will experience a 2.9% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) decline to from $94.6 billion in 2018 to $81.8 billion in 2023. Much of the loss comes from cord-cutting and SVOD competition. Interestingly, the US remains the biggest Pay-TV market accounting for 46% of the total global revenue in 2018.
SVOD’s continues its popularity as more streaming services are introduced and unbundling continues to grow. Newcomers to the market will need to differentiate themselves to attract subscribers.
The OTT market is also dominated by the U.S., contributing to more than half (55.6%) of global OTT revenue in 2018. OTT video revenue in the US reached $14.5 billion in 2018 and is set to double by 2023.
The U.S. virtual reality (VR) market registered $934 million in revenue in 2018 and is expected to grow at a 16.6% CAGR to reach S$2 billion by 2023. Gaming remains the primary application of VR, accounting for 57.4% of total VR revenue in the US in 2018. VR video, however, will see the most growth in the forecast period, climbing at a CAGR of 22.4% to reach $861 million in 2023.
There’s an important effort in
today’s entertainment and media marketplace to meet consumers where they spend
their time and to deliver what they need wherever they are. These sorts of personalization
efforts cut across OTT, SVOD, and VR. While evolving business models around customer
behavior is far from new, the renewed focus amplifies the importance of placing
consumers at the center of the media experience.
The advance of high-speed networks and affordable data plans hasn’t only whet audience appetites for unlimited anytime, anywhere access to the content they desire. It has created ideal conditions for data-hungry streaming apps to proliferate, displacing traditional broadcast TV, and driving the meteoric growth of on-demand video. The phenomenon is global in scale, but nowhere is the impact as profound as in India, the fastest-growing video streaming market in the world. In India, on-demand entertainment services are forecast to account for more than 74% of mobile data traffic by 2020, up from 47% in 2014.
Streaming viewership is soaring, but it’s Hotstar—part of the Walt Disney entertainment empire and India’s largest premium streaming platform —that is seeing numbers climb into the stratosphere. In June Hotstar set a new global benchmark for live events. It reported a record 18.6 million users simultaneously tuned into the company’s mobile website and app to watch the deciding game of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket games. This sort of high-octane content has allowed Hotstar to grow the number of monthly users across app and web to 300 million, up from 150 million the previous year.
Hotstar balances a mix of blockbuster entertainment (including rights to popular movies and shows from ABC, HBO, and Showtime) with a bouquet of content aligned with India’s obsession with Bollywood and demand for local language translations. (Note that India hosts hundreds of dialects and over 20 official languages). As a result of this winning combination, Hotstar dominates India’s on-demand video streaming services market. The latest research from Jana pegs Hotstar’s total market share at 69.7%, compared to Amazon (5%) and Netflix (1.4%).
Using data to differentiate the customer
At first glance, it’s remarkable that large global players with deep pockets continue to struggle in the Indian market—despite significant investments to ramp up local content. But look under the hood, and you may be surprised. Hotstar’s success may start with broadcast rights for live premium sports paired with high-quality vernacular content that attracts record numbers of viewers. However, it’s driven by a strategy that harnesses personalization, recommendations, and psychographic segmentation to keep them coming back.
the right balance between acquisition and retention is crucial for a company
like Hotstar, which thrives on live events. It pays to spend millions of
dollars to acquire audiences at scale—but only if users don’t leave in droves
when the event is over. Hotstar turned a potential problem into a massive
opportunity by mapping individual user journeys to move audiences across the
funnel from freemium viewers to paid subscribers.
Hotstar moves viewers from fremium to subscription
exclusive interview, Mihir Shah, VP of Product & Marketing Growth at
Hotstar, distills the company’s data-driven approach into the four fundamentals
companies must get right to turn casual users into committed fans.
1. Personalize the entire user experience
important to look beyond demographics to gain a deeper understanding of who
your user is, what job your product solves in their lives, and how they use
your product, Shah explains. In this scenario, actions are just as important as
inactions to develop relevant engagement and re-engagement strategies. How many
times has the user opened the app or viewed the content? How long has it been
since the last interaction? How quickly or slowly is the user moving through
the funnel, and what“nudges” might convince and—ultimately—convert them?
Shah says these are critical questions marketers can only answer if they get a
firm grasp of behavioral segmentation models aimed at understanding and
predicting user attitudes and outcomes. “Once you establish a degree of
predictability around how your users behave, the way is clear to progress users
through the funnel with the help of content that is packaged and promoted based
on a deep understanding of user personas and psychographics,” he says
2. Recommend your content along the customer
acquisition burns money if audiences don’t stick around to explore and consume
the breadth of content available on the platform. This can be a major marketing
challenge, and why a big part of Shah’s job revolves around “converting the
sports fans who come to our platform—about 70 to 80 million daily for live
events like IPL—to start watching more of the entertainment we offer. And,
ultimately, get them to commit to a subscription.”
this objective requires the ability to identify and segment users based on
digital details, including their browsing and viewing history, content
consumption patterns and other preferences. “Based on a collaborative filtering
method, we recommend entertainment titles that other sports viewers watch,”
Shah says. “If the user is a free user on our platform, we move them through
the funnel by recommending content from our Premium library that they are most
likely to appreciate—content suggestions based on freemium viewership patterns.
The relevant recommendations are then delivered to users off-platform as part
of an omnichannel campaign strategy that spans push notifications, social and
3. Messaging must be personal and perfectly
up the momentum with campaigns that seek to influence user behaviors, not just
move metrics. Shah illustrates using the example of users who have streamed
live cricket matches. “We know that sending them push notifications based on
the actual game event will encourage them to relaunch the app and view the game
in progress.” In practice, he says, this means “delivering over 100 million
push notifications tailored to the moment and timed perfectly within a very
small window of just a few minutes.”
It’s a critical timeline that Shah says Hotstar reaches with the help of CleverTap, a customer lifecycle management and engagement platform that is capable of delivering more than 25 million push notifications a minute/ Shah says it was essential to reach Hotstar’s app install base of over 250 million. Significantly, “event-centric” campaigns appear to resonate most with audiences, boosting engagement and the average watch time per session by 12% and more.
cross-sell entertainment content, let’s say a movie, to our sports viewers, our
marketing creatives bring out a connection between the sport and the
entertainment content, thus making the content more appealing to a sports fan.”
But making the connection is just part of the strategy. Shah stresses it’s also
a good idea to pinpoint the days and times of the week that different user
segments are the most active and receptive to push notifications. Hotstar used
these insights to optimize send times, increasing click-through rates by 3x in
Engaging with users in real-time is a game-changer
(Recency, Frequency Monetary) analysis is a behavioral segmentation model that
examines user activity to identify how recently and frequently they performed a
key action. To make sure the effort marketers invest in this model also drives
returns, RFM also looks at the monetary value of the action (such as purchasing
an item or, in the case of Hotstar, subscribing to programming). Shah is a huge
proponent of RFM, a framework his company has harnessed to bring context to
user engagement campaigns and, more importantly, predict churn. In both cases,
Hotstar segments users in real-time based on certain actions or inactions they
undertake within the app.
a scenario where users who were watching a particular episode of a series
simply leave the app for some reason. “We see that as a trigger and send them a
customized push notification encouraging them to come back to finish viewing
that particular episode at precisely that moment.” Similarly, users who have seen previous episodes of
a series but not the latest one, are sent a contextual push notification as
soon as the latest episode is released. The outcome, he adds, is “more
conversions and increased content consumption.”
The future is interactive
As Hotstar continues on its impressive
growth trajectory, Shah says, the company is ready to take on one more bet:
that “the future of all sports streaming will be social.” As he sees it,
there’s no reason to limit the flow of content to push or pull. “Why should
content consumption be one way?,” he asks. “Why can’t it be immersive and
To enable two-way exchange, Hotstar is
laying a new layer on top of its platform. Last year it introduced Watch`N`Play, a game that challenges
users to guess cricket gameplay and outcomes, as well as social features and
streaming using virtual reality (VR) to make the match more immersive. This
year Hotstar is going one better, adding “another layer of chat” to the
platform, allowing fans to invite their friends from their Facebook account or
phone book contacts to the platform.
Effective user acquisition ends in
advocacy, and that means meeting and anticipating needs that consumers
themselves might not be able to identify. “It’s becoming increasingly clear
that customers are hungry for more, even though they don’t know what they are
looking for,” Shah explains. It’s up to companies like Hotstar to pave the road
for this future, building a platform and adding what he calls “unique,
inevitable and incremental experiences” that go beyond just entertaining
For anyone working in ad tech for more than a few years, the publisher monetization challenge comes as no (major) surprise. Ever since the ecosystem divided itself into demand-side and supply-side with the “impression” as the primary currency traded over automated exchanges, it was only a matter of time until the side “closer to the money” would overshadow the other.
While digital-native publishers quickly embraced these models and
optimized their traffic for automated buying, traditional publishers (typically
in print negotiating the “digital transition”) faced a different story. Most
assumed that brand and editorial quality would ensure buyer competition to lift
prices. However, this intersection of traditional and digital publishing
ultimately diluted the value of these brands given the surge in digital
inventory and resulted in disappointing “fair market value” in a CPM world.
Publishers are now in a race to
(re)create value for their content, as we see two main trends emerging:
1. Creating alternatives to platforms by aggregating scale and data
To better compete with the scale and
data capabilities of the Google-Facebook duopoly, premium publishers in various
global markets, including the US, have formed alliances. The jury is still out on whether this model will ultimately succeed, forcing competitors to
work together while balancing “infighting, lethargy ,and incompatible data and
2. Aligning business models with editorial expertise – content and experiences
Publishers have recognized that
advertising revenue is not linear with content “quality” particularly with the
emergence of programmatic buying as quality has given way to reach and data
targeting. Therefore, publishers
are diversifying their revenue and incorporating subscription models to be paid on
their own definition of quality.
Beyond creating various flavors of paywalls for their readers, something deeper is happening. Publishers are rethinking their approach of the digital ecosystem to their advantage.
The next generation of publisher direct sales
Similarly, on the advertising front,
publishers can now leverage technology, data, and AI to unlock new
opportunities and empower their sales teams to better compete against the
duopoly and challenge legacy ad transaction models.
Publishers can and should move
beyond the traditional CPM model and move towards advanced outcome-centric
models (i.e., CPCV, CPiV, vCPM, etc.) to compensate for intrinsic scale
limitations while better meeting the true goals of their advertising clients. Combined
with premium context which results in better ad performance and engagement,
these new models should become part of publishers’ core strategy to
reinvigorate their advertising revenue and maximize the value of their content.
How do we move towards this new model?
Moving “closer to the money” and further up the value chain requires publishers to start a deep, cooperative discussion with advertisers. They will then need to create packaged, scalable solutions to address their specific challenges. To succeed with highly qualified but limited footprints, these solutions need to leverage all possible optimization levers towards advanced, advertiser-centric KPIs (i.e. leads, completed video views, etc.).
For example, to run a successful
CPCV (cost per completed view) campaign, optimization starts with the creative
itself (along with the data set, user-definition and targeting) to AI that will
model reader behavior to identify the most probable combinations that will lead
to video completion (which ultimately limits inventory waste).
Looking beyond the supply side view
Unfortunately, most publisher ad
tech stacks solely aim at optimizing the supply-side view of the world, while
most of the high-value operations occur on the demand-side platforms. Publisher
technology typically stop at the “CPM wall” leaving out most of the
optimization levers that help drive the most conversions from a given
Publishers need to adopt tech stacks that use AI to also compute demand-side data-points, similar to those used by DSPs to extract the most value from their inventories. In addition, these tech platforms also need to support outcome-centric optimized transaction models beyond CPM.
Only a limited number of ad tech companies have a comprehensive vision that spans across both demand-side and supply-side visions of the world. And even fewer have the scale to make their capabilities relevant or share them directly with publishers instead of to their own benefit. The publisher ad tech stack of the future will ensure that advertisers can deliver advanced KPIs while preserving and optimizing the publishers’ inventory.
About the author
Federico Benincasa is SVP Product for Publisher Solutions at Teads leading the Teads Publisher Suite initiative, a full-stack solution leveraging all the company’s proprietary technological assets. Former adtech entrepreneur, Federico is a recognized industry veteran and recently led the Product team for the StickyAds video SSP before becoming SVP of Product for Freewheel’s Digital Video full stack.
Important new research was recently presented at a major economics conference and reported on by the Wall Street Journal. The comprehensive study was conducted over nearly five years by Veronica Marotta, Vibhanshu Abhishek and led by Alessandro Acquisti, who is globally recognized for his work studying behavioral economics and the impact of privacy on digital society. The bottom-line: Acquisti’s team found that behavioral advertising, as measured and delivered based on third party cookies, increased publisher revenues by a mere 4%.
If you’re nodding your head unsurprised by this statistic, then you’re likely in the 67% of publishers surveyed recently by Digiday who answered that behavioral advertising doesn’t help their business. But make no mistake, the findings are profound as to how they inform the future of digital advertising. They will also have a strong influence on the next steps in US privacy legislation. Put simply, nearly all of the growth touted by the industry benefits intermediaries rather than the publishers who provide the news and entertainment. And for the first time ever, there is empirical research to dismiss long-touted industry arguments that privacy rules will kill the golden goose that pays for free content.
Implementing new rules
This empirical study makes it clear that the absence of rules has overwhelmingly benefited intermediaries. (This would also explain the market caps of a few of the biggest intermediaries.) And now, there remains a singular challenge: No individual publisher can change tactics unless all significant publishers move in lock step. That’s because individual companies would lose significant revenues moving on their own, even on behalf of consumers. Therefore, the bar must be raised equally, through a combination of tech and regulation.
Google is the most critical company with the most to lose and will have a seat at the head table no matter where the market or regulators take us. It will be critical for individual publishers to be able to move in the best interests of consumers and their fellow publishers without being held back by Google’s stronghold. Reuters reports that “Google has repeatedly said that it acts in the best interest of its users and offers sufficient warning to industry partners potentially affected by its moves.” We’ll see.
Recent experience suggests that Google will not cede ground. A friendly reminder that when GDPR rolled out last May in order to better protect the privacy interests of EU citizens, Google waited until the final days to push through its own interests. Global publishers had to send a formal letter of concern to Google’s CEO. They also filed a copy with every major competition authority in the western world.
Built on a
Much of the digital advertising marketplace and Google’s business have been built on direct-response advertising in which clicks and audience targeting are valued more than the media that surrounds it. This presents a challenge for media companies which have invested heavily in high-quality, premium news, and entertainment environments. Unfortunately, the largest part of the digital advertising market was whittled down to little more than an efficient delivery vehicle for cookies auctioned off to the highest bidders. And little has been done to dismantle this poorly-built foundation. Rather, our entire industry – data brokers, ad tech platforms, agencies and publishers have fueled these direct-response metrics by doubling down on them through behaviorally-targeted advertising.
The premise? That the new capabilities to collect and use browsing data across the web eliminate the waste in advertising, giving marketers their long-sought dream of one-to-one targeting with real-time measurement and publishers a share in the spoils to help fund their digital growth. And, through these same data reservoirs, advertisers could focus on cherry-picking consumers as efficiently as possible. This spawned a slew of sites optimized not for long-term relationships with loyal audiences but instead for their ability to create diverse cookie pools for these real-time markets.
The 800lb gorilla
Google was a company built for the direct response economy post-2009. Due to several years of belt tightening after the 2008 financial crisis, chief financial officers had more pressure to ensure that marketing investments met the quarterly demands of shareholders. And boy did Google deliver. Google did everything it could to maximize the personal data in its coffers and to minimize friction for advertisers who wanted to micro-target people based on it.
When web browsers were on the cusp of consumer privacy innovation by restricting tracking cookies, Google lobbyists hindered industry progress. At the same time their own browser, Chrome, took a dominant seat in the market.
When consumer ad blockers became a risk to Google’s data collection, Google began a series of secretive deals and payments in order to whitelist their own data collection tags and later commandeer a browser solution to protect its own ad formats. This saved the company billions in revenue while everyone in industry took a hit.
When a more privacy-focused mobile environment emerged from Apple, Google continued investing in its privacy-porous Android device. It earned a $5.1 billion fine for its efforts. Google also launched its own code layer in AMP. This provided the company deeper influence on what can be on publishers’ websites.
The fruit of its labors is an advertising market optimized for its own interests.
Who conducts the most bids to buy advertising in these real-time markets?Google.
Who offers up the most bid requests to sell advertising in these real-time auctions?Google.
Who operates the most negotiations between buyer and seller?Google.
What is the most valued asset in digital advertising?Personal data.
Who owns the most personal data?Google.
Put another way. Google is the largest buyer, seller, and transactionvehicle for digital ads that leverage personal data. And Google has by far the most personal data. At this point, it should hardly be a question whether this is a rigged market.
The numbers are startling. In the past decade, Google’s SEC filings show that the advertising revenues Google delivers across its vast network of millions of publishers have barely doubled, having grown from $9 billion in 2010 to $20 billion last year. However, in the same ten years, Google has quadrupled its owned and operated advertising revenues from $28 billion to a whopping $116 billion last year.
Search was (and is) the monopoly that privileges entry into any other business by Google. However, the rich interest profile that can be assembled by harvesting personal data across its operating system, browser, ad services, analytics, and its own properties comprises a behavioral advertising fortress.
The anticipated Department of Justice decision to investigate Google is the company’s worst nightmare in terms of timing on these issues. Already we’re seeing influencers and former competitors begin to open up about bad conduct in Mountain View. Inevitably, there will be more details and more reports. It’s critical to the process—and the future of digital media—that light be shone on their activities.
Without a doubt, the investigation means that Google will have a harder time finding friends in the publisher and ad tech communities. However, it’s unlikely you’ll hear publicly from many of them. And therein lies the ultimate symptom of antitrust: No company wants to cross Google. But the word “frenemy” will cut in a different direction now: You won’t find anyone watching your back when you’re under the regulatory microscope.
of ad tech intermediaries
All of this said, Google wasn’t alone in its attempts to reap the spoils of the behavioral advertising marketplace. In the period between 2010 and 2016, hundreds (if not thousands) of new companies spawned in the ad tech wild west. By my count, there were 78 ad tech companies starting with the letter “A” in 2016 and today 64 of the 78 have either been acquired or disappeared from the industry. History will determine whether most (if any) of these companies had a lasting impact on the industry.
proposition of nearly all of them was to serve a burgeoning programmatic
marketplace in which third parties could be inserted into the supply chain in
return for value. The typical webpage went from dozens of third parties to
hundreds. This triggered a real-time competition for eyeballs, most often represented
by third-party cookies.
Personal data was collected by these third parties without consumer knowledge or control. The data was then used to target consumers across the web, as cheaply as possible. All of this was done outside of consumer expectations which led to the “adtechlash” with the rise of ad blockers, various levels of tracking protection launched into Chrome’s “competition” web browsers Safari, Brave and Firefox, and new privacy laws like 2018’s GDPR and CCPA rolling out in 2020.
Now we find ourselves on the eve of new laws globally to better align with consumer expectations. Publishers need to be fierce defenders of these consumers and protecting their experiences. Ultimately, the fight to defend behavioral advertising likely isn’t worth it. At the very least, every publisher and their representative organizations should make certain whose interests they’re fighting for. This will determine who benefits over the next ten years.
Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) businesses are a unique class of company, and they’re changing
the way we consume products of all kinds. They’re often referred to as disruptors
because they use mobile and digital channels to sell directly to the buyer. By
eliminating the retail “middleman,” DTCs bypass traditional sales models and
re-think otherwise staid markets.
recently conducted an analysis of DTC companies’ ad spending across digital, TV
and print, as well as their CMOs, physical stores and funding practices. The
analysis offers insights for all brand marketers.
How do they advertise?
According to our study, for the past five consecutive years, DTC ad spend has increased
by seven to 20% annually and has continued to grow across almost every product
DTC brands typically focus
their ad spend on social media in their early years. Instagram is the primary
channel for these companies because the platform allows for very specific
targeting and a seamless purchase feature from within the app, that few other platforms
The data also shows that as DTC firms scale their
businesses, they begin to shift ad spending. Many come to rely more heavily on
TV to create broad, top-of-funnel awareness. For example, Casper spent over $30
million per year on TV over the last couple of years. Warby Parker started TV
advertising in 2016, stopped in 2017, only to return again in 2018.
Our analysis also found that DTC companies place
branded content pieces three times more frequently than traditional brands,
with the top beneficiaries being Yahoo! and Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed has won a large portion of the IAB’s top 250 DTC brands, as the
brand pairs well with DTC advertising due to its strong Gen Z and Millennial
How did they start?
Some of the most well-known DTC brands include Uber, Casper, Brooklinen, Warby Parker, and Tesla. Outside of these well-known companies, there are thousands of DTC startups across the U.S., according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). For example, we counted 387 DTC brands advertising in the apparel and accessory category alone.
These companies are not only numerous,
but well-funded. According to data gathered from Crunchbase for the top 20 DTC advertisers, the companies raised an average
of $230mm in funds, through six rounds of funding, and from over 20 unique
When it comes to the leadership behind these
companies, the CMOs are sophisticated, experienced marketers. Looking again at
the top 20 DTC brands, their CMOs bring an average of 16 years of prior work
experience to their positions. 75% have past experience with at least one
“household name” company. Half (50%) of the CMOs hold an advanced
degree, most commonly an MBA, while other common degrees were in either
economics or finance.
How do they sell?
DTC companies are usually mission-driven, rather than solely focused on the product itself, and they often start by targeting the Millennial and Gen Z customer segments. DTC brands are typically available for sale exclusively online and usually specialize in one specific product category. About one-fourth have a subscription revenue model. For consumers, the brand’s authenticity and quality matter much more than price—and the brands know this.
As these firms mature, many
begin to explore other selling routes outside of just online. Of the top 20 DTC
companies, 30% had their own stores, 25% sold products in other retailers, and
another 15% used both their own stores and other retailers.
Interestingly, many DTC firms have partnered with only one retailer on an
exclusive basis. For example, Quip is only available at Target and Leesa
only available at West Elm.
DTC firms have emerged as
disruptors across multiple industries. These companies exhibit young
digital-first personas, that sell their products directly to customers via
social media. However, as these companies grow larger, they begin to take on
characteristics of older brands; whether it’s opening retail stores of their
own, employing leadership with years of experience, or pouring ad budgets into
Chartbeat has immersed itself in research around reader revenue and subscription models this year. This work has taken various forms including data analysis, comparing historical trends, and distilling insights from past use cases. However, we’ve found that the best way to create actionable reader revenue solutions has been going to the source—publishers.
In the last month, as part of our work to go from publisher revenue pain point to solution, we spent time with users across all sorts of roles. These include editorial, consumer marketing, audience development and membership management, data science and analytics, events marketing, user research, and product management, all as part of our work to go from publisher revenue pain point to solution.
After more than 400 hours of subscriptions research, here are some of our early takeaways:
Current infrastructure doesn’t match paid model ambitions
We have found that the infrastructure for user segmentation is critical for publishers to effectively market their offers and content. Yet time and again, we’ve witnessed a core infrastructure built on growing advertising revenue. In this case, the customer relationship is less important than the reach across platforms and sites. On top of that, this customer data is still tied up in legacy systems.
Therefore, modernization, consolidation, and centralization across systems is crucial for publishers. With one structure to rule them all, greater cross-team alignment can be achieved.
No need to change the channel
It’s no surprise that email is one of the most effective ways to engage consumers. Yet the publishing industry still lags other sectors such as retail in wider adoption.
The energy behind email’s return is that it remains the most cost efficient way to test conversion and retention strategies. There’s little risk and plenty of reward for readers to opt-in to newsletters and other distribution lists. That’s why those numbers could be in the tens of thousands. However, segmenting these email lists is often a manual data pull, and the content is often painstakingly curated.
To make experimentation productive, publishers need to take a page from retail marketing by taking advantage of automated services and creating dynamic lists that reflect its diverse audiences.
Get time (and sanity) back with better alignment
Industries throw the concept of “better alignment” around frequently, but its applications are often lacking in clarity. The result is fragmentation, which leads to conversions being tracked in different ways by each team in organizations. A centralized reporting system is key for everyone to understand the role they play in reader revenue. Then they can join together towards a common strategy.
Time is a scarce resource, so spending less of it on tracking and interpreting conversions for multiple stakeholders also means publishers can focus more time on improving their core products.
Be the master of your domains
Technology companies care about (and invest vast resources in) data collection. Publishers, in contrast, have not devoted a great deal of attention to how their data is managed, integrated, secured, and made available. Suffice to say, this points to a major gap in the industry’s data governance practices.
Consistent and understandable data is foundational to a successful business strategy. Data governance hasn’t always been a core competency of publishers. However, it directly influences their ability to quickly prioritize company-impacting decisions. Better data governance makes it faster and easier for publishers to synthesize and act upon trends.
Lean in to content strategy
Content attribution is disconnected from a publisher’s CMS and other internal tools in their system. Developing a content strategy for conversions (or retention) is dependent on editorial intuition plus an understanding of what the data is telling you. As publishers shore up their brands and continue to build products that appeal to consumer interests, content marketing attribution is the missing link for proving ROI.
The time is now to build out the right attribution model will support investments across both editorial and marketing. Publishers can rely on the same resources as marketers across retail and other industries, which have been growing in sophistication around mapping content strategy to ROI. Attribution is crucial to support (and justify) the additional resources that have been devoted to editorial and marketing teams.
Editorial, meet product
As we mentioned earlier, there’s been a notable shift among large publishers that no longer see editorial strategy and product strategy as two separate functions.
Product strategy is most successful when you can pull from multiple teams to build towards an outcome that actually serves the needs of end users. However, this requires a cultural change that many publishers are still navigating. There’s a push and pull at play—collaborative decision-making requires balance between competing business needs and existing revenue goals. We’ve seen this theme consistently throughout our research. Understandably so—culture change is a challenge for all kinds of organizations.
Subscriptions: What we’ve learned so far
Our early subscriptions research findings point to a familiar tie that binds cross-functional organizations and revenue goals: data. Whether we’re talking about attribution or strategy, the common thread is the data that informs the intuition that has guided publishers for decades.
Yes, publishers will continue to navigate the cultural evolution taking place in the industry, but a composite metric might be the missing link. Unite everyone in the organization to tackle their respective roles in reader revenue and support those goals with actionable data. There’s a better chance to see positive results, or at the very least, build upon the findings.
I recently connected with Christa Carone, who joined Group Nine Media as president in 2017, at the Collision Conference in Toronto, Canada. Carone, who came to the media side of the industry after leadership roles on the marketing and agency side, oversees Group Nine’s sales and marketing teams as well as its data insights group. Group Nine is a digital media holding company comprised of four popular digitally-native media brands Thrillist, The Dodo, Seeker, and NowThis. Carone and I discussed revenue and distribution diversification, content strategy, and building a business based on brand equity.
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Michelle Manafy: Tell me a little bit about your content
distribution strategy and why you are all-in on social.
Christa Carone: Well, I’d say we’re all-in on omni
channel—and that includes social. Right now, we’re distributing content on over
20 different platforms. That includes Amazon Prime, Pluto, Roku, and distribution
deals with networks literally around the world. So, our approach to being
completely agnostic on distribution is that we want to bring our content to all
of the different places where people are spending their time. And we want that
to be a pretty frictionless experience. Instead of spending a ton of money to
get you to come to my website, I want to bring our storytelling to the place
where you are already hanging out.
Michelle Manafy: Truly connecting with audiences at
scale almost sounds like almost an oxymoron to me. What do you think?
Christa Carone: You can debate that content is king
and distribution is queen and whether they have an equal seat at the table. But
that’s really kind of how I look at it. When both are working together extremely
well, you are able to build successful brands like The Dodo, NowThis, Thrillist,
and Seeker. It’s like really honing-in on higher value content. We’re building
lifetime value of the content, what’s going to keep an audience interested, and
remain totally agnostic on the distribution strategy.
Michelle Manafy: The trick, of course, is the
monetization. The other side of a distributed model is fragmentation. So, talk
to me a little bit about how managing all of those channels ties into an overarching
Christa Carone: The beauty of our strategy is
diversification. I often say that if Facebook sneezes, we don’t want to catch a
cold. Just like in any industry, you don’t want to be overly dependent on one
particular revenue stream. It’s business 101. Media is no different than any
other type of business. So, that’s why we’ve been so focused on building
audiences across a number of different channels. We’re building audience on TikTok
right now. The monetization strategy there is nascent. But it’s going to come. IGTV
is another great example. We produce great content for IGTV and put it on IGTV
pre-revenue. But I have no doubt at all that Facebook is going to open up
monetization opportunities there. And I want to have established an audience when
Michelle Manafy: You mentioned diversification and that
every company should be focused on diversified revenue. I take it that Group
Nine that’s been baked in from the start.
Christa Carone: Keep in mind that we’re two years old. So, we’ve had the benefit of learning from a lot of traditional companies. And I often say: We’re not pivoting to anything. Some of our brands were born into video so there wasn’t a pivot to video. And the business model was already established. Some of our brands were social first. NowThis, in particular, was born as a social-first distributed brand. We didn’t pivot our business model from taking audience from owned and operated to distributing through external platforms.
Thrillist is the oldest of our brands and it has such a
loyal audience. So, we are looking at diversification around where we can take
the Thrillist brand and make it more of a whole-lifestyle brand.
Overall, our focus is on lifetime value for the content. So,
if we’re bringing in revenue with licensing, great. Bringing in revenue from
the syndication model, great. If we’re bringing in revenue by production deals
with OTT content providers, like a Netflix, that’s perfect. And if we are continuing
to bring in a healthy amount of revenue from advertising, wonderful. And increasingly
we’re thinking about how we can tap into other revenue streams like commerce and
Michelle Manafy: Could you tell me a little bit about
your commerce strategy?
Christa Carone: Our approach to commerce is really looking at brands like The Dodo and Thrillist and saying there’s intellectual property here. There’s a maniacally loyal fanbase. Can we be licensing The Dodo into product? The Dodo clearly has enough brand equity to be producing large scale consumer and canine events. Thrillist has been a friend to people for a long time. It is your recommendation action for food and beverage and travel. So, our ability to take that brand equity and bring it into commerce is already built in. And stay tuned: We will definitely be doing some more on that later this year and we just hired a head of ecommerce.
Michelle Manafy: So, you mentioned that maniacal
audience, that loyal audience. What’s the Group Nine secret? Because, as
publishers, that audience relationship is what differentiates us from the
Christa Carone: It’s such a credit to our editorial
teams. They know how weave a great narrative and tell an amazing story. It
sounds simple but I’m always amazed … A great example is from NowThis. Many
people are familiar with the NowThis video about Beto O’Rourke that went viral.
The raw footage of that video was already posted on Twitter. It already lived
on the Internet someplace. The NowThis team found it and was able to put it
through their storytelling lens. They said how can we construct it in such a
way that viewers are compelled to watch the entire piece? There is an art to
it. There is a narrative that was built in through the use of text on the
screen, through the use of effective editing so that we as the viewer were
compelled to watch it from start to finish. That is the secret sauce that
really exists within our editorial teams and applies to how we produce content
across all of our brands.
I would say the other massive factor for us is that scale
matters. We have such amazing insights that we’re able to glean from the
consumption of our videos that informs how we produce content. Based on our scale,
our data team is looking at 115,000 views of our content every minute. Every minute. We’ve built a very sophisticated
data engine that is able to pull in insights for things like the right color
for the text on the screen, the right size of font, the number of words that
should be on your screen, the fact that videos about dogs have three times
longer watch time than videos around cats. So, the editorial team can say maybe
that dog video should be three and a half minutes but maybe that cat videos
should just be two or something along those lines. You’re able to really start
to use these signals to inform your storytelling.
Michelle Manafy: So,
what’s your growth plan?
Christa Carone: Our business is really becoming much
more analogous to a TV buy. What I mean by that is that we have access to sell
all of the pre-roll against all of Group Nine content across all of the major
platforms. So, you have a television commercial and you are in, say, an auto
company and the pet owner is really interesting to you. You can come to us and
have 100 percent share of voice across all Dodo content on Facebook, on
Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat. You can buy our pre-roll on our channels and
transact that directly through Group Nine instead of the platforms. Brands are
responsive to it because of the importance of brand safety. When you have the
brand safety conversation with a marketer, you need to be able to say here’s
the right audience and it is against premium, brand safe content. It’s
fascinating to me that we’re having more conversations with TV buyers who are
shifting that investment from linear to wherever they can get eyeballs.
Michelle Manafy: I’m finding the distinction between television and all digital video is increasingly blurred, particularly for buyers.
Christa Carone: Completely. I think we have to redefine
what TV means. So, TV is not a device anymore. When the linear players, the
cable players start talking about TV everywhere, we’re in that boat. It
includes YouTube, it can arguably be IGTV, it could be lean-back viewing on
Facebook… It can be TikTok. How define TV going forward is going to be interesting.
Michelle Manafy: Talk to me about how you’re
innovating and how the industry needs to innovate.
Christa Carone: Maybe for some media companies,
diversification is innovative. It’s different at Group Nine because we were
born that way. We’ve learned so much from how past companies have run that we
know what we need to do as a media company. I feel like innovation is really
coming through how companies are able to scale intellectual property.
Christa Carone: I mean that’s been such an advantage
coming into a company like Group Nine. What I’m able to tap into is the
perspective of a marketer and think of everything we’re doing from the
perspective of the client. Will an advertiser really buy into this? I come from
companies with significant brand equity so I’m a massive believer in
intellectual property and that’s what appeals to me about Group Nine. these
aren’t four media companies. These are four brands. So: How can we look at
building brand equity that isn’t just about one particular revenue stream? That
has been super helpful to me to bring more of an innovative marketing approach
to building brands.