By: D. Eadward Tree
Fraud. Ad blockers. Mobilegeddon. Slow page loading. Low ad rates. Let’s face it: Digital advertising, which was supposed to rescue us from the decline of print, has run into a mess of problems this year on the way to saviorhood.
We magazine publishers have competitive advantages in dealing with these challenges, if we pay attention to our history and what we’ve learned from the print side of our business. After all, our industry has had a couple of centuries of trial-and-error with print advertising to find solutions to the same challenges that now bedevil the digital side of the house.
Here are few relevant lessons:
They Hate You; They Really Hate You
A recent Hubspot study found that the ads consumers hate the most by far are pop-ups and mobile phone ads, while magazine ads are the least objectionable. Hatred is rarely the beginning of a beautiful customer relationship.
Over the decades, magazine publishers have figured out ways to put advertising messages in front of readers without annoying them—and sometimes delighting them. Maybe that’s why the same publisher that’s happy to get a $2.50 CPM for programmatic ads wouldn’t dream of charging less than a $60 CPM for a print page. (Unfortunately, our mobile page views are booming while our print page views are shrinking.)
Suspicion is growing among advertisers that all web metrics are, to put it politely, heifer droppings.
Similar concerns in the print world were addressed decades ago with the creation of circulation-auditing agencies like the Alliance for Audited Media. It’s not just a case of self-policing: Advertisers and ad agencies help set the rules for which copies can be counted toward a magazine’s circulation.
Abiding by the rules and providing the documentation are a royal pain in the gluteus maximus for publishers. But audited circulation does the job: It assures print advertisers that they reached the audience they paid for.
The Ads You Publish Affect Your Editorial Reputation
In the print world, we learned long ago that keeping advertising separate from editorial wasn’t enough. If reputable publications ran sleazy, spammy, or scammy ads, readers became outraged and put less trust in our content. They didn’t want to hear excuses about ad networks and remnant agencies.
They still don’t, but somehow we magazine publishes forgot that lesson when we went onto the web. Readers didn’t value our “premium content” if it appeared beside old-fashioned snake-oil ads, and they don’t appreciate it today if it’s accompanied by newfangled “content recommendation engine” clickbait.
Where’s the Content?
Within certain limits, readers tolerate advertisements as long as the content is worthwhile. But magazine publishers learned long ago that, as the ad percentage gets beyond a certain point, readers object and the ads get ignored. That’s why we charge lower rates for ad banks—consecutive pages of advertising.
So why do so many magazine publishers think it’s OK to blast out emails to their subscribers that contain nothing but a sponsor’s message? And why are they surprised when people unsubscribe from their newsletters or simply stop opening them?
A Big Story Requires a Big, Clean Canvas
Ads in 19th century periodicals were usually simple text listings or tiny text-in-a-box “tombstone” messages, scattered among other similar single-column notices. Just making people aware of your product was enough. But as the marketplace and print technology evolved, advertisers increasingly sought to tug at heartstrings, change attitudes, and tell stories. That meant larger images, more varied typography, more white space, and fewer distractions from nearby ads. Not to mention fewer ads, but more ad revenue per page.
It took us many more decades to get to the point where a full-page right-hand ad facing a left-hand page of editorial became the magazine standard—and where single-column ads were either banished to the back of the book or forbidden altogether.
Now look at the skimpy space usually allotted to a web ad and count the number of competing messages. Or read a medium-length article on your phone and see how many commercial messages crawl across your screen or park themselves in front of the article in a desperate attempt to get your attention (if you haven’t installed an ad blocker, that is). No wonder CPMs are dropping.
Fortunately, publishers on the web are relearning the quality-beats-quantity lesson all over again, with many shifting to fewer but larger ad units (though not, unfortunately, on mobile) and letting advertisers buy all the units on a page. The trend toward sponsored and branded content is another way digital advertisers are getting beyond awareness to deep engagement.
Some B2B and niche publishers tell me they have good success with white papers and sponsored ebooks. Though readers may discover such free offerings on their smartphone screen, they often read the product on the larger canvas of a PC or tablet. And, while there, they might even see the sponsor’s message on a right-hand page facing left-hand editorial.
Give us a century or so, and we publishers should be able to figure out how to make digital advertising work.