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How can publishers win in today’s highly competitive attention economy?

Published: 14 Oct 2021

There’s debate as to when and where the phrase ‘attention economy’ was first coined, but few in our industry would argue when we say that it’s become one of the key pillars through which we conduct business. As of the start of 2021, there are 4.66 billion active internet users, spending an average of 6 hours and 56 minutes online each day. This is a huge opportunity for online publishers, of course, but with so much choice consumers can be quick to abandon a website of choice for another if they have a bad experience.

In today’s highly competitive attention economy, how can you balance the interests of your audience and your advertisers to create the best user experience that delivers revenue and value for all parties? We joined Unruly’s Grant Bingham for a roundtable discussion with leading publishers for the last day of the AOP Publishing Tech Talk to better understand what publishers are doing in this space.

A quick disclaimer – to preserve the integrity and honesty of the discussion, all names of participants have been kept out of the write-up of the Chatham House discussion. However, we did have a mixture of both large and small publishers for news and consumer interest brands in order to provide the breadth of insight and experience for the discussion. Here are the highlights…

Publishers should push their own agenda as to what attention looks like

Despite the amount of research with attention as the main focal point, the ad spend is not following this data. While premium publishers can deliver better dwell time and viewability because their readers are more actively engaged with the content, advertisers are still chasing metrics such as ad impressions over quality leads.

More education is needed to help the buy-side understand the value of reaching a quality audience in a quality environment rather than chasing a cookie across the internet. Re-targeting can deliver value – if someone heads to a specialist publication for more information before making a large purchase, that purchase will likely still be top-of-mind on a different site – but re-targeting for re-targeting’s sake doesn’t deliver value to anyone.

When are ads ‘too much’?

While it is reasonable that advertisers want their campaigns to be seen, it can cause problems for publishers when their tactics interfere with the audience experience. But how do you strike the right balance? When do you push back against the advertiser? As an industry, we have been pushed into bad habits by the buy-side, who prioritise their own metrics against the user experience – such as slideshow formats which deliver more ad space and viewability, but that users hate. It’s crucial that we prioritise our audiences, because with no audience, there’s no ad impressions either.

Our participants all highlighted the importance of testing, learning, and using new data to rethink your strategy. Once you discover what your audience do and don’t react to, you have more understanding to help the buy-side achieve their own goals. Several of our publisher representatives suggested that they were aiming for a less crowded advertising environment; it delivers a better user experience, and advertisers are more likely to see their objectives fulfilled because the competition is lower. With advertisers pushing for more and more viewability, making technical adjustments is key to delivering against those targets.

Ad refresh has also been useful for some of our participants; given that ads are only likely to be clicked in the first few seconds, ad refresh allows publishers the opportunity to showcase more advertising without frustrating the reader.

Data, data, data

You have to know your audience inside and out, and then be able to leverage this effectively. Many of the publishers in the discussion aimed to tailor the experience to individual segments, from those who engage infrequently all the way up to your ‘super users’. Directing to content that could be of interest to them or providing read times on articles can all help give the audience cues to help them find what they want. It can even inform editorial decisions, with one representative sharing that their data revealed a highly engaged group of users within a particular topic; by launching a new brand, they were able to double down on that content and provide more value for this audience, and a new platform for advertisers to reach potential consumers.

For another, the segmented data allowed them to adapt their revenue strategies. ‘Super users’ are being offered one less advertisement in a trial to chase a second page view rather than the ad revenue. Instead, they’re hoping to push volume on their one-time readers and instead aim to move their regular users up through the reader revenue funnel.

Ultimately, the reader has to be first.

One element was clear throughout the discussion: the reader has to be first and foremost in your thinking. Yes, advertising pays the bills, and so a balance needs to be struck, but in the end, if your readers stop visiting your site, you have no advertising revenue either.

You have to know how you’re delivering value to your audience at each stage. If you’re providing a data-wall or a pay-wall, what’s on the other side that’s worth that commitment from your reader? Readers want to see their loyalty rewarded with a premium experience, whether that’s an ad-free experience or bespoke content. And in return, you have unparalleled access and insight to a small group of users that you can sell at a premium to advertisers – who can guarantee a better return on their investment. It’s a win-win-win.