How Publishers Are Seeing The Light On Ad Blindness

gregmasonsellsideThe Sell Sider is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Greg Mason, CEO at Purch.

Move over, programmatic and native. Ad fraud and viewability have become the two biggest buzzwords in the digital advertising industry.

At the center of both is the issue of being seen. In a nutshell, ads need to be seen – by actual people – for ROI and engagement to occur. Makes sense, right?

Candidly, though, seeing an ad isn’t the industry’s problem. There real issue is “ad blindness,” the tendency for audiences to completely ignore ads, even if they’re clearly visible. Last year, 60% of consumers said that they weren’t able to remember what the last online ad they saw was about, while 80% of those who did remember said the ad wasn’t relevant to them.

So having an ad that’s viewable to people – not bots – is great. But if it’s just ignored, what’s the point?

In the late ’90s, when the term was first coined, ad blindness was largely caused by the fact that ads were literally too small to be seen. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the industry got serious about creating ads with more impact, and so larger, more creative-centric new formats were born.

And while this innovation did produce benefits for publishers back then, the ad blindness monster has evolved and extended its reach from small banners to supersize blocks, meaning publishers now have to deal with a whole new set of challenges when it comes to reaching consumers.

Fortunately, publishers have evolved, too. As actual technology companies, publishers are in a much better position than they were in 1997 to challenge ad blindness and lessen its impact. Here’s how.

Data Plus Technology Makes Ads Ultra-Relevant

Today, publishers have more data on their readers than ever before – 89% of publishers had plans to expand their data technology investments in 2014 – whether its collected through proprietary means or third parties. And, thanks to the incorporation of more advanced technology on the back end to harvest and analyze that data, performance metrics have evolved to make real ROI more achievable.

With this combination of data and technology, publishers can group readers by interest to make ultra-refined advertising recommendations, pushing ads the way Amazon might push products or Netflix pushes video. BuzzFeed’s director of data science has touted this capability and the way it lets the publication uncover readers’ “latent topic intent,” delivering a more targeted, user-centric experience.

Improving ad-serving through data and analytics can enhance our ability to drive engagement with end users and subsequently minimize ad blindness.

Forget More Ads: Streamline And Simplify 

With more data than ever before, publishers have also been able to move beyond the tired “spray and pray” approach of the past decade, where homepages cluttered with ad units had become the norm.

Instead of relying on quantity and driving ROI through brute force, publishers need to focus on quality, delivering ultra-relevant advertising content, because they have the data and metrics to make that possible.

As a result, it has become more common to offer consumers a streamlined site experience with far less clutter and an optimized design that frames the message within. And publishers aren’t just optimizing pages by offering fewer ads, they’re also stripping down nonessential site navigation and cross-site promotional activity to give people the content they are looking for without the distraction of multiple ads served up by algorithms. Doing so clears the path for one promotion that relates to the subject the visitor intended to learn more about.

Eye tracking analysis backs this up. Without distractions, people are engaging – reading, watching and clicking – with much more of the content, much more of the time.

Most importantly, removing clutter drives performance. Focusing promotions on the topics directly related to the information people are seeking makes them far more likely to intentionally click on an advertisement or buy button, or to visit a site.

Put Ads In The Right Places 

Beyond just having a data-driven strategy, publishers must also reference their data to figure out not only which ads work, but also where their advertisements work the best. This is something we can do much more effectively now than in 1997, when ad blindness was just beginning to be recognized.

Users spend 4,000% more time on the main content area, which is generally the center of the page, than any other section, according to recent data from InfoLinks. Additionally, content above the fold is 156% more likely to be seen than content below the fold. That said, users will skip over the leaderboard at the top of the page if they think it’s irrelevant. The study also found ads delivered to unconventional page locations – for instance, ads integrated into content areas or navigational elements – were more effective than ads located in traditional areas.

Serving an ad for the sake of serving an ad shouldn’t be considered a positive; serving an ad where it will actually work should be. The information that allows publishers to get ad logistics right is available and is being put into use.

In the end, the common thread connecting each of these strategies for combatting ad blindness is data. Data is powering a better model for publishers, making advertising more effective for them and their partners. And as publishers continue to embrace technology and grow more data-oriented, the efforts taken to reduce ad blindness will hopefully become actual solutions in the long term.

Follow Greg Mason (@gmason), Purch (@PurchGroup) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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