“Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Eric Picard, vice president of product planning at MediaMath.
If you ask anyone, anywhere, if they like advertising, the answer will likely be a laugh and quick “no.” From a small number of people, you will get a virulent “hell no!”
But most people recognize that the content they consume is free because of advertising, and they have been willing to accept the quid pro quo of free content funded by advertising for nearly all media, for nearly all time. That’s changed over the last few years, and the easy installation of ad blockers – which frequently improve the experience of viewing web pages – has negatively impacted the ad-supported Internet.
We’re in this situation as an industry because we’ve abused our relationship with consumers. We’ve failed to design pages with the user experience optimized around the content first, with the advertising experience seamlessly incorporated into that content. That is not a call for native advertising. It’s a call to actually design the advertising and content experiences together – and to ensure that both work well and satisfy consumers’ need of great content for free.
What I mean here is that the page needs to load quickly, with the content loading first, followed by ads and then invisible code to track users. In addition to loading quickly, the page needs to be beautiful and have high utility for the user.
We all have had the horrible experience of tapping a click-bait link in social media that leads to a web page with a photo gallery of 20-plus images, each of which require as many as three clicks to move to the next image. Each click also leads to a new load of advertising. That’s the most egregious example of what is frustrating consumers today. It should be equally frustrating to advertisers and agencies – who are basically footing the bill for terrible experiences and likely getting no value from those ad impressions.
Unfortunately, the mean load times of nearly all content pages on the Internet is not much better than these “bottom-of-the-barrel” sites, with a few notable exceptions. Once you move beyond the very best publishers, the cliff over which the consumer stumbles is pretty high. The vast majority of sites don’t load much faster than the very slowest.
Why has the web become a wasteland of user experiences, and why do web pages take almost as long to load today as they did back in the days of dial-up? Is this fixable?
A History Lesson
As I’m finding more often these days, we need to look back in order to look forward.
In 1997 when I started Bluestreak, one of the first rich media advertising technology companies, the bandwidth available to nearly all Internet users was dial-up constrained to either 56K baud (that’s bits audio) or even 14.4K baud. That’s worse than your worst mobile data connection today. Yet we were able to deliver amazing ad experiences. But that was almost 20 years ago.
Bluestreak’s technology was Java applet-based and designed to support the needs of low-bandwidth users at a time when publishers had extremely conservative file size restrictions on advertising.
Our initial load of image and code was less than 1 kilobyte (KB) of data, which would render an ad on a page with a message that read, “Loading.” A subsequent download of less than 5 KB would get an initial image onto the screen. The total subsequent load of a rich media banner would be less than 64 KB. And these were rich media ads – not static banners.
In 1998 we rolled out expanding banners, rich media applications with multiple pages and all sorts of “special effects” and various interactive behaviors. The following year, we launched some of the first video ads online. We made wonderful things happen for advertisers and consumers within the very tight constraints of bandwidth and file-size limits.
With bandwidth basically unlimited today, why do pages load so slowly when we proved almost 20 years ago that great ad experiences could be loaded on dial-up connections?
Solving The Problem
Publishers really own the bulk of this problem because slow page loads relate to how pages are coded. Software for delivering web pages must be optimized such that the site’s visual components and content load very quickly. This is not an overnight change – it may require entire web experiences to be recoded. Finding quality engineers in the publishing space who understand how to code pages properly is a challenge. But this is a critical and almost existential issue for publishers, and we’ve repeatedly seen how good user experiences drive up the value of pages.
To that point, advertisers and agencies need to hold publishers accountable for the user and advertising experiences. They should stop buying advertising from publishers that don’t solve this problem, or at the very least push hard on publishers to ensure that they design pages that load quickly and are not bandwidth hogs. This last part is particularly important for mobile – where the user’s data plan is being impacted by all the content being loaded on the page, including the advertising.
When buying ads programmatically, advertisers and agencies should use a technology provider like Trust Metrics or Integral Ad Science to determine if the advertising experience being provided is high-quality and brand-safe. The technology provider can scan a web page to determine if there is quality content and page layout, with a small number of ads and sufficient white space, or if the page is an “ad farm,” with dozens of ads.
Creative agencies need to design ads that load quickly and optimize file size. This means building teams with coding skills to build fast-loading HTML5 ads and working with rich media vendors to build optimized ad experiences.
Similarly, rich media ad companies need to embrace the idea that desktop web users need fast-loading ads – even if they are on broadband – and that rich experiences don’t require massive file sizes or bandwidth.
And agencies should vet these companies and ensure that they are following best practices. While desktop users typically have “all-you-can-eat” data consumption plans, that’s not the case for mobile. Many of the pages we visit on mobile are non-optimized desktop sites that load even even more slowly over mobile devices. If the consumer’s data plan takes the hit of all the ad content loading, it’s injury to insult.
Users are not blocking advertising because they hate advertising. They hate the horrendous experience of visiting terribly coded and designed web pages with too many and slow loading ads. If the experience of viewing the web using an ad blocker is significantly better because pages load faster and look better, this is purely a problem that publishers, creative agencies and rich media companies need to fix.
Our industry is the problem, not the consumer. So let’s fix it.