How Publishers Can Win Back Ad Revenue From Big Tech

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

Today's column is written by Jeffrey Turner, director of digital ad operations at The Washington Post.

Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are among the highest grossing companies in digital media, earning billions as users scroll through an endless feed of content. Advertising revenue rewards attention. As users scroll more and consume less, ad dollars are increasingly allocated to content discovery over content consumption.

This issue, which puts pressure on the monetization of original news journalism, is exacerbated by an advertiser practice known as “brand safety” - blocking news content deemed to be unsafe. Just a few years ago, more than 90% of all publisher impressions were deemed “safe” for advertising, according to a 2017 media quality report by IAS. Today, that metric has diminished to all-time lows; brand safety now costs publishers nearly $3 billion annually.

However, the solution to news advertising is not through advances in advertiser tools to better circumvent news. Rather, the solution lies in a publisher’s ability to help brands determine the context of the article they are advertising on and customize the ad to that context.

Publishers need to reinvent the value of their advertising teams, in order to help brands navigate the news cycle. 

Why value news? Trusted, meaningful conversations

A newsfeed is great at generating revenue for the social platform, but does it really help form a meaningful connection between a brand and its target audience? Distrust in social newsfeeds is increasing among users due to the presence of unvalidated news posts. Social platforms are good at generating attention, but bad at enabling a meaningful connection for a marketer.

Conversely, publishers' advertisements align with the consumption of content, rather than content discovery. A news article is a meaningful conversation between a respected journalist and an educated and informed reader, rather than a cluttered, untrusted newsfeed.

This trusted environment can be of extremely high value to a brand. A recent study by the IAB and Magid found that for 84% of consumers, trust is neutral or increases for news advertisers, with 47% reporting that advertising on news increases their positive perception of the brand.

Despite these positive results, even brands who post news topics to social media struggle to navigate advertising on news journalism content.

Understand the spectrum of news cycle advertising

There is a spectrum of advertising alongside news.

This spectrum begins with brands who are comfortable with news; “creators” that have an established voice and the ability to observe the news/cultural zeitgeist and react to it in a meaningful way at lightning speed. Their goal is simple: amplify their brand voice at the speed the news is reported.

On the other end of the spectrum are brands less inclined to be as reactive to news, and instead desire to get ahead of the news cycle itself -- to lead versus react.

These brands are “collaborators,” who seek partnerships with publishers to understand the news cycle and its worth to get ahead of it. Their goal is more complex: to generate brand impact ahead of the news cycle.

“Creators” need tech and speed to market

“Creator” brands are an untapped revenue stream for publishers. Few publishers have catered to these brands' needs for short turnaround times for campaign launches.

For the time it takes to submit an RFP, plan the media, sign the IO, traffic/QA the ad units and launch is at least two weeks.

Even programmatic campaigns can take this much time to launch, particularly when it comes to designing and creating new ad formats. But two weeks is an eternity in news media. No wonder brands are flocking to social platforms where they can create a post in under a minute, and then amplify that post in the form of an ad with just a few clicks.

Brands need the ability to react to news quickly and easily. That need will only increase with time. The deprecation of third-party cookies means brands will have to heavily rely more on context and less on audience targeting. Brands will need more ad variants, more tailored creative messaging and the ability to customize the creative to the article context at scale.

If publishers expect to compete with social platforms for this revenue, they need to meet these advertiser needs with the same time-to-market of a social newsfeed.

“Collaborators” need service and to understand brand impact

Collaborating with brands is what publishers do best. Unlike Facebook, which makes the majority of its revenue from mid-tier advertisers, publishers (with a direct sales team) make the majority of their revenue from a select number of close partners.

Even though programmatic campaigns now comprise the vast amount of impressions, revenue and margin still favor direct sales through key partnerships.

Publishers need to help brands understand content trends of key audiences. What content is driving engagement with a particular brand? As third-party data diminishes in availability and performance, publishers’ first party data is going to grow in importance, as will these close partnerships.

Trust vs. tech

If publishers can invest in new tech tools that allow brands to align their ad message with news in minutes rather than weeks, revenue will follow. Publishers who can tailor brand ad campaigns to the right time in the news cycle, with the right insights, will see revenue follow.

This spectrum of speed and service is where publishers are positioned to regain advertising revenue that has shifted towards big tech. Although social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter earn the lion’s share of ad revenue, publisher content is trusted. It’s far easier to add technology than it is to add trust.

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