Publishers: Who Controls The User Experience On Your Website – You Or Your Advertisers?

chriscummingsThe Sell Sider” is a column written for the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Chris Cummings, CEO of Curiosity Media.

Do you know what ads are running your website? Which brands? What campaigns? Which creatives?

If you are like most publishers, you don’t. And if you use programmatic advertising, you can’t.

Some supply-side platforms (SSPs) have more than 100,000 ad creatives running on their platform at any given time. It’s simply too many ads for one person to have a handle on. As a result, when it comes to knowing what ads are running on their website, most publishers are in the dark.

Ads Dominate The User Experience

Ads are important for a website’s user experience. User experience is influenced by many factors, such as the ease of navigation, content of the page, the overall aesthetic of the page and the speed in which the page loads.

So how influential are ads? Ads generally consume more than 25% of the above-the-fold screen real estate, with a 728×90 leaderboard typically appearing at the top of the page and a 300×250 or 300×600 appearing on the right sidebar. Ads are often more colorful and have bigger images than the rest of the content. Ads are generally 100% of the animated content on the page.

Finally, ads often do more to slow down the speed of the page than anything else. By assuming such a prominent role, it’s no wonder that in user testing studies, ads tend to be the most cited aspect of a site affecting the user experience. Indeed, for most publishers, ads are now the single most important contributor to user experience.

Publishers Lost Control Of The User Experience

If most publishers don’t know what ads are running on their websites and the ads are influencing the user experience more than any single other aspect of the site, that means most publishers have lost control of the user experience.

Site speed is now controlled by advertisers. The aesthetic of the page, including the animation and imagery, is now dominated by advertisers. Even something as fundamental as whether the website automatically plays audio can now be controlled by the advertisers, as we have seen with the conflagration of autoplay audio ads.

Ceding some control to the advertisers might not be a problem if the ads delivered a good experience. But they haven’t. And in the most egregious of cases, as with mobile redirects, they have utterly ruined the experience.

The cost to publishers in the near term is a decline in page views as people visit fewer pages per session and return less often. But the cost to publishers over the long term may be the scourge of ad-blocking software, which is to some extent a direct result of a degradation of the user experience brought on by disruptive ads.

Taking Back Control

So how can publishers reclaim control of the user experience on their website? As the old adage goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Publishers must measure the impact of ads on their website. This starts with listening to users. For the structure and layout of the site, it means conducting user testing sessions and asking users about their satisfaction level with the advertising on the page.

For catching instances of particularly egregious ads, including inappropriate content, autoplay audio or pop-ups, it means giving users the ability to report problematic ads to publishers.

For identifying problems with load times, it means measuring the speed of a website with ads and without ads, and then working to identify which ad partners and ad campaigns are causing the biggest slowdowns.

For publishers that can run A/B tests with their ad stack, it means measuring the impact of new ad partners on user behavior, including how changes in page views per session and long-term retention are affected by changes in the ad setup.

Underlying these initiatives to measure and manage the user experience impact of ads is a change in philosophy. It’s time for publishers to recognize how central ads are to the user experience, measure the impact, and take back control. When ads enhance the user experience –or at least maintain it – it’s better for the users and better for publishers.

Follow Chris Cummings (@christopherdc) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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