Engagement Vs. Monetization: How Small Media Companies Can Walk The Fine Line
Columnist Keith Fagan offers some steps to help independent publishers benefit from the growing trends of engagement and viewability.
As the online advertising landscape continues to evolve, more traditional ad-buying metrics, such as impressions or clicks, are being blended with other measurements to address newer advertiser concerns. The most visible of these are engagement and its cousin, viewability, and publishers are starting to adapt their businesses to accommodate this trend.
Some high-profile media companies have already taken actions to take advantage of this new reality: The Financial Times’ use of time-on-page as an ad-buying metric and Twitter’s release of objective-based metrics are just two examples of this trend. These tactics have met with some early success, but they require some upfront work and investment by the media company.
There seems to be little written about what smaller companies can do to level the playing field, and I want to tackle this here.
From the conversations I’ve had with our media partners, one way independent publishers are tackling this issue is by judiciously segmenting their audience and then balancing user experience and monetization requirements.
For example, traffic from Facebook and other social media platforms, and even search around specific events, often causes spikes in traffic; however, for many publishers, these visitors are one-hit wonders who often don’t even know the site they are on, rarely return and typically attract low CPMs from advertisers.
For a small publisher with limited resources, the challenge is how to best monetize this type of traffic without alienating core return readers who are more engaged with the site and highly valued by advertisers — a feat more difficult than tightrope walking.
How Some Publishers Are Achieving This Balancing Act
To address this issue, many publishers are offering different experiences based on the referring URL string and other reader-data elements.
For example, a low-value visitor from Facebook may see an ad-heavy experience to maximize the one-time monetization opportunity. The publisher may have five to six ads on the page for visitors from Facebook, for instance, as opposed to its standard three or four.
A variant of this tactic is to try to turn referrals from social media into more permanent readers. One way of doing this is to get them to sign up to an email newsletter — Inside Hook, a Men’s lifestyle magazine, and others use this tactic via pop-ups that encourage visitors to sign up for email updates and newsletters.
In comparison to this, many publishers are offering very different experiences to high-value return visitors, who are often visiting from another site or through direct navigation. Typically, these visitors will see fewer ads, but these ads will most often be placed in premium locations.
By doing this, the publisher not only generates the best user experience, thereby increasing reader engagement and retention, but also creates high-value, high-viewability ad impressions from the audience that advertisers desire the most.
An example of a website that minimizes ad clutter while increasing viewability can be seen on Wired.com. This publisher typically features only one or two ads on its articles, and these are either fixed or occasionally reappear in the same position on the screen when the visitor scrolls down the page.
You can take this tactic even further and go so far as to design separate sites and landing pages. As an example of this, one notable sports publisher is using this tactic to stay true to its die-hard sports enthusiast readers, while still taking advantage of traffic spikes driven by sports-related celebrity news, such as Bubba Watson dropping a $148 tip at a waffle house after winning the Masters.
These are very different readers, and they’re valued differently by advertisers. So to maximize its revenue without diluting and homogenizing its sports core properties, the publisher built a separate branded site specifically for these sport pop culture events.
This allowed the publisher to monetize the one-hit-wonder readers while still preserving its core readership and the associated higher CPMs.
By taking some very simple steps, independent publishers can benefit from the growing trends of engagement and viewability. As time goes on, we’ll likely see publishers use more sophisticated tactics, which will be driven by data and enabled by greater integration between analytics, DMPs (data management platforms), ad servers and website technology.
This integration will likely make engagement-based metrics, such as time-on-site, more ubiquitous, and I suspect that smaller pubs will garner greater revenues from such metrics because of their more engaged readership.