| |

Size won’t save publishers unless we face up to the long tail of garbage

Size won’t save publishers unless we face up to the long tail of garbage
100% Media 0% Nonsense

2024 looks set to be a year of consolidation in publishing, but it’s a short-term fix for a long-term problem: the digital publishing market is suffering from market failure, writes the editor.

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and figure out where you’re going to sell it.”

Steve Jobs said that and he ran a tech company. What is this product or service that the customer wants and what is their experience as they receive its marketing, as they consider its features and as they use the actual thing?

It seems like a simple concept to start a business plan with “what does the customer want?”, but how often do business leaders actually lead with that question as a first step?

Or, closer to home, how often are media leaders really putting their customers first, be it their audiences or the advertisers?

Bigger is not always better

One way to alienate your customers is to make it obvious that you’re willing to compromise their experience, whether it’s not picking up the phone or not keeping your shop floor clean.

Or, if you’re a digital publisher: making your website so unbearably heavy with ads, trackers and pop-ups that you need to have a cold shower before daring to use another website again.

And yet we’ve become so accustomed to the vast majority of news brands’ websites being filled with stuff that gets in the way of the content that it is no longer regarded as strange.

I was reminded of this by Bountiful Cow CEO Adam Foley’s comment on Friday regarding The Independent’s announced deal to run BuzzFeed and sister brand HuffPost in the UK.

The sad recent decline of Reach, who have seen that compromising the reader experience for heavy ad loads and data collection has not resulted in commercial return, should tell us that there’s not necessarily safety in numbers,” Foley says. “Scale alone is not the answer.”

And, as we expect 2024 to be a year of frantic M&A activity as media owners huddle together for warmth in colder economic times, “scale” will be frequently used as a justification for deals. This matters because bigger does not usually mean better when media owners merge.

Because, after all, are they merging because they really believe it will prove better for customers — or better for their shareholders?

A heavy year for ad load?

VCCP Media’s wise executive planning director Steve Taylor warns that ad load is set to become a greater problem on social media platforms, too, this year.

Speaking to The Media Leader for an upcoming special series of our podcast, in association with Bloomberg Media, Taylor observes that the platforms have “reached a ceiling of monthly active users”. This is important because, in order to grow more, platforms have “nowhere left to go” other than to shove loads more advertising into their already bulging feeds, pre-rolls and menus.

“As a media planner, my mind then immediately turns to: where are the quality moments?” Taylor says. “Who are the quality publishers… where the environment isn’t too overcrowded, where the ad load isn’t too much, where there is engagement from the audience, where the audience will feel that ad experience is more in stream with whatever it is they’re there to do?”

Where, indeed.

Social media platforms appear to have boxed themselves into a corner (admittedly, a very lucrative corner) where advertising is the only game in town because user-generated content is, almost by definition, not worth paying for. The only alternative is to charge a premium for better advertising products — something I hoped Netflix would do upon launching a cheaper tier funded by advertising but which I’m still waiting for.

I still remain hopeful that advertising can be additive, not just interruptive, to the media experience. But the advertising ecosystem is simply not strong enough if the only effective channels are cinema, television and unskippable YouTube ads (according to Peter Field at The Future of TV Advertising Global 2023).

Because the alternative is to fuel a vicious spiral in which marketers expect lower prices for poorer-quality ads and cowed media owners give them even more of that. As Foley reminds us, it’s not enough to have a huge audience. It’s not even enough to have a big younger audience when young people are harder to reach through other media channels.

What’s missing is having advertising that adds to the media experience, not erodes it by being overly interruptive and irritating.

Long tail of garbage

Competition should be the market’s antidote to a media ecosystem in which too few suppliers serve too many customers.

A system in which heavy ad loads become normalised is a sign that prices for ads need to go up, otherwise media owners would have no incentive to improve the customer experience and lighten the ad load. But that won’t happen unless there is a serious commitment by advertisers to only place ads on legitimate websites that actually employ professional content creators.

For too long, advertising cash has poured into all kinds of sites and apps where fraudsters are gaming the system by getting bots to mimic a sizeable audience. While online media owners seem to value being “verified” by companies such as Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify, ad fraud specialist Dr Augustine Fou has, for years, raised serious questions over fraud detection systems simply by following the money.

Our columnist Nick Manning continues to be one of the few loud voices warning about ad fraud and wasted spend harming online publishing, while numerous studies commissioned by trade bodies Isba and the US Association of National Advertisers are confirming what we’ve long suspected: the online publishing industry is in desperate need of reform.

It’s too easy to just blame Meta and Google for not being generous enough to news publishers in their role as information aggregators. The publishing industry itself needs to become a less toxic playing field by getting better at diverting money away from “made for advertising” websites.

Advertisers, meanwhile, need to accept lower, but more authentic, estimates of how many impressions an online campaign will generate when they don’t touch the long tail of garbage.

Maybe then media owners can be better-placed to give customers what they want, be they advertisers that want to reach their readers or readers who just want to be informed or entertained.

Incidentally, the ABCs, out this week, should give us a glimpse of how this media owner-advertiser-reader relationship is panning out in the magazine industry.

Regulate? Or recalibrate?

I’ve not mentioned the “R” word once, but regulation is the traditional remedy when there is a large and persistent market failure.

For good reasons, publishers are always extremely sensitive about regulating any aspect of a free press. Although in this instance, a better regulatory system would bolster the free press by diverting spend away from fraudulent websites that game the system with bots.

It would also give advertisers better incentives to trade on quality, not just quantity — and this should give media owners that impetus to reduce ad load and give readers a more pleasurable content experience.

Put it another way: if you were inventing online publishing today and starting with the customer first, would it look anything like what you see today?

Omar Oakes is editor-in-chief of The Media Leader

100% Media 0% Nonsense is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our daily newsletter to get this column first in your inbox every Monday, as well as key updates with what’s happening at The Media Leader and our upcoming events. 


The case for abolishing Clearcast

TV just isn’t ‘telly’ any more… so what do we call it now?

Editor’s column: Advertising and media are no longer ‘bellwether’ sectors

Faris Yakob, Founder, Genius Steals, on 19 Feb 2024
“It's incredible how little progress we have made on this in the DECADE since I wrote about ;-) https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/aug/11/advertising-measuring-consumer-attention”

Media Jobs