Businesses that rely on ad revenue are experiencing tough times at the moment, but web publishers are not completely helpless in the face of the current crisis. Rather than focusing on measuring the impact, we wanted to share some of the tactics that our web publishers are using to not just survive, but thrive in the current climate.
Whilst advertising CPMs being on the floor might not seem like the most serious problem in the current climate, it is a worrying one for many who rely on that income. Unseasonably low ad rates have a very real impact on those who feed their families and pay their mortgages through ad revenue. The impact can hit unlucky publishers fast and hard if they’ve also been affected by traffic drops as well as plummeting CPMs.
As web publishers, our ad revenue is often dependent on a variety of factors both inside and outside of our control. Fortunately, we’re not completely helpless to push back. We may have limited ability to impact the traffic and the rates that govern our revenue, but we do have some. We’ve spoken with many publishers over the last few weeks who are rising to the challenge and adapting. Through a combination of diligence and creative thinking, many publishers are finding ways to mitigate the current losses. In a few cases, publishers are even managing to turn the situation around to their advantage and making year on year gains.
The strategies below come from those discussions with independent publishers. We’d love to hear more if you have them. By sharing what works, perhaps it will spark an idea that helps another independent publisher keep publishing through this tricky year.
This article was originally published on Mat’s LinkedIn account.
Get the basics right first
Ad serving is certainly more complex than it should be. Page tagging, header scripts, tag management, trafficking, passbacks, pricing rules, CMPs and numerous other systems all need to be exactly right to ensure that you monetize every potential opportunity. Get any step wrong on any page load and you lose money.
Finding and plugging those gaps can pay dividends. How you do that will depend on your set-up. At OKO, we like to focus on the simple metric of monetised impressions per pageview as a starting point. Comparing pages served (preferably through analytics) with the total number of monetised impressions gives you a good yardstick on your coverage. If your set-up allows it, breaking that down further by inventory and content can also show you where you have missed opportunity.
I also really love Screaming Frog as a tool to crawl pages and find missing on-page tags. This desktop crawler can work its way around your website and highlight pages that are missing tags you specify.
Checking the basics also means checking your floor prices. If you still have floor prices set at pre-crisis levels, then you either had them set badly in the first place or are likely getting unfilled impressions. Advertisers will definitely have adjusted their bids so you need to do the same to price floors. If you are unsure where to set floors at present, my suggestion would be to cut them slightly more than you are comfortable with, watch them for a few weeks and monitor your fill rate.
Introduce more competition
When advertisers pull budgets, publishers get hit in the pocket twice. Less advertisers means more chance of an impression going unfilled. It also means less chance of a second bidder pushing up the price that the winner has to pay for your impression. Ad Manager may have moved to unified pricing, but auction pressure is still a very real factor in your header auction.
The solution to both issues is to expose your inventory to a larger pool of advertisers. The fastest way to do this is to check any blocks or restrictions that you have in place. Restricting advertisers, technologies, topics and formats will all have an impact and that impact may be different if there has been a change in competition for your inventory.
A more impactful approach will probably be to introduce new bidders through your Header Bidding or server-to-server bidding (or potentially both). It remains important to balance having more bidders against user experience, but one strong additional bidder can have a significant impact when competition is poor. Server-to-server solutions like Google’s Open Bidding are a good way to bring more bidders to the party without impacting user experience.
Take ground that competitors retreat from
Many publishers are putting out less content than they were pre-crisis. The urge to cut costs, reduced staffing and less news can all lead to decisions to reduce content output. If competitors reduce content that there is still an audience for, this represents an opportunity for a more flexible publisher to gain a new audience.
Test things you thought you knew
The landscape has changed both suddenly and dramatically. Data that you gathered pre-crisis may now be out of date. What content performs well, which bidders bring gains, which traffic sources bring returns may all have shifted. Gathering new data allows you to perform better in the new market.
Try new angles on content
Whilst CPMs are down across most niches, some areas have the additional challenge of having the rug pulled from under their traffic as well. If your content largely comprises restaurant reviews, you are going to struggle to bring in traffic whilst restaurants are closed and your audience are all confined to their houses. But you do still have that audience and they are looking to be entertained and engaged more than ever before. It’s not a large shift from restaurant reviews to recipes to reproduce favourite restaurant dishes at home. It might not be your strongest content ever, but a bit of creative thinking can keep those impressions being served until normality returns.
One angle that many publishers have taken is to become part of the COVID news cycle, focusing on how their niche is impacted by the crisis. This can be easy inspiration at a difficult time and does allow publishers to capitalise on the boom in news interest. I’d urge some caution though. Many advertisers are blacklisting COVID/Coronavirus related terms so you could see the revenue around such content being even lower than expected. Readers looking for an escape from the constant COVID news might also be turned off by seeing it on the websites they try to escape to.
Try something new
One way to tackle a drop in revenue is to add an additional ad unit or two. This always comes with the risk of impacting user experience by taking up more screen space and potentially slowing the page. If auction competition is low, then you might also find that the revenue gains from doing it are also limited.
It can often be more impactful to add a new stream that functions outside of your main display auction. Video or rich media can be a good choice as they will generally run in their own auction and pay a premium. Likewise, innovative dedicated units can bring similar incremental gains.
If these formats are higher impact than you will generally employ, they can be used sparingly. Either being selective about where they are used or putting frequency caps in place can help you achieve a balance between keeping revenue where it needs to be and users feeling like they are being bombarded.
Re-engage your audience
One advantage of the current situation is that our audiences are online more and looking to be entertained. This gives publishers a great opportunity to engage users by bringing them back to their sites more frequently, encouraging them to greater visit depths, having them engage with new content formats and even capitalising on the boom in live events. If you can produce more content now might be a good time to do so, but if not then updating and re-sharing content can work well too. Cross promoting articles works well when users are looking for an excuse to be distracted, and we’re seeing good results in entertainment formats like quizzes and games.
Publishers who do this well will not only continue to clock up engaged ad impressions during the crisis, but will come out the other side with a larger and more loyal audience.
Mat has been supporting content creators on the web since 1996. As Co-founder of OKO Digital, Mat became the first person in the UK qualified to AdSense partner status and repeated this first with Google Certified Publishing Partner programme.