Time to Bring Sexy Back to the Pub­lisher + Ad­ver­tiser Mar­riage

The Insider - - CONTENT -

In the sum­mer of 2015 I was read­ing an ar­ti­cle about why pub­lish­ers should adopt the Spo­tify-style busi­ness model. The premise of the opin­ion piece was that pub­lish­ers are not be­ing fairly re­mu­ner­ated for their con­tent be­cause the li­cens­ing struc­ture for copy­righted ma­te­rial is de­fec­tive.

The ar­ti­cle re­minded me that li­cens­ing isn’t the only regime that’s rip­ping pub­lish­ers off -the au­dited cir­cu­la­tion model is also bro­ken.


In the glory days of print, ad rates were based on a sim­ple “paid copies” model. Ad­ver­tis­ers paid a fee that was based on a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple, agree­ing to pay a cer­tain price for the pos­si­bil­ity of ac­cess­ing the print edi­tion of a mag­a­zine or news­pa­per.

Whether read­ers picked up a pub­li­ca­tion off the porch of their house, at a news­stand or cor­ner store, it didn’t mat­ter. Whether they stopped read­ing at page 2 or 78 didn’t mat­ter. All that mat­tered was the price they paid for the pub­li­ca­tion.

In hind­sight we can de­bate whether it was a good model or not, but that too

doesn’t mat­ter. It was a model that reached con­sen­sus by both pub­lish­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers, with un­bi­ased au­dit­ing agen­cies cer­ti­fy­ing the rates on be­half of both par­ties. Ev­ery­one got what they wanted.

All was well un­til the dig­i­tal tsunami hit the print­ing presses. Al­most overnight the paid cir­cu­la­tion model that was ar­guably flawed from the be­gin­ning started to show its teeth, tak­ing more than a bite out of pub­lisher rev­enues. The dawn of the dig­i­tal era gave light to the fact that the model was fun­da­men­tally flawed and sim­ply would not work for on­line con­tent.


The price some­one pays for the dig­i­tal edi­tion of a mag­a­zine or news­pa­per to­day is ir­rel­e­vant and yet it’s still be­ing used to mea­sure the value of con­tent in this an­ti­quated car­ry­over from print.

Is “will­ing­ness to pay” a valid mea­sure to qual­ify a reader? Some may ar­gue it is, but I be­lieve it is a very short-sighted view on the true value of the con­tent con­sumer.

Per­haps one’s un­will­ing­ness to pay is a pre­dis­posed re­fusal to pay for on­line news. Per­haps will­ing­ness to pay is di­min­ished by the in­con­ve­nience and frus­tra­tion of hit­ting a pay­wall, or the fact that some pub­lish­ers charge for the same con­tent mul­ti­ple times on dif­fer­ent de­vices.

In to­day’s hy­per-con­nected dig­i­tal world en­gage­ment with con­tent is much more in­dica­tive of a reader’s true value. And yet there is no abil­ity within the cur­rent prac­tices to mea­sure the en­gage­ment of read­ers with ei­ther the ed­i­to­rial or ad­ver­to­rial con­tent. The model also does not con­sider the chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of read­ers and how they dis­cover and con­sume con­tent.

The paid au­dited cir­cu­la­tion model isn’t just flawed; it’s detri­men­tal to all stake­hold­ers in the in­dus­try -- pub­lish­ers, ad­ver­tis­ers and read­ers.


The au­di­ence that is ac­cess­ing news con­tent to­day is of­ten frag­mented by in­ter­est, de­vice, de­mo­graph­ics and will­ing­ness to pay for on­line news. The ex­ist­ing ad model doesn’t recog­nise these non-tra­di­tional au­di­ences so pub­lish­ers can’t cap­i­tal­ize on the mas­sive num­ber of dig­i­tal news read­ers that con­sume their con­tent in mul­ti­ple forms, mul­ti­ple times a day.


Au­di­ence met­rics un­der the ex­ist­ing frame­work don’t add up be­cause they don’t ad­e­quately qual­ify the read­ers that ad­ver­tis­ers are ac­tu­ally reach­ing.

The model re­jects a vast con­sumer base that ac­cesses dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tions in air­port lounges, in flight and in hotels. These is­sues are not in­cluded in the “head­line fig­ure” of the au­dit report be­cause in the eyes of the my­opic model, they are treated as “bulks” – another print relic that needs to be erad­i­cated. In to­day’s dig­i­tal econ­omy these copies bring sig­nif­i­cant rev­enue to pub­lish­ers, just not at the price point to­day’s sys­tem de­mands in or­der to qual­ify them as paid circ. Dis­count­ing these “be­low the line” read­ers hand­i­caps the judge­ment of ad­ver­tis­ers who are mak­ing mis­guided ad­ver­tis­ing de­ci­sions fu­elled by too much mis­in­for­ma­tion.


A model that dis­misses the mil­lions of non-replica read­ers that visit pub­lish­ers’ dig­i­tal prop­er­ties on a daily ba­sis brings no value to those read­ers. Non-dig­i­tal mod­els can’t pos­si­bly help pub­lish­ers or ad­ver­tis­ers de­liver the right con­tent (ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­to­rial) at the right time, at the right price to this un­der­val­ued au­di­ence be­cause it pays no at­ten­tion to those read­ers and their needs.

Given how di­verse and mo­bile dig­i­tal read­er­ship is to­day, new, more adapt­able ad mod­els are needed to serve the in­ter­est of all read­ers, not just those that pay for dig­i­tal repli­cas of printed edi­tions.


The met­rics one can gather and an­a­lyze to­day about dig­i­tal au­di­ences that en­gage with ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­tis­ing con­tent are sig­nif­i­cantly more com­pre­hen­sive than what ex­ists in the print world. One would ex­pect that this data would be highly val­ued and shared be­tween pub­lish­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers. But sadly, that is not the case.

Many pub­lish­ers are afraid to open the ki­mono to the wealth of be­hav­ioral an­a­lyt­ics they have that show how, where and when read­ers con­sume con­tent in dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tions. They worry that shar­ing how few read­ers ac­tu­ally ven­ture deep into an is­sue would force them to re­duce the ad­ver­tis­ing rates for in­ter­nal pages that didn’t garner the same at­ten­tion as the first few.

The stan­dard print mantra, “If you’ve paid for an is­sue that means you’ve read it” seems to be a safer bet, but it is par­a­lyz­ing pub­lish­ers’ abil­i­ties to cap­i­tal­ize on au­di­ence con­sump­tion trends and en­gage­ment.

Yes, there has been a slight re­lax­ation of the min­i­mum price point for dig­i­tal edi­tions in North America, but in other re­gions, that price can range from 25-50% of the cost of a print edi­tion. And yes there has been some move­ment to­wards defin­ing new met­rics in some ju­ris­dic­tions which try to mea­sure au­di­ence and en­gage­ment with a brand’s con­tent, but it is racked with in­con­sis­ten­cies:

The way in which au­di­ences en­gage with con­tent across var­i­ous dig­i­tal prop­er­ties and de­vice types is very dif­fer­ent.

Mea­sur­ing en­gage­ment on con­tent that is con­sumed off­line, as is the case with tablet apps, is tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing

On­line en­gage­ment is mea­sured us­ing ser­vices like ComS­core and Google An­a­lyt­ics, while app en­gage­ment is mea­sured purely on down­loads.

There’s no easy so­lu­tion, but that doesn’t mean that the in­dus­try should ac­cept a model that clearly doesn’t work for any­one. It’s time to in­no­vate col­lec­tively to de­fine new met­rics that serve pub­lish­ers, ad­ver­tis­ers and read­ers. And with to­day’s highly frag­mented and mo­bile au­di­ence, the need for some form of stan­dard­iza­tion across the world has never been greater. That doesn’t mean one rule should fit all, but with con­tent be­ing con­sumed around the world, align­ment be­tween the na­tional au­dit­ing agen­cies and this global in­dus­try is long over­due.

Here’s just one ex­am­ple… There has been a long stand­ing pol­icy in Aus­tralia that any con­tent that’s con­sumed out­side of the coun­try does not get counted by the Au­dit Me­dia As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia (AMAA). So if some­one from Syd­ney de­cides to fly to Los An­ge­les us­ing Qan­tas, the Aus­tralian news­pa­pers they read while on

board (and paid for by Qan­tas) are not counted. The mo­ment the wheels leave the run­way that loyal reader of lo­cal pa­pers sud­denly stops be­ing a “qual­i­fied au­di­ence”. In Novem­ber 2015, Qan­tas In­ter­na­tional flew with over 500K pas­sen­gers! And ev­ery one of those pas­sen­gers is con­sid­ered ir­rel­e­vant in AMAA’s wonky world of au­dited circ. Pure in­san­ity!


Need­less to say, the in­dus­try is tor­tu­ously slow to adapt. But there’s slow and then there’s “no go”. No one is re­ally talk­ing about the prob­lem; they’re not com­mit­ted to chang­ing it or even de­bat­ing about what needs to be changed. It’s like they’re afraid to rock the boat, even when the ship is clearly sink­ing.

What was once a level play­ing field with pub­lish­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers, with each com­pro­miz­ing to reach con­sen­sus, has turned into a lop­sided war of wal­lets. Be­cause pub­lish­ers are just one of the mil­lions of dig­i­tal prop­er­ties where ads can be placed, clearly ad­ver­tis­ers have the Golden Rule (He that owns the gold, rules.) ad­van­tage in this re­la­tion­ship.

And as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pub­lish­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers con­tin­ues to tilt the scales in the wrong di­rec­tion, ad­ver­tis­ing on the in­ter­net has be­come com­modi­tized. Thank­fully, mon­e­ti­za­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties on mo­bile are huge!

But so are the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of serv­ing up ads in an en­gag­ing and ef­fec­tive way. One can’t shrink a desk­top ban­ner ad into a smaller foot­print and ex­pect it to work, which sadly is ex­actly what pub­lish­ers tried to do (and failed).

In the in­dus­try’s at­tempt to grab the at­ten­tion of users, it’s done ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to dis­rupt, ir­ri­tate and dis­en­gage au­di­ences on mo­bile de­vices. Pub­lish­ers high-jacked screens and forced users to per­form some func­tion in or­der to close a ban­ner ad that was block­ing the con­tent they wanted to see. When that didn’t work, things got re­ally ugly with an­noy­ing an­i­ma­tions, flashy pro­mo­tions and ads with in­ap­pro­pri­ate imagery. A great op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with read­ers back­fired by a to­tal lack of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the needs of pub­lish­ers’ most pre­cious as­set – their au­di­ence.

It’s not that pub­lish­ers don’t know how to present com­pelling and en­gag­ing ads; they’ve been do­ing it for decades in print mag­a­zines with glossy ads. Glossy ads aren’t in­tru­sive; they are seam­lessly in­te­grated with the con­tent and drive en­gage­ment with, and be­tween, read­ers. News­pa­pers could learn a lot from what mag­a­zines have done in this area. The chal­lenge is how to trans­fer that same emo­tional en­gage­ment from print to the web and mo­bile web.


In­stead of chas­ing dig­i­tal dimes pub­lish­ers should be work­ing to solve the pre­mium place­ment prob­lem with dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ers, es­pe­cially with lux­ury brands that are strug­gling to find dig­i­tal prop­er­ties for their dis­play ads where qual­ity trumps quan­tity and brand eq­uity is en­hanced through the medium.

Pub­lish­ers should also be qual­i­fy­ing and seg­ment­ing their au­di­ence in ways that would be more at­trac­tive to ad­ver­tis­ers look­ing to reach a tar­geted, and some­times niche, au­di­ence. Small tar­geted au­di­ences shouldn’t equate to lower ad prices; on the con­trary, pub­lish­ers should be able to de­mand higher ad rates be­cause they can de­liver high- ly-qual­i­fied con­sumers to dis­cern­ing ad­ver­tis­ers. Price-per-lead should be con­trolled by the pub­lish­ers, not the ad­ver­tis­ers. Re­mem­ber who owns the ul­ti­mate buy­ers – the “gold” in this sce­nario be­longs to the pub­lisher.

In this pub­lisher-pow­ered new world, the role of the au­dit bu­reaus would be di­min­ished; one might even go so far to say these agen­cies would be­come ir­rel­e­vant.

In a re­cent panel on ad­ver­tis­ing in New York, one agency rep­re­sen­ta­tive talked about their level of en­gage­ment with the pub­lish­ing com­mu­nity and that in years past they used to spend $1.5 bil­lion an­nu­ally on ad place­ments. To­day, that spend has shrunk to ~$100M. Un­less we want to bring it down to zero, which can hap­pen very quickly, we need to act now!

New forms of ad­ver­tis­ing (e.g. pro­gram­matic and na­tive) bring new op­por­tu­ni­ties and should def­i­nitely be in the me­dia mix. But in the end, res­ur­rect­ing the in­dus­try can only come with fun­da­men­tal changes in how pub­lish­ers’ mas­sive au­di­ences are nur­tured, mea­sured, qual­i­fied and served. Google and Face­book have done it with con­tent they don’t even own. So

why can’t mag­a­zine and news­pa­per pub­lish­ers who en­gage with a mas­sive au­di­ence of read­ers on at least a daily ba­sis on mul­ti­ple plat­forms do the same thing? They can!

First they need to get up close and per­sonal with their read­ers and un­der­stand how, and where, they want to dis­cover and con­sume con­tent. Then give it to them the way they want it.

This will mean in­vest­ing in dig­i­tal in all its forms, in­clud­ing dig­i­tal edi­tions and mo­bile apps. Pro­duc­ing a flat, non-in­ter­ac­tive PDF of a printed edi­tion is not a worth­while in­vest­ment; it will fall flat in terms of en­gag­ing with read­ers and mea­sur­ing that en­gage­ment to im­prove both ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­tis­ing con­tent.

Pub­lish­ers’ dig­i­tal prop­er­ties must be much more so­phis­ti­cated than what they have to­day (think multi-me­dia, so­cially-en­gag­ing fea­tures, in­ter­ac­tiv­ity and click-to-trans­act ad tech­nolo­gies) in or­der to grow au­di­ence, en­gage with read­ers and then col­lect, an­a­lyze and seg­ment the data to qual­ify them and prove their worth for ad­ver­tis­ers.

And last, but not least, pub­lish­ers need to en­gage more with the ad­ver­tis­ers that “fit” with their au­di­ence and their brand. They must work col­lab­o­ra­tively to max­i­mize the ROI for both par­ties, al­ways re­mem­ber­ing that the au­di­ence is the gold in the trans­ac­tion, not the real es­tate.

The price for ad­ver­tis­ing should not sit with an­cient au­dit bu­reaus that know noth­ing about a pub­lisher’s own au­di­ence or the value of their con­tent and dig­i­tal real es­tate. It should be­long to the seller and ne­go­ti­ated with the buyer like it is with most other in­dus­tries.


By hold­ing on to the print par­a­digms of the past and let­ting fear, un­cer­tainty and doubt in­fil­trate the in­dus­try, pub­lish­ers have been im­ped­ing progress to a brighter fu­ture for them­selves, their read­ers and their ad­ver­tis­ers.

Change won’t be as easy as “ABC”, but as the fa­mous Chi­nese philoso­pher, Lao Tzu, so aptly put, “If you do not change di­rec­tion, you may end up where you are head­ing.”

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