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Does quality content matter in digital advertising?

Following the Super Bowl and amid the magic of the Olympics, I am always struck by the tectonic shifts we have seen over the past two decades in the business of media and advertising. These events, and their underwriting advertisers, epitomize the nostalgia of families gathered around one video platform, enjoying a moment of unified engagement. Yes, I’m referring to the buzzword-laden version of “family TV night.”

The value of media to advertisers has historically been measured by the quality of audience and the quality of content. But, content production and distribution no longer requires a corporate entity to make an impact. The value that media delivers to the advertiser is contingent on audience, and depth of engagement. We can measure these attributes very efficiently, and ROI has become standardized.

Social media offers more inventory, with deeper audience data than “traditional” publisher offerings – even when social media companies (quite famously of late) are currently not responsible for vetting the content published on their platforms. For advertisers, social media offers strong engagement and extreme influence. What social media cannot produce at adequate scale, however, is targeted adjacency to vetted editorial content.

Today, audience access is commoditized and pushing rates-per-view down, while the advertising value of “quality” is currently impossible to measure at scale. Wide audience for a publisher or platform enables more data-driven, efficient targeting. Publishers need user volume to effectively achieve multiple niche audiences.

In addition to audience, automated media buying allows us to see the relative value of target consumers. What is the advertiser “value” of a middle-income mom of two? She may buy a lot of condiments. Since condiments have become commoditized, companies selling those items need shoppers to care about their brand to avoid price as the only core driver of consumer preference. So, the middle-income mom of two could be of great value to the Fortune 500 producers of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.

At the same time, advancements in technology make it easier for advertisers to buy media without multiple human intermediaries. They don’t need to pay the publisher to show them the data; they pay the ad-tech solution instead. However, publishers need to invest in resources and tools that serve their audiences efficiently, and that investment is shouldered by the publisher.

This evolving access to audience, along with new practices in media transactions, leaves the publisher with less value perception. If advertisers only place value in audience, and can reach them through Facebook at a much-reduced CPM and the strongest targeting capabilities, what is the publisher’s role in delivering value to the advertiser?

Publisher differentiation is paramount

For the moment, many advertisers are looking for both reach and engagement. Reach, as measured by comScore, is a way for digital agencies to qualify sites for consideration. It’s an archaic practice, but remains a consideration in audience strategy. As direct buyers own less, and less, of the digital media budgets, they are choosing fewer partners and allocating smaller budgets to work with publishers.

The work however, remains essentially the same. With Facebook, Google, and now Amazon, taking three of the core partner spots on an advertiser’s short list, publisher differentiation is key. Offering cross-platform sponsorship opportunities is also meaningful to achieving the key brand partnerships.

Why publishers matter to consumers

While usership volume drives incremental value within social platforms, reach is virtually irrelevant to publisher audiences. Serving a community of like-minded humans who inspire each other is plenty value to the individual user. They want to interact and receive inspiration and validation, which requires active users and conversation.

Some publishers, like Upworthy, have been effective in harnessing propagation through social media. Peer-to-peer sharing offers high-quality engagement, as well as low-cost scale. There is the caveat of relying on social and their ever-changing algorithms, but search optimization for long-tail content can combat this reliance. The greatest defense against relying on third parties for user engagement is brand equity and user loyalty.

Creating a sustainable business model for midsized publishers

So how do publishers remain relevant? Many will not. Those who produce meaningful environments and grow incremental loyalty have a good shot. The industry will also have to prove that positive editorial context creates positive affinity for brands. The Olympics and Super Bowl command premium rates not only because they amass a large audience, but because the advertisers are perceived by viewers to be underwriting a positive, meaningful, global event.

To survive in a data-centric, digital world, we need to contemplate our true value as publishers. Are we moving the culture forward? Are we making the world a little bit better? And, how do we remain afloat while creating valuable content, amid a wave of ad margin compression?

We must put our energy into producing content and experiences that matter. People and advertisers must be getting something from us that they can’t get elsewhere. We make people feel good. We hook them on productivity, rather than distraction. And we create a few more instances of community-building competition that unify, rather than divide, our evolving world.



by Samantha Skey