Friday, December 21, 2012

Ads Vs. Content (Or, is it so?)

Navin Kabra has published a rather apt post 'Why do website publishers alienate users with so much clutter?' on his blog.

My post is a response to many points he has raised in the said post. Navin's post can be summed up with his own tweet - "On free websites, advertisers are customers, you (readers) are the product being sold, & the content is marketing." :)

This is obviously true. But the catch is that those who take this approach, just can't survive or grow. If you want to thrive as a content website, you MUST serve your audience which is the readers and not the advertisers.

And, serving readers better does not necessarily mean closing out advertisers. If you need to survive, either you need to charge your customers for the content or you need to charge advertisers for displaying their ads. For average content websites, who do not have premium brand and content (e.g. online properties of bigwigs like Wall Street Journal and Financial Times), advertisements is the major (or the only) source of revenue.

So, basically the question here is - how not to alienate readers without compromising on the ad-revenue front?

Looking this way, it becomes a design and focus (of content) issue rather than business model issue. As far as content goes, it is a prerequisite that you must have original and very relevant content (as Harshad has been quoted as saying in Navin's post). Without this, you just can not stand out.

As far as ads go, many websites and bloggers have been successful in blending ads into content in a way that does not distract readers. Flashing ads are obviously a no-no for this.

There is a better approach to blending ads and content. It is to view ads as content itself (and which should ideally be so). If reader gets ads which are extremely relevant AND non-intruding, these actually become a value addition for the readers. If you create premium ad positions on your blog/website, and have can find advertisers which have a win-win match with your audience, you can command premium price for such spot. A good example of this is newspaper front page ads which sit in bottom right corner. This is an extremely premium spot. This spot commands a premium because the advertiser wants to get featured at a spot (front page) where editorial sanctity is of prime importance. So, ideally you should not find a liquor ad on front page. Ideally, editor (and not marketer) looks at the advertiser and ad material, and decides whether to feature the ad or not. (Unfortunately, this situation is changing now).

Same applies to paid content too. (Actually, advertisements are also a form of paid content). Paid content (e.g. articles, videos) is not bad if three conditions are satisfied - 1. If there is a proper and prominent disclosure, AND 2. If the content is extremely relevant to the audience, AND 3. The content is created by editors (who know their readers best). The last condition is necessary for a better user experience.

Let's see why and how paid content may serve value. Take example of Chitale Bandhu from Pune which is a sweets shop and are a legend when it comes to Bakharwadi (a snacks item which has become synonymous with Chitale Bandhu. Bakharwadi is no bakharwadi if it is not from Chitale Bandhu - so strong is the association).

Now, if a journalist wants to feature Chitale Bandhu's bakharwadi manufacturing process for the readers, should it be treated as advertisement, paid content or pure journalistic report? Even if the report is published in a daily only on basis of editorial merit, a competitor of Chitale Bandhu may dismiss it as paid content. To protect credibility of newspaper, without compromising on serving interesting and relevant content to readers, what should the newspaper do?

The answer to this may be earned media - where Chitale Bandhu sponsors the content by paying the newspaper or by giving some discount to readers who bring cutting of the article. When done proactively by businesses, this is actually content marketing. This is just an example. But this creates a fair, level-playing field without compromising business of newspaper or the interest or the readers.

On web, role of online ad networks is also important. Ad networks which focus on relevance and user experience rather than scale serve considerable value. Google understands the importance of this relevance and constantly strives to improve its ad serving technology.

Other good example of an ad network with a focus on relevance and user experience is Deck Network which is a premium, invite-only ad network. (I am in no way associated with http://decknetwork.net). If you see live examples of ads served by Deck Network, it is evident that they have tried to create a win-win situation for everybody involved.

As far as mobile sites and the ads on them go, the scene is like that of HD TV channels - as long as audience is small, they are ad-free. As the audience grows, they will start serving ads. And, the user experience is actually messier on mobile than on desktop as far as ads go. As a report points out, almost 40% clicks on mobile ads are useless. Out of these 40%, 18% are accidental clicks.

So, what's the solution?
It is definitely not stopping ads altogether. It is to follow strict journalistic norms of content quality, and of serving readers.
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