A year ago, MSNBC.com went against conventional wisdom in the industry by deliberately decreasing the number of ads it would serve. The bet was it could promote quality by eliminating cheap banners, like the ones publishers often litter on the bottom of pages and offload to ad networks and exchanges. So far, MSNBC has been out on its own.
When MSNBC.com first unvelied its overhaul last June, a few things immediately marked the site an as anomaly. There were no gimmicks designed to drive up page views, because page views didn’t matter. Instead, the site was designed to encourage users to stick around longer by delivering everything they might want — text, photos and video — all within the same experience, rather than relegating different media types to different sections.
Execs at MSNBC.com braced for a major inventory and sales hit. Expectations were that the site would lose 20 to 30 percent of its ads — but that the benefit to readers would drive engagement up.
“The actual impression impact was minimized through careful planning, design and content presentation,” said Kyoo Kim, MSNBC digital network’s chief sales and marketing officer. “As expected, we also noticed that while it took a bit of time for us to evangelize this … but we immediately started noticing the CPM-uplift impact on impressions that were being bought on our site via real-time bidding and on a remnant basis. Our initial fear of losing inventory was quickly assuaged.”
The folks at MSNBC surely expected tons of other big Web publishers to follow suit. So far, nobody has. Instead publishers seem enthralled by The Huffington Post model, which is dependant on churning out massive amounts of content in the hopes some sticks. It is, in essence, a page-view game, one practiced by many others, such as Business Insider, by rewriting stories, loading the page with ads and resorting to editorial gimmicks like superfluous slideshows.
“I think that as an industry, because of the incredible technology that we have at our disposal, we tend to try and tackle and solve for the most complex of problems when we still haven’t really addressed the most simple one such as ‘are my ads being seen?’” acknowledged Kim. “We hope the industry, and especially the premium publishers, will follow suit since that would bring back more value for sites like ours. We would like to see some sort of a certification process where sites that [only sell viewable impressions] would have a special certification that the buying community can reward.”
There are signs of movement in that direction. The biggest trade organizations in the business — the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Interactive Advertising Bureau — are pushing the industry to focus on viewable ad impressions. That Making Measurement Make Sense initiative could give rise to a formal certification process, although many publishers will likely resist any standards that impinge on their individuality. Few, when contacted by Digiday, even wanted to discuss the issue.
“I don’t want to say that MSNBC went too far, but it was a fairly radical move,” said Charlie Barrett, svp of sales for IGN. “It changes the nature of how advertising has been juxtaposed with content in every other medium.”
Barrett likened MSNBC.com’s decision to Condé’ Nast’s move not to run any ads in the back of its magazines, since users might not make it through an entire issue.
“It doesn’t make sense to eliminate those ads, because there is always a chance that users might see them. All advertisers are paying for is that chance in all media.”
Beside, Barrett argued, by the time the MMMS group makes a decision, online publishing may be shifting toward a more app-like user experience, where driving page views will be less of a concern, or toward a video-centric content world where display ads become secondary.
“I hope the IAB and these other groups aren’t pushing [sites to emulate MSNBC.com],” he said. “That would be chasing a problem that isn’t that big of a problem or could end up being yesterday’s problem.”
Even a publisher who is a proponent of shifting the Web’s currency to viewable impressions conceded how difficult it will be to get hundreds of publishers to follow MSNBC.com. “In the short run it will be very tough,” he said. “There are conflicting ideas on this even among publishers within the same company.”
It is noteworthy that MSNBC.com, a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal, hasn’t spurred its corporate siblings to follow suit. After all, an NBCU property like iVillage could hardly be expected to eliminate so many ad impressions when it churns so many pages with a property like Astrology.com. The same is true for MSN.com, which generates millions of impressions via email and instant messenger.
However, executives at MSNBC.com feel a bit vindicated. They are supporting of the MMMS initiative, and hope it nudges other sites to follow suit by adopting technology similar to its own ServeView.
“With respect to the IAB initiative, ServeView has strong momentum toward adoption,” said MSNBC.com president Charlie Tillinghast.
Kim aded, “Our sense is that many of the premium publishers will use this as an opportunity to further regain control over their inventory and buyers will continue to work closer with those publishers to ensure that they get their share of the premium, accountable inventory.”
And while some publishers may be hesitant to take the plunge MSNBC.com has taken, digital buyers have generally embrace the move as positive and progressive.
David Rittenhouse, senior partner, media director at neo@Ogilvy, said too many publishers have wasted their time squeezing tons of ads on their sites. “including putting additional units on pages outside of the viewable area,” he said. “This diminished the value of those impressions and like so many other short-term decisions set the bar lower and lower.”
But with verification companies helping expose some of this activity, It was only a matter of time before it became an issue, especially for brands paying premium CPMs.”
Andrea Kerr Redniss, managing director, digital, Media Storm, sees other publishers inevitably following MSNBC.com’s lead. “I agree this is the direction the industry is moving and MSNBC.com was at the front of the curve,” she said. “I don’t think they drove the change in the industry, but rather read the change earlier than others.”