With quality content, publishers can overcome the ‘tyranny of choice’

Bruce Brandfon, Chief Media Officer, Duration Media

Is it ever possible to have too many choices? 

For the four billion users now on the internet, the answer is a resounding yes. More than 400 million active websites now exist, and 200 million come online each year. Such excessive options can overwhelm the human brain. It’s a phenomenon psychologists have dubbed the “tyranny of choice,” resulting in anxiety and uncertainty for audiences and consumers.

In the face of this effect, and struggling to connect with readers, some publishers have resorted to lowest-common-denominator tactics. They’ve turned to quick fixes such as click-bait listicles and dubious news stories — the types of insubstantial, low-quality content that grabs attention on social at the cost of debasing society. These publishers may be securing short-term traffic, but they’re adding kindling to a social media bonfire that thrives on fake news and polarization. In the long run, they risk eroding their established bond with readers, which should conversely be based on editorial excellence leading to engagement with their content. 

As an industry, rather than raising the white flag and surrendering to the powerful forces wielded by the social media oligopoly, publishers can instead take steps to create positive alternatives that put more legitimate approaches into play. 

Publishers that reward engagement over time earn impressions — and revenue

For some publishers, there doesn’t appear to be an alternative to the status quo: Without securing clicks and immediate (if fleeting) attention, readers will flee to a competitor, and ad revenue — the lifeblood that keeps publishers afloat — will shrivel. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There now exist highly effective best practices that, when deployed successfully, provide sustainable financial rewards to premium publishers for the quality of their content. These tactics jettison a different kind of tyranny — the tyranny of the click — and leverage the duration of readers’ engagement instead. As a result, ad impressions will reach engaged audiences only.  

It’s no incredible feat to garner absentminded clicks from asinine or spurious articles and social posts. But real engagement is a product of the audience’s authentic effort (and time) spent with the expectation that the outcome will be rewarding. The greater the expected reward, the more time is invested, which leads to the sale of more viewable impressions.

To make this dynamic a reality, publishers need tools that enable them to serve ad impressions only when their readers are investing their most valuable resource — their time — and only when these ads are viewable. These impressions become more valuable for advertisers (and produce a higher return for publishers) since they can only be bought up once they’re in view, and once they’re situated next to content with which the reader is actively engaging for a significant length of time.

It’s a particularly urgent approach to monetization as cookies disappear. Now, more than ever, contextually relevant ads of this sort are vital to buyers’ strategies — and therefore to publishers’ inventory offerings. 

With revenue tied to engagement, only high-quality publishers will thrive 

As this approach takes hold throughout the industry, premium publishers will gain strength, while all others will suffer and fade. When duration, engagement and viewability replace mindless clicks, substantive and contextually relevant content becomes more valuable than repurposed cat photos and fake news. The marketplace of ideas not only becomes less overwhelming, but it also becomes more fact-based, less sensational and capable of fostering richer dialogues. 

This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky utopianism. A cursory analysis of recent history can clearly tell us that no such societal transformation will occur simply because professionals and intellectuals say it should. But when questions of quality and veracity are tied directly to revenue, even a cynic can recognize that such changes are possible — even likely. When advertisers become more confident in the available supply, and audiences benefit from time better spent, publishers will be forced as they should be — to ensure that rewarding entertainment and intellectual fulfillment are baked into their business models. 

Shaking off tyranny is never easy. First and foremost, it requires a group of committed revolutionaries who can lead the way to a better future. Premium publishers need to treat viewability and contextual relevance as mandatory elements of the user experience. When they do, their lower-quality competitors will fade. Those 400 million active websites will shrink to 80 million — at most. And just like that, the bonds of tyranny will break.


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