Why it’s time to really, truly, improve online advertising

Coming down off the rosy glow of several days in San Francisco, the beautiful city by the bay, the attendees of the Online News Association meeting are returning home with heads spinning full of inspiration and enthusiasm. There were many great sessions in a really stimulating conference.

Two presentations in particular stood out and fit together — they tell a story that points to a big problem.

Let’s be brutally honest about it: The online advertising experience is awful. There’s no dancing around it, and all the talk about saving journalism isn’t dealing with that fundamental problem. Journalism may have its own problems, but when talking about the big problem — the business model problem — all talk shies away from the
advertising problem.

Dave Wright, user experience genius at NPR, gave a talk titled “Design is How it Works” that, among other things, pointed out clearly the need for improved user experience design in online news products. At one point, he noted how the not-so-nice grid that news sites are generally designed on is based around banner ads and pointedly asked his audience, “How are those ads working out for you?”

In “Journey into ‘The Business Side,’”Justin Ellis of Nieman Lab and Matt Thompson, NPR’s manager of digital initiatives, brought a great deal of humor in trying to understand the language and philosophy in advertising and the business aspects of publishing. Among many observations, they noted and questioned the existence of the
traditional firewall between advertising and editorial.

It stood out: NPR talking about the advertising experience. Of all things, public media is trying to show commercial media the way forward.

In her perennial session on “Top Tech Trends,” Amy Webb noted how advertisers such as Pepsi are now venturing into the content arena. If advertisers are making content for their sites, why aren’t journalists getting their hands into improving the advertising experience for their sites?

JOURNALISM ISN’T A CHURCH

It is long past time for a flip. Plenty of startups seek to innovate journalism. Now journalism publications need to break away from the status quo online advertising experience and innovate it. Journalists know good content. Journo-programmers know how to make things useful. This could be a slam dunk.

For too long, journalists have taken advertising for granted. It was the dirty thing that supported the lofty journalism, and a set of contrived ethics separated the church and the state inside publications. Brokering advertising space to ad networks only served
to put in more distance. But journalism isn’t a church, and it can’t be distant from its audience much longer if it wants to survive.

That audience needs to buy things, and advertisers need to reach them. Ads are the content that serve that function. This is an important service that ink and paper once provided. Some people actually bought the product for the ads, and many still do.

So, let’s look at NPR, where the public perception is that allocated tax dollars and member contributions underlie the cost of content. That’s actually far from the reality where corporate sponsorship provides the lion’s share of public media’s funding. The members are a devoted, qualified audience that is attractive to sponsors, and a visible token of sponsors’ support is necessary to attract corporations that want to affiliate their brands with public media and reach their supporters. There is still a valuable proposition in advertisers associating themselves with public media.

Think about that. Public media essentially sells advertising successfully — it is just a different format and a name that is a subtle nuance. All non-profit media acknowledge the support of their supporters; offering placement in exchange for financial support is advertising the brand’s support of something the audience supports.

Public media’s play of that acknowledgement is understated. The content is coupled with the advertisement in a successful and symbiotic relationship.

Commercial online publishers have largely divorced themselves from advertising. Online, that is not working for anybody except those that can achieve scale.

It is a low-quality, low-rent, low-value, low-credibility experience.

Look at the ads in front of the book in a fashion magazine. Now look at the online site, where embedded ad network widgets put messages that are nowhere near the brand’s proposition. Third-party ads once just looked like easy money until the market matured; in practice it is killing the quality of that original and essential value proposition.

THE PUBLICATION SANDWICH

Try to think of a publication as a sandwich. It won’t matter how good the bread is if the contents inside are low quality or even rotten — every bite taken gets a mouthful of both.

It has to change. Newspaper and magazine sites need to reclaim the display and classified advertising experience online and boldly innovate it to provide the most superior offering to online users. If that means breaking with the IAB and ad networks, then that’s what has to happen. It isn’t like it is really working anyway.

Furthermore, if that means that the online journalists need to steer that process, then that’s what needs to be done. The future is at stake. Journalists need to lose their contempt for advertising and stop distancing themselves from it. It’s time to look it boldly in the face and give it what it needs to thrive and succeed.

Newspapers and magazines long ago set their own ad standards and sizes, creating consistently successful advertising experiences. They owned that sector for decades. In order to survive, they have to remember what they have done and can do and they have to do it again.

David Johnson is a full-time professor of journalism at the American University School of Communication. He teaches courses in digital journalism, interactive storytelling and convergence media. His research interests include social networking and media, behavioral economics and serious games. He is the editor-in-chief of The American Observer, the school’s online magazine. Johnson has been creating award-winning online content since the first graphical browsers were introduced in the early 1990s. Before coming to AU, he was chief technology officer of Scripps Media Center in Washington DC, home to Scripps Howard News Service. He is a founding member of the Media Bloggers Association and has blogged on the media at lostremote.com since 1999 and is now a contributor to the Poynter Institute’s E-Media Tidbits blog. Johnson sits on the New Media Committee and Broadcasting Task Force at the National Press Club and consults frequently on niche and community site development.

This post originally appeared on PBS MediaShift, which covers the intersection of media and technology. Follow @PBSMediaShift for Twitter updates, follow us on our Facebook page, or subscribe to our daily email newsletter.

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