How Publishers Can Prevent a Content Bubble


Publishers are clearly struggling these days—viewability and bot fraud issues continue to plague executive discourse, ad blocking surged by 41% in the last 12 months, and the FTC recently released native advertising disclosure guidelines that publisher practitioners need to add to their plate of mounting considerations to avoid unwanted scrutiny.

How can publishers keep all of their stakeholders—investors, advertisers, and consumers—simultaneously happy? Digital publishers grow their audience, and businesses, from the value they provide via content. But recently, consumers have increasingly held publishers to unreasonably high standards to generate fresh content on a minute-by-minute basis.

Forbes’ chief revenue officer Mark Howard recently shared his belief that the industry is, “on the cusp of a content bubble,’ projecting publishers’ inability to ‘support all those rich, immersive experiences over and over for every brand and every site on mobile.” Pit this forecast against consumers’ increasing demand for instant content gratification across a proliferation of platforms. How will publishers be able to deliver what their audiences want and at the same time maintain a scalable, sustainable model?

Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

First and foremost, publishers need to establish crystal clarity with their global vision for a content advertising strategy. Buzzfeed, The New York Times, Vice, Forbes, Huffington Post, The Financial Times, and others have charted the course of native advertising and branded content with entirely different approaches.

For example, early on Buzzfeed eschewed display banner ads in support of native as a prescient, bold model for others to follow. In 2015, The Financial Times vocally drove leadership in engagement measurement by launching a ‘cost per hour’ advertising metric. Additionally, NYT’s T Brand Studio has become a model of award-winning bespoke branded content programs that are beautifully designed, reflect high journalistic quality/integrity, and flawlessly integrate with the rest of their editorial content. Their partnership with Netflix to promote Orange is the New Black, Women Inmates: Why The Male Model Doesn’t Work, expanded the industry’s native horizons.

These different strategies illustrate the paramount importance of discerning and establishing what kind of publisher you want to be when you grow up. Some strategic questions publishers should consider include:

1. How will you differentiate yourself from other publishers in similar categories under competitive RFP situations?

2. Which audiences do you want to grow?

3. What will your publisher/branded marketing organization look like in 5-10 years?

By asking these kinds of questions in the beginning, publishers can set the stage for future priorities.

Take the Long View: Set Up Your Content Tech Stack

The content landscape continues to proliferate with numerous potential publisher partners. At the same time, the lines between content management systems, marketing automation platforms, and ad tech providers continue to blur as a result of M&A activities and integration partnerships.

Within this dynamic ecosystem, publishers should select partners—specifically content creation/optimization, content recommendation and native advertising providers—that support their long-term goals and create a viable content technology stack. To begin, publishers should identify their top business requirements and evaluation criteria. For example, how will content recommendation/native partners help you innovate new product offerings and uncover new revenue channels? How can they help you create efficiencies throughout the organization and scale? What kind of data do they provide, and how will it help you make better business decisions?

Considerations can straddle strategic as well as tactical and operational decisions as well. For example, Madhura Sengupta, director of ad product technology at Edmunds, recently proposed that publishers should shift toward component-based asset system.

Each publisher will have their own unique set of requirements, so the key will be to diligently map business needs to potential partners’ existing and future capabilities and offerings.

Open Up Multiple Channels for Consumer Feedback

In today’s ad blocking era, primary feedback from consumers can become valuable insight into the success of a publisher’s efforts. Ever since Forbes decided to block ad-blocking users at the end of 2015, Lewis DVorkin, Forbes’ Chief Product Officer, published multiple columns that reported users’ responses to their adlight experience’ tests and the company’s evolving approach. While the rare transparency and insights are appreciated, publishers can do more to provide consumers with an effective platform to voice their feedback.

For example, Jeff Bander, president and CRO at Sticky previously suggested that publishers could directly ask readers for their feedback on specific branded content articles such as, “Did this make you happy?” or “Did you find this entertaining?” Additionally, publishers can survey or poll consumers about content initiatives under consideration—engaging them earlier on in the process can go a long way down the road when programs are finally rolled out.

Today’s modern publisher increasingly faces an uphill battle to deliver engaging content instantaneously, frequently and across different platforms and devices. To prevent a seismic shift towards an industry-wide content bubble, each publisher needs to take an introspective look into its long-term brand identity and technology strategy. Additionally, building two-way conversations with readers will not only keep consumers loyal and engaged, but also activate new sources of inspiration and product innovation.



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