Last year, I predicted that in 2016, we would see a rise in the importance the media industry places on quality content. While I’ve never been mistaken for a futurist (would I be in this business if I knew this was going to happen?), I’d suggest that we did see signs that undifferentiated, commoditized content — whose primary aim was to drive huge referrals from Facebook — started to lose its luster. We saw new media properties written off as worthless, the merger of struggling media experiments, leadership changes at once-high flyers, and the rise of fake news. On the less cynical side, we also saw the funding of The Outline, Axios, and Cheddar — new models designed to “superserve” a specific target audience and — gasp — not rely exclusively on advertising revenue.
With the continued shift of money towards mobile advertising, the steady rise in ad fraud and ad blocking, the increasing dominance of Facebook and Google (“the Duopoly”) in the digital ad market, the insufficient programmatic revenue for premium publishers, and a clear investment acceleration in publishers’ branded and native content studios — including our own hiring of Steve Feuling from Dentsu Aegis and Teddy Lynn from Ogilvy to bolster our marketing services — it seems obvious to me that in 2017, the digital media industry will pivot sharply towards quality advertising to place adjacent to our quality content.
The current state of the digital advertising woes owe a great deal of ingratitude to Hotwired.com’s launch of the first banner ad in 1994. Not that anyone else had a better idea at the time, but taking an old ad format — inspired by print and/or outdoor advertising — and migrating it to a new medium is never a good idea. Sure, there have been noble attempts at transforming digital advertising over the last 25 years — and countless examples of effective and impactful digital campaigns — but the industry has never quite recovered from that first banner unit.
While there are many reasons that the Duopoly has been successful at grabbing the lion’s share of the digital ad market (including: unrivaled scale and engagement, amazing access to and use of data on individuals and their behavior, and a powerful self-serve/programmatic/attributable delivery system), the platforms have been thriving because their ads work — people actually use them, people actually buy products because of them. And importantly, the ads don’t feel foreign to these platforms — they feel native.
When you consider how publishers might compete with the platforms going forward — without the scale, data, or sophisticated ad platforms — it seems likely it will take the same thoughtful and high-minded approach around advertising that we take now with our content. Publishers must understand our audience better than anyone, help our clients solve their problems, wrap in sophisticated first-party data, and ultimately deliver high-quality and effective cross-platform advertising experiences seamlessly woven into our great content — slugged appropriately, of course. Call it branded, native, sponsored content — or simply advertising — but there is no doubt that done well, the experience for users is better, the ads are more impactful, and perhaps publishers might reclaim some of the lost territory — or as importantly, avoid losing the future branding dollars that will flow from TV.
Premium publishers’ were given the best holiday gift of the year when comScore reported that advertising placed next to premium content (represented by current Digital Content Next member sites) was 67 percent more effective than when run across the non-premium sites. So once again, I’ll make a rather safe bet and guess that 2017 will be a pivotal year where the media industry focuses deeply on quality advertising.
M. Scott Havens is global head of digital at Bloomberg Media.