The Ghost of Web Advertising Future

What happens when a publisher fails to create quality advertising products designed for its unique content experience (native advertising, broadly defined)?

It concludes, correctly, that it won’t get much of a premium by having human beings sell its not-very-well targeted 300×250 banners. So it offloads its inventory to ad exchanges and networks. Since the exchanges and networks don’t deliver a great CPM for most impressions, the publisher is forced to add more banner placements just to maintain revenue-per-thousand-pageviews levels it achieved two years earlier. Not a pretty picture, no matter how you look at it. The money still isn’t great, and the user experience is horrifying.

Here’s a screenshot from the San Jose Merc website on February 7 snapped by John Battelle. From his post on Searchblog:

Six or more of [ads] in this screenshot, and three more below the fold. There’s a Verizon site wrapper (on either side of the page), an expandable top banner, and three medium rectangle units crammed in there. Not one of them is what you might call a ‘quality’ ad — at least by most standards. (Do you think Verizon is happy that their site takeover is overrun by social media buttons and competing with belly flab, diabetes, Frys’ Electronics and travel pitches?) If you bother to scroll down (who would?) there are three more pitches waiting for you there.

And check out the number of beacons and trackers on the right, in purple. That’s Ghostery, which I run on my browser to see who’s laying down data traps. Man, Merc, that’s a lot o’ data. Are you doing anything with it?

Look, I’ve built my career around ad-supported media, and I continue to believe that advertising (in some shape or form) will support digital publishing. But if there’s one thing you learn early — somewhere around your very first day in the business — advertising does not work if there aren’t consumers on the other end to look at the ads. So if you ad strategy erodes your audience, or merely burns out their eyeballs by way of toxic design, you’ll soon be left without a business at all.

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