An inconvenient truth: How ad blindness is slowly killing digital publishing

Without major changes to the unsustainable free-with-ads model or a massive change in consumer sentiment toward traditional paywalls, publishers risk losing even more ground to big technology companies.

For years we’ve seen publishers struggle with online advertising. The growth of alternative channels, including search and social, has made competition for advertising dollars more fierce than ever. What’s more, the start of a new decade has brought with it COVID-19 and a record drop in ad spend.

According to the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) however, marketers have budgets waiting to be committed at some point in the near future. Needless to say, as confidence begins to return, those that decide to allocate and invest these budgets will be evaluating performance more closely than ever before.

Conventional ads haven’t worked for a LONG time

It’s fair to say there’s been a lack of innovation in ad-funded solutions across the publishing industry on the whole – both in the inherent properties of the ads themselves, as well as in providing a sensible context for the consumer on the role and significance of ads in the media-funding ecosystem. Over the years, consumers have become acutely aware of how brands try to compete for their attention and have learned how to largely ignore these attempts.

Ad Blindness (Nielsen Eye-Tracking Study) Nielsen Norman Group: Ad Blindness Revisited: Users Dodge Ads In All Forms on Mobile and Desktop
Source: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/banner-blindness-old-and-new-findings/

This ‘banner blindness’ is an inconvenient truth left virtually unaddressed by the industry for over 20 years – to the extent that a number of studies from the US & UK (Nielsen Norman Group, Lumen/Avocet) report that somewhere between 70-91% of display ads in traditional publishing environments are completely ignored.

Yes, you read that right.

The symptoms are evident for brands in the ongoing lack of performance of their display ads, and the hundreds of millions of dollars lost to spend inefficiency each quarter. In a recession or depression-era climate, brands need to ensure they are getting tangible value after surviving some of the toughest months of their existence. And although some may wish to support the publishing industry, ultimately, results count; and over the last decade, most have turned to other channels (social, search, etc) to drive campaign outcomes that traditional publishers are rarely, if ever, able to provide.

Consumption of content has never been higher (when it’s free)

As we’ve seen, COVID-19 has raised the bar for several news outlets who have experienced record-high readership figures since the introduction of Enhanced Media Metrics Australia in 2013. Consumption of digital media is the key driver for this shift, demonstrating that despite commercialisation challenges – quality editorial content still holds value for audiences.

Source: https://www.bandt.com.au/nielsen-data-abc-tops-digital-news-rankings/

An increasing number of publishers have attempted to resolve the revenue problem with the introduction of paywalls, but it appears that in the short to medium term – without a massive change in consumer sentiment, this is still a bridge too far. To put it in perspective, research in 2019 from University of Canberra shows that less than one in ten Australians are willing to pay for news, demonstrating the need for alternative commercialisation strategies for the majority of publishers.

Measurable attention needs to be the currency going forward

With the lion’s share of ad revenue currently being spent on alternative channels, including search and social, there is increasing concern around how journalism will be funded in the future.

Publishers must think more entrepreneurially if they wish to thrive again. Paying for content doesn’t have to mean dollars and cents. We know real value for advertisers is found in consumer engagement, attention and experience, not impressions – the technical infrastructure just needs to be laid to support these outcomes.

Enabling solutions that are calibrated to these metrics and outcomes while maintaining a low-friction UX – and educating consumers on the important role advertising plays in funding media could be key to securing a commercial future for publishers in the long term.

To see how WINR tackles the issue of ad blindness head on, have a look at one of our case studies here.

This opinion piece was originally published in PRWeek.com

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