The good news: The proliferation of new ad platforms and formats has created a lot of opportunities for publishers.
The bad news: The proliferation of new ad platforms and formats has created tons of confusion and a whole new set of challenges.
The confusion and the challenges have to do with the fact that what publishers, marketers, and consumers want aren't necessarily in sync; sometimes, they're completely at odds. Some ad platforms, for instance, might favor certain publisher objectives, such as boosting revenue (in the short-term, at least) while complicating the user experience (UX), thereby alienating the consumer.
So what do publishers want? Generally speaking, premium-quality ads that deliver contextual relevance, high-quality creative, and innovative design in a way that boosts the value of not only the ad inventory but also the content, leading to an enjoyable user experience overall.
But what counts as "premium" ad inventory?
That, of course, varies from publisher to publisher—and some publishers will insist that all their inventory is premium. The short answer we might be able to agree on is that a premium ad is any type of ad that helps a brand's message stand out to the audience through superior design and delivery methods. And preferably superior design and delivery methods that are somewhat, or entirely, unique to the publisher (you might even call them bespoke ad formats).
Examples include native ads, rich-media ads, visual-format ads such as video, and ads in nontraditional placements (which can help publishers further monetize without cramming in more banner ads), such as in-image ads—all of which, when done right, can command higher prices and increase revenue by giving brands a better spotlight. Every brand wants to stand out, after all.
But sometimes "standing out" is an invitation to backlash. If a brand is put in a spotlight that consumers find glaring or intrusive—think of an interstitial or takeover ad that goes on for too long and seems impossible to close or minimize—that can create a negative impression around not only the brand but also the publisher. Not to mention... Facebook and Google "punish" negative ad experiences by making any associated content harder to find.
There's rising ire in the marketplace over irritating ad experiences, according to a recent study conducted by HubSpot and Adblock Plus titled "Why People Block Ads." Some key findings:
- 91% of people think that online ads are more intrusive than 2-3 years ago (43% agree and another 48% strongly agree).
- 84% of people think obnoxious or intrusive ads give a poor impression of the brand (46% agree, and another 38% strongly agree).
- 85% of people think obnoxious or intrusive ads give a poor impression of the publisher (47% agree, and another 38% strongly agree)
- Most respondents agree or strongly agree that most online ads today don't look professional (63%) and are insulting to their intelligence (56%).
Meanwhile, plenty of publishers will tell you that ads that provide a premium experience simply perform better. Last fall, Harvard's Nieman Lab asked major publishers "What's actually working in digital advertising?" and the answers invariably skewed toward premium, custom ad formats from the New York Times (native advertising and branded content) to Slate (parallax ads in which images animate as the user scrolls over them) to Vox (custom, high-impact display and premium native).
And, in July, comScore published a study called "The Halo Effect,"which found that premium publishers "delivered significantly better branding effectiveness results across a number of measures"—for example, display and video ads, which had an average of 67% higher brand lift.
What are premium publishers getting right with their premium ad formats? Some of the lift that comScore found had to do with better viewability rates. But the "the primary driver of this increased effectiveness," according to the study, "is the 'halo effect' of the contextual environment in which the ads are seen."
It's context that makes the difference. Another way to think of that: What matters in digital real estate, just as in real-world real estate, is location, location, location.
"As a media company that creates premium-quality, authoritative brands and content," Vox Media president Marty Moe told comScore, "we've also prioritized creating big, beautiful, high-performing ad solutions that work with the user experience, rather than against it."
To think of that in real-world real estate terms: To be truly effective, ad formats must be in the right place at the right time, but they also need to be good, compatible neighbors for the content they surround.
That means avoiding ads that are too flashy and therefore become distractions, in the process upstaging the content. And it especially means avoiding ad formats that offer a baffling, unpredictable UX that can leave consumers feeling like their content-consumption experience has just been hijacked.
The bottom line: Publishers want ad formats that will preserve their premium experience while adding value to their content. That's not an easy ask.
But publishers that truly respect their audiences know that caring deeply about the user experience—across the content and the advertising—is totally essential to ensuring long-term viability.