January 19, 2021

Bad Ads, Not Trump, Is What Kept Brands Away From News

It’s hard for humans to look in the mirror and admit that they are the problem. It’s just a lot easier to blame other people or say something is entirely out of their control. Just because something is easy doesn’t mean you will have a good outcome, especially when you’re trying to, you know, build a successful media brand.

That’s something I kept thinking about as I read this Digiday story about news publishers expecting advertisers to come back once Trump was gone.

“We’re seeing some people who, I think, were concerned about how they’d be adjacent with Trump coverage being a little less fearful with a Biden administration,” the president of one large news publisher said.

“We do anticipate a more aggressive ad spending marketplace,” said Brian Kelly, the chief revenue officer of G/O Media, who added that the new administration, combined with the arrival of vaccines, should juice ad spending in news.

“President Trump was a significant contributor to blocking of the news,” IAB CEO David Cohen said.

I understand why publishers are saying this. They want to feel that the uncertainty and insanity that Trump’s presidency brought to ad blocking might be behind them. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll start to see ad revenue increase a bit.

Well, I’m here to pop that bubble.

The reason advertisers have blocked news publishers in their ad buying is not because of the divisiveness. It’s not because of a desire to be away from negativity or the mythical brand safety. That’s the excuse that we’re given, but it has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with the fact that the advertising around news just suck.

Don’t believe me? Look at Facebook. That platform has literally acted as the breeding ground for this year’s terrorist insurrection against the Capitol. For years now, it’s where disinformation has gone to fester, mutate, and fundamentally alter the brains of millions of Americans. If you ask me, it’d probably be pretty great to keep a brand away from those platforms.

And yet… Facebook is having an amazing year, Advertisers continue to spend billions on that platform. All of the participants of the Stop Hate For Profit campaign from this summer have returned to the platform and likely spent more money in Q4 than they have in a long time.

It’s not about brand safety. It’s about advertising efficiency.

The ads that run on news sites are boring. They’re ineffective. The targeting is crap. We have ads that load even when they’re below the fold even though we say that we implement lazy load. The effective cost per click is likely higher than on Facebook.

And even if the ad product alone isn’t the problem, the user experience is also abysmal. The sites load slowly, there are far too many ads forced on the page, and then at the end, that beautiful chum box.

Compare that to running advertising on Facebook. It’s easy to buy, the ads are incredibly targeted (terrifyingly so), the site loads quickly and, to this day, it’s still considered one of the most cost efficient ways of promoting a product or service. Why else do so many publishers promote their subscriptions on Facebook?

Because publishers don’t provide a great user experience or quality advertising products, there’s no urgent need to advertise there. So, advertisers can use the fiasco of Trump and the need for brand safety as the catalyst for cutting news advertising.

But here’s the thing… President-elect Biden becomes President in like 26 hours (depending on when I hit send on this). For all intents and purposes, his presidency should be a little calmer. But if I had to wager, we’re not going to see a wave of advertisers rushing to put ads around the news.

If it worked, advertisers would be there. What we need to do is put in the effort to make it work. In June, I wrote a piece, The Ad Business is Going Nowhere… But It Will Be More Contextual. I broke down what I felt publisher ad platforms needed to look like:

1. Self-serve: Ever bought an ad on Facebook and Google? It’s self-serve. I control the spend. I control the start/stop dates. I control everything. Other marketers will want that as well. That’s why so many want to sign PMP deals.
2. Contextual: If we’re not going to offer marketers the ability to target specific people, we need to let them target specific topics and themes. But that means we need to know exactly what our content is about and make that part of the self-serve selection process.
3. Viewable Impressions: I can’t tell you how many sites I go to where there are ads loading below the fold. Why? Only marketers paying pennies would ever bid for those impressions. Our ads need to all be viewable.
4. Reporting: We need to provide far better analytics. That also means we need to return to the discussion of clicks. Whether we like it or not, marketers are paying for performance. Our ads need to perform. Let’s show that they are.
5. Unique Creative: We can’t just offer boxes. We need to be able to offer new types of creative that will get marketers more excited.

This means taking ownership of our advertising. We depended on our programmatic partners to handle all of this, but that’s not the right way. We need to own our business and then let other partners plug into it. Until then, Trump or no Trump, I don’t expect advertisers to come rushing back to news organizations. Why spend the money when it’s not going to work?

Le Batard gets his RSS feed

Typically when major talent negotiates a severance, it includes large cash deposits into one’s bank account. But in the case of former ESPN talent, Dan Le Batard, it was what he built that mattered most to him.

According to Sportico:

Those negotiations will likely be bolstered by something he took with him from ESPN. As part of his severance from the Disney unit, Le Batard negotiated for the RSS feed to his podcast, according to multiple people familiar with the talks. It’s allowed the talk show host to maintain continuity with his followers, without requiring them to re-subscribe to a new show.

Le Batard also negotiated the use of the oceanfront Miami Beach studio where he recorded for ESPN, the people said. A representative for ESPN declined to comment on the arrangement. Le Batard also declined to comment when reached by phone.

The technology behind podcasting is interesting. There’s a central host that you use to upload episodes. From that host, you get the RSS feed, which has a list of information about each episode, including the name, the download URL, etc. When you subscribe to a podcast, your app of choice waits for an update from that feed and then sends you an alert when a new episode publishes.

This is similar to someone running a newsletter at a media company, opting to leave, and being given the option to take that email list with them; minus, of course, the potential CAN-SPAM, GDPR, and CCPA violations from doing that.

Compare that to what happened when Ezra Klein left Vox to join The New York Times. Over five years, Vox had built up a likely sizeable audience on that RSS feed. Klein left and Vox rebranded the feed as Vox Conversations. Now Klein is starting from scratch at The Times and will need to rebuild his feed over time. It’ll happen, of course, but it just takes time.

There are two schools of thought here…

First, there’s the argument that listeners subscribed to Le Batard, so trying to create a new show on the old feed would be confusing and potentially cause fans to unsubscribe. And, since it was Le Batard’s brand and voice that built it, obviously he should take it.

Second, the feed is owned by ESPN and grew it. So, why shouldn’t it retain ownership? Even if 50% of the listeners decide to unsubscribe when a new show goes on the feed, that still means the new show launches with a baked in audience.

I fall solidly in the second school of thought. Yes, Le Batard is the talent behind the feed, but at the end of the day, this sets a dangerous precedent. In this scenario, talent can come in, ask for ownership of their feed, get built up by the publisher, and then when they’re large enough, skedaddle. Along with it, they now have a strong distribution channel. With that, the publisher has nothing.

Publishers should increasingly anticipate these requests coming from talent. As they do come in, we need to think about them very strategically. If someone wants to take their distribution channel with them when they leave, that needs to be treated as an investment in that talent. In other words, it’s a non-cash investment, which should result in equity in the new entity that the talent is creating.

While media companies are constantly creating new stars, that scenario would put publishers in a position of owning less and less IP. At the end of the day, distribution is key. Giving up those feeds has long-term negative ramifications.

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