October 1, 2021
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When Doing What Feels Wrong Could Actually Be Right

Often times when we’re building things, we look at potential choices and if it feels wrong to do it, we simply ignore it and move on to the next thing. And sometimes, that’s the right choice. But I often wonder if we paused before we made that choice and really tested our biases, would we find that maybe we were wrong?

Sometimes, we get stuck in certain dogmas. For example, I’m a big believer in delivering as clean of a user experience as possible. But there’s a balance, right? I should deliver as clean of a user experience as possible, but balance that against revenue targets.

This can obviously be a difficult exercise, especially since revenue implications can often be two or three steps away from the initial user experience. But, it does present an interesting scenario.

What if all the things we know are wrong about media sites are actually right? Or, if not right, at least not as bad as we thought?

I want to go through a few examples of how going with what feels wrong could be right. Let’s start with the weakest one in my opinion.

Click to Read Advertisement

I’m not entirely sure who popularized this type of advertisement, but I remember it was on Forbes the first time I saw it. Essentially, when a user clicks on a story, a separate advertisement page loads before the story. It’s a big ol’ ad. My guess is that Forbes was making quite a high CPM with this ad.

My instinct told me this was the wrong thing to do. It wasn’t because it was a bad user experience. Instead, I felt it was wrong because Google explicitly had rules for these sorts of advertisements and it would hurt Forbes’ traffic.

But was I right?

Technically, yes. But in practice, I was wrong. I remember hearing about this from someone at Forbes at the time and the way he explained it really was fascinating. At the core of it, they calculated that they made more money from that advertisement than they lost from the possible traffic from Google.

In their mind, fewer readers was an okay trade-off because they generated more money.

Before we all run off and start implementing this ad, there’s a reason I started with this. Even with the understanding that it makes more money than the lost traffic, I still think it’s probably the wrong choice.

When I learned about that ad, I was just getting started in media, about a decade ago. Forbes wasn’t pushing a subscription product. Like most media companies, newsletters were likely an afterthought. For most media, it was purely an advertising game.

That has all changed in 2021.

While this advertisement might make a lot of money, a reduction in viewership means fewer opportunities to capture a newsletter sign up or convince someone to become a paying subscriber. This is what I mean when I said “revenue implications can often be two or three steps away.” Sure, I’m making more from the immediate ad load, but I’m not acquiring a user and monetizing them for the long term. Which is better?

Additionally, Google has become even more strict, which could have site-wide implications rather than just at the story level.

Nevertheless, as an example of doing what feels wrong, this is one of them. Forbes felt that the upside in revenue was greater than the downside in traffic loss. It felt wrong, but for them, it may have been right.

Popup CTAs

Popups suck. I think we can all agree that they’re annoying. They always tend to appear right when you’re in the middle of a sentence, and in some cases, they’re virtually impossible to close.

Instinct says we shouldn’t use them. They get in the user’s way and create a bad experience.

Yet, for some calls to action, popups are one of the best tools out there. Take, for example, the newsletter subscription popup. It gets in the way. And yet, I’ve had scenarios where it converts at greater than 1%. I’ve talked with some marketers who have seen it go over 3%.

In almost every scenario, we should be running these sorts of popups. The user experience might suffer, but the compounding growth is too necessary. If you can convert 10-30 people for every 1,000 visitors, that is too good to pass up.

But there are ways to make it less offensive. Here are a few ideas:

  • Make the popup show after a set period of time. For example, calculate the average time on page and then set the popup to show at 20% of that. Or 50%. Whatever you want.
  • Make the X to close it big and prominent. You don’t want someone signing up if they don’t want to; you just want them to know the newsletter exists front and center.
  • If they do close it, don’t open it again on the next pageview. Maybe give them a few pageviews before showing it again.
  • Experiment with an exit intent unit. If the user is looking to leave the page, prompt them real quick to sign up for the newsletter.

These are all options on how to make it less offensive while still trying to satisfy the business goals.

Removing Ads

If the CPM of an advertisement is $10, adding a second ad should mean you make $20, right? Many think so, which is why many ad-driven sites are digital minefields with instream and outstream video competing with each other, sticky high impact ads that you can’t scroll away from fast enough, and the chum box going on forever.

The common belief amongst many in media is that more ads mean more money. That feels right. But it’s not always right.

One thing I’ve learned watching Dotdash’s business is that less is more in the advertising world. When they acquire a new brand, they actively delete ads from sites, reducing the number significantly.

Why do they do this?

What they found was that the reduction in ad load actually increased the speed enough that they had more people visiting pages. That, in turn, resulted in an increase in revenue per visitor. Said another way, they make more money on their visitors because they see more pages and, therefore, in aggregate, see more ads.

Additionally, because the pages are faster, they rank more competitively in Google, which means that they are getting more people to see what ads they do have, which means more revenue.

Wrapping up…

The real lesson to take from this is that we need to question our biases when making decisions for our businesses. While it might feel wrong, it doesn’t mean that it actually is.

That “click to read” advertisement is really intrusive. I really don’t like it. But for operators that run them, they’ve probably done the math and concluded the upside is greater than the downside.

Many times, our guts are right. Putting a sound on, auto-playing video that cannot be paused is probably a bad thing all the time. But taking an extra bit of time to really analyze these scenarios could have monumental impacts on the business.

Thanks for reading today’s AMO. If you have thoughts, please hit reply or join us in the AMO Slack channel. I hope you have a great weekend and I’ll see you on Tuesday.

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