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To stay relevant, digital advertising pivots to relevance

There are hopeful signs that the web publishing industry is finally waking up to the perils of clickbait and bad online advertisements in general. A look at ad blocking figures alone reveals a sector that has been hitting the snooze alarm for too long.

A 2015 Adobe and PageFair report found 200 million monthly active users have adopted ad-blocking technology globally, costing publishers US$22bn in blocked advertising revenue in 2015. In 2016, the figure is estimated to nearly double to $41.4bn. Hello online content providers! It’s time to embrace the new day.

“Consumers’ tolerance for annoying, disruptive, irrelevant or offensive advertising is waning rapidly,” writes John Murphy, VP of Marketplace Quality at OpenX writes in the Huffington Post.

He urges publishers to take stock of the negative impacts of bad advertising and suggests a new tack: look at the next frontier of digital advertising by embracing ad quality. Digital advertising, he writes, “is at an inflection point where its future hinges on all players in the ecosystem implementing and upholding higher standards for ad quality.”

At this inflection point is a dizzying scramble to shore up revenue streams across global publishing and Murphy’s advice is all but impossible to ignore. Moreover, the shift from desktop to mobile continues its inexorable march forward, shrinking real estate and placing an added premium on space.

Is there a quick fix? No, but there is a common thread: relevance. And it is pushing publishers and ad tech companies alike to abandon the false promise of high click through rates and investigate meaningful forms of engagement, content monetisation strategies and improving ads.

Mea culpa and crawling toward relevance

For many, the mark of a new era was ushered in at the 2015 Guardian’s Changing Media Summit, when Upworthy's cofounder Peter Koechley issued an apology for the media site’s sensationalised clickbait headlines.

"We sort of unleashed a monster,” Koechley said. “Sorry for that. Sorry we kind of broke the internet last year. I'm excited going forward to say goodbye to clickbait." 

Upworthy, known as an online media juggernaut, suffered a significant drop in traffic in the wake of Facebook’s clickbait crackdown. Moving to a native advertising model, frequently embraced as a friendlier form of advertising, and channeling more resources to video, Upworthy topped 200 million views on Facebook in January.

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Koechley’s new tack appeared to have worked: "We will do it by sharing powerful stories that put you in someone else's shoes to help you see the world in other people's eyes." In so many words: We stop tricking you with bombastic headlines.

Including ad tech in the ecosystem

Fast forward to 2016 and media and news organisations continue to discover new ways of monetising content while engaging their consumers. However, the next frontier of digital ads is a two-way street and moving forward cannot rest on online publishers alone. Ad tech companies also have to innovate. 

“There’s a fair number of options to monetise content sites,” said Kerstin Gibson, VP and General Manager of Search for Infospace, pointing to Outbrain, Taboola and Google AdSense as examples. “We tested everything out there and there just wasn’t an option that brought together both monetisation and relevancy.”

Gibson pulled back the curtain on Infospace’s recent launch of LinkFuel, a contextual advertising platform that uses content from the entire page to display highly contextually relevant linked search ads from the Bing Network.

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“We started out with a product that looked like Outbrain,” Gibson explained, “But our model morphed. We then coupled our search technology with the Bing Network to serve ads that are directly relevant to the content on the page, which ultimately delivers more revenue for publishers.” LinkFuel, Gibson added, is strengthened through intelligence gained from powering 2.2 billion Infospace searches every month to identify the best performing keywords.

According to Gibson, LinkFuel performs best for publishing sites that have deep verticals in health and money, as well as tech, home and auto. “We figured out what works. We see that the terms are more relevant and that is why we can deliver a better user experience.”

It may hurt, but it’s good for you

There will always be a challenge to managing the tension that exists between monetising a limited amount of space, while preserving the user experience. However, in a recent Forbes article, Eric Eichmann, CEO of ad tech firm Criteo, sees the rise of ad blocking as an unexpected win in the publishing industry, specifically for ad tech. 

“While this may mean even more consolidation in the future, those companies that are willing to disrupt the status quo of digital advertising by delivering consumer-centric experiences will survive and thrive in a world where consumers hold all the power,” he writes. “And, as online advertising continues to improve and deliver value to consumers, there will no longer be a need to block them."

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