USA Today's Redesign and the Diminishing Inventory Movement

October 12, 2012 Gavin Dunaway

I have to admit I was surprised when I ventured over to USAToday.com following its massive redesign. You never quite know what to expect when you give a redesigned site a cold visit – I'm still haunted by my first time on the rebranded TechCrunch site (logo still gives me chills). But fortunately, like my recent experience with the redesigned Macworld site, I was struck by USAToday.com's sleek, modern design and clarity.

And, instead of annoying me, a rich media takeover unit from Dodge intrigued me with its stylishness (though I was a little irked that I had to click the X instead of having it close automatically). 

But the bigger news on the ad front, as caught by Digiday's Josh Sternberg, is the shortage of ad units. When clicked, articles now jump out of the screen like pop-ups, with only one display unit per story. This seems to be a sign of a bigger trend, with major publishers realizing less is more.

A major reason for the rise of viewable impression metrics is ad buyers' frustration over publishers overloading pages with a slew of impressions at the bottom that never get near a user's plain of vision. The thinking on the supply side seems to be, "Well, our CPMs suck, so we might as well throw as many impressions as possible on a page so we can scrape some pennies out of the exchanges."  In most cases, this tactic simply further deflates CPMs.

By limiting available impressions – for all you economists out there, "creating scarcity" – major publishers are attempting to boost the value of not just inventory but their premium audiences too. Throw in some viewable impression metrics – USA Today parent company Gannett announced that the site is loaded with comScore's Validated Campaign Essentials – and you've got an intriguing proposition for advertisers.

As Chief Digital Officer David Payner explained to Digiday, “All impressions are not created equally, and the calculated risk we are taking is to increase the quality of both the advertising and user experience to drive more revenue.”

AOL was the first big pusher of the less-is-more aesthetic with its Project Devil unit (which the IAB adopted as the Portrait). Last week at OPS NY, Varick's Jeremy Hlavacek and Thomson Reuters' Vikram Somaya gave further corroboration to the diminishing inventory trend, considering it a positive development.

Interestingly the units on USAToday.com's article pages seem to be 300X250 compared to the 350X1050 Portrait. With less inventory available, does size matter more?

Another factor driving reassessment of quanitity of inventory is the integration of responsive design technology. In a panel at OPS last week, Larry Chevres of New York Media and Aaron Jones of IDG Consumer and SMB suggested one way of sidestepping ad difficulties when launching responsive design-enabled sites (and ads did cause most of the difficulties during these publishers' rollouts) had been to develop in-house creative and/or ad units. In particular, IDG is introducing a big ol' unit called The Hero, which you gotta admit sounds nicer than Project Devil.

But, as noted in Sternberg's piece, cutting down on inventory is also a sign of digital publishers stepping away from their print layout backgrounds and embracing technological advancements. One could also tie the fuss over "native advertising" to this big push – or arguably giant leap forward.

At AdExchanger's Human Centered Automation conference a few weeks ago, Microsoft gave a sneak peek at advertising with Windows 8. Navigation through that OS is a bold new experience, and ads appearing on IE-optimized sites honestly appeared to be part of the content. In addition, there were fewer, but they seemed far more engaging.

What are your thoughts – do you see publishers increasingly curtailing their inventory offerings? Or is this a trend that will soon fizzle out?

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Gavin Dunaway is Senior Editor for AdMonsters’ Content Team. Previously he served as Senior Editor for interactive advertising trade news depot Adotas.com, and before that he held reporting and editing roles for numerous industry-related publications. When not diligently producing news and feature articles related to ad ops, he enjoys playing guitar so loud that the walls shake. Follow him, if you dare, on Twitter at @AdMonsterGavin.


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