Capturing Attention, Not Space: Why Quality Ad Experiences Will Drive Publisher Revenue

Publishers can escape the trap of declining CPMs and user disengagement by reducing ad clutter and focusing on high-attention advertising that mirrors the successful, non-interruptive ad experiences of broadcast TV and gaming apps, according to Greg Wester of Digital Turbine.

Publishers don’t have it easy these days. Declining CPMs are forcing many to pack their websites and apps with ads to compensate for lost revenue. But all too often, the strategy backfires as users become frustrated with the experience and disengage, leading to a cycle of lower attention and even lower CPMs. 

However, Greg Wester, SVP at Digital Turbine, believes publishers can break this cycle by focusing on fewer ads that capture higher levels of user attention. He points to broadcast TV’s heyday and today’s gaming apps as proof that everyone wins when consumers expect ads and they are not interruptive. He sat down with AdMonsters to explain why attention is the secret to reversing the downward trend in CPMs

Susie Stulz: How has the concept of attention evolved over the past decade, and how will it continue to evolve?

Greg Wester: Attention has always been the most important metric for publishers, but now it’s increasingly important for advertisers as well. Dollars have always followed the eyeball, which in turn are measured by the time spent in a particular bucket–whether that’s a website, app, or TV station. So that hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is that where attention once focused on time spent consuming media, it now focuses on time spent actually visually engaging with ads.

SS: What brought about that evolution?

GW: The shift is largely due to the change in how attention is created for many publishers. Most media measurement systems will tell you that social media is where consumer attention is now. Those further down the chain — publishers and app developers — have had to evolve their models around the walled gardens and adapt to the fact that their attention is more bite-sized and funneled in from social media.

For publishers, the challenge has been to generate the same level of revenue, from typically shorter sessions, which, in turn, has led to a variety of creative advertising experiences.

SS: Like reading news on a mobile device and seeing a ton of ads?

GW: It’s not uncommon to see sites that have more ads than content. This experience is a direct result of publishers dealing with the reality of walled gardens and smaller bites of attention, all on top of the financial pressures that most publishers have to shoulder these days. 

This is the essential challenge in today’s landscape: how do publishers generate the revenue they need yet still provide a good experience for both users and advertisers?

SS: I get that. Sometimes, I’ll click away from a site because the abundance of ads is too distracting. How can publishers avoid people like me clicking away?

GW: Well, I don’t have a crystal ball to know what would work for everyone or what the future holds, but we can picture an idealistic future state and then figure out the steps for the industry to get there, i.e., how we get from point A to point B.

Point A is the experience you just described, and the advertisers aren’t seeing much efficacy in that scenario. They won’t see click-through rates or conversions. Consequently, the price publishers can get for that inventory normalizes down. Publishers then respond by creating and selling even more ad units to make up the revenue, and some ad providers tweak the advertising in that artificially inflates engagement to drive up revenue.  It’s a downward spiral. So, how do we get to point B?

We’ve seen the emergence of new attention and modeling solutions, which demonstrate that it’s possible to provide cooperation between the publisher, advertiser, and the user to deliver better ad experiences and greater brand impact, even if consumers don’t click on the ads. Point B is where the market recognizes that reality and responds by creating new floors and greater demand for those more cooperative experiences. 

We can change the dynamic of the industry by reducing the noise of the ads, while simultaneously driving a greater signal in the advertising. The result will be more value for the advertiser, more revenue for the publisher and a better experience for the consumer.

SS: That sounds like the Holy Grail. How do we get there?

GW: The first step for publishers and the industry that supports them is to lean into attention and get a much better understanding of what attention means for their sites, down to the level of the ad unit.

The first step for publishers and the industry that supports them is to lean into attention and get a much better understanding of what attention means for their sites, down to the level of the ad unit.

To a certain degree, this isn’t new; publishers are constantly changing their ad experience, trading off demand sources, ad experiences, ad units, rate floors, and everything else — it’s a daily activity. Experimentation is endemic to monetization.

But I do think there are certain classes of publishers that have distinct advantages in the nature of their content and placement of their ad spots. When they go through the audit process, they’ll discover their highly attentive spaces. From there, they can begin to explain their attention benefits to advertisers and command higher prices.

SS: So you’re suggesting that publishers conduct audits to discover where their most attentive spaces are rather than cram as many ads into the experience as possible?

GW: Yes, that will allow publishers to charge more for their inventory and show fewer ads. Keep in mind, not every type of advertising goal requires the same amount of attention. Brand-building through a 30-second spot requires publishers that can hold the user’s attention for those 30 seconds. But if you’re a brand and you just want to blast immediate top-of-mind awareness of a company name, you don’t need a 30-second spot.

SS: What are the scenarios in which consumers are most attentive to advertising?

GW: Well let me start the other way: when are consumers least attentive? It’s a question we at Digital Turbine have spent a fair amount of time studying (with attention research partners Lumen and Amplified Intelligence), and we found that it is when users are attempting to do something, or are mid-task, that an ad interrupts the experience.

Now, compare that to the ad experiences on traditional broadcast television. Television stations crafted Soap operas for ad experiences. Similarly, you could just listen to a Seinfeld episode and know when an ad is coming by the rise in applause or drama, the soundtrack, or the outro jingle. 

Broadcast TV produced the ad experiences at the same level of quality as the Seinfeld episode itself, so it’s an edge-to-edge entertainment experience crafted to maximize attention. There are few equivalent experiences on the web or mobile devices. Ads are placed programmatically, and the publisher doesn’t really have a chance to curate them.

SS: So you’re saying that with TV, there was almost a contract, if you will, with the consumer, or an understanding, that I know when an ad is coming, I know when to expect an ad, and that an ad will be worth my attention because it is well done?

GW: That’s right, it’s a cooperative moment, and it’s cooperative for everybody. But cooperative moments are too rare in the digital universe. 

We’ve all had the experience of streaming content when it’s interrupted randomly to show an ad. Are we going to give that ad 30 full seconds of attention? Of course not. That’s why those ads are skippable and why consumers generally opt to skip them. 

The same ad on broadcast TV, programmatically inserted at the wrong time in connected TV, or inserted into a website feed will have wildly different levels of attention and, therefore, results for the advertiser.

It’s the same experience with social media. Consumers are quickly scrolling through content, so a 15-second spot is less likely to grab their attention and will deliver lower returns for the advertiser.

For the publisher, the question is: How do I create an ad experience that is the least interruptive to the user, and allows for an edge-to-edge ad, in order to drive attention?

SS: What advice would you give to ad ops teams to create more cooperative moments?

GW: I don’t think there is a prescriptive solution I can give. I’d advise you not to be the last person to learn that your site’s inventory is viewed by advertisers and sold by the markets as low-attention. Take the time to do an attention audit. I don’t work for an attention auditing company, so I won’t recommend one here. In general, the audits are for advertisers who want to understand which publishers deliver the highest quality attention. It’s worth knowing where your site stands and why.

Second, understand the implications when cost-per-attentive second becomes the more important metric to focus on. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier. If your advertiser wants to build their brand via storytelling, they’ll pay a higher cost-per-attentive second, but if they just want to blast out their name, they won’t pay as much. So, publishers need to understand what they have in terms of attentive seconds and lean into it. They may need to do a bit of work in order to understand how to calculate the cost-per-attentive second, but it’s well worth the effort.

Lastly, seek out those more cooperative moments where users receive clues that an ad is coming so they won’t feel interrupted. This way, it’s a better user experience, the advertisers get more attention, and the publisher earns higher revenues. 

You know, there’s a whole class of publishers that my company works with that have high attention to their advertising because they are naturally cooperative. Those are the gaming apps. It’s like the TV of old in that the players’ actions trigger the ad, such as when they reach a specific level. This creates the same mindset of the person watching the Seinfeld episode on TV, giving you attention levels as high as television.

SS: And once publishers figure out where the unique cooperative moments are on their sites, and master the art of attention-per-second, advertisers will compete to purchase their inventory, rather than seek the lowest cost ad units possible?

GW: That’s right. That’s the future publishers need to work towards.