The Long Game for Monetization: NetSeer Talks About How Engagement Informs Ad Serving

Know the Right Time to Not Show an Ad

Publishers know advertisers always want to be on the part of the page where users are most engaged. But they also know that when you have a highly engaged user, you might want to let them enjoy what they came to your site for, and give them a little space.

It’s a classic conundrum, and it’s something the NetSeer’s Head of Product, Amir Bakhshaie, and his team have had on their collective mind for a long time. So when Amir first told us about NetSeer’s dynamic gallery insertion tool, it seemed like it could be a really interesting solution. As Amir told us, when publishers trade user engagement for immediate ad revenue, that’s not a sustainable solution in the long term. If you want to cultivate long-term engagement on your site, a publisher should know when and where not to serve an ad, just the same as they should know when and where to go ahead and serve an ad.

We wanted the scoop from Amir, but first, we wanted to know a little bit about the news that NetSeer had been acquired by digital advertising and publishing company Inuvo.

More Images. More Revenue. Monetizing the Visual Web

GAVIN DUNAWAY: What was the thinking behind the Inuvo/NetSeer merger, and how will it affect NetSeer’s future offerings?

AMIR BAKHSHAIE: The merger will bring together Inuvo and NetSeer’s publisher solutions to create a high-powered, multi-demand sourced publisher solution that will enable publishers to monetize multiple content formats via one platform– images and galleries, articles, videos and native, across desktop and mobile.

NetSeer is very good at monetizing pages. We bring in other demand partners, and also have our own direct sales team. We see a lot of good opportunities for bringing their demand into our tech stack, and likewise ours into theirs.

GD: You were telling me about this dynamic insertion tool last year, and I was really fascinated. Could you describe how it works?

AB: One of the big trends we see is, a lot of the smarter publishers are becoming aware that sacrificing your user engagement for short-term profit is not the right play. It’s more important that publishers learn to balance user engagement against their revenues.

With that said, it then becomes more important to know when and when not to show an ad. That’s where a good ad platform can become a partner to the publisher, instead of just a vehicle to generate money. For the last six months or so, we’ve been working with publishers very closely, going through the numbers. If we can get users to stick around on your site more, and if we get users to come to your site more, we all make more money. The users are happier because they are not being inundated with ads, publishers are happier because of higher engagement, and advertisers are happier with higher performance.

We’ve been building out this new, flexible system, where we’re very aware of the number of times we show ads to users. We’re aware of how advertisers value users, and what kind of ads the user is responding or not responding to. Instead of showing that user an ad at every opportunity, we balance out showing them an ad when it makes sense, and not showing them an ad when it doesn’t make sense. This means in some scenarios we might show a larger ad unit, then make note of it and take the foot off the pedal for a while. Let the user enjoy their content, and maybe don’t show them another ad for the rest of their session.

A lot of that dovetails with Inuvo very well, because they own and operate their own sites. We can now test on those properties and make sure the engagement numbers are solid and the users are happy. Looking at our own publisher data, all the numbers are up and to the right.

And we can create and share all kinds of best practices based on real experiences. We analyze and collect this data, and so this is a big opportunity for us to help our publishers meet their objectives.

GD: Does that mean you guys are keeping some kind of user engagement score?

AB: Yes. We built our own mini analytics platform on our back end. We know as much as possible about the user and their behaviors, while respecting their privacy, to make sure they have a good experience.

GD: There are studies that suggest once a user hits a certain engagement level on a site, they’re a little less affected by advertising, so I’d be very curious what kind of results you get in your testing.

AB: Like I said, the performance we’ve seen on the advertisers’ side turned out to be pretty strong. We see a lot of users become immune to advertising when you put 10 ads on a page—they’re just going to block that stuff out. But if you have only two or three ads on a page and those ads are relevant, it’s a lot easier to get attention and engagement. Advertisers will see this in higher viewability. Our viewability scores tend to be pretty high, well over 85%. They also get better click-through rates.

GD: So is this product hooked up to programmatic channels, being bought through RTB?

AB: We pull demand from a lot of different channels. Programmatic is one of them. Our own direct sales team is another. Inuvo will inject their demand too. We give all the demand channels weights, and try to learn categories of ads the user likes to engage with. We use that metadata to try to find the best ad in all available demand channels.

GD: So if somebody were to buy programmatically, they could send in a standard size display unit?

AB: Yes, and we have rich media creative that we sell and manage on our side. We’ve created some native formats as well that we run and support. For programmatic, we adhere to all standard IAB sizes, to make things easier for the advertisers and maximize the types of ad creative we can pull from.

GD: Does the product work similarly in mobile?

AB: Everything I said becomes doubly or triply true on mobile. Mobile was in some ways the genesis of this.

GD: Have any best practices emerged for the use of this product over this new publisher base you can test on?

AB: Yes, and the best practices are built into the product. You want a fill of around 30% or less. If you go with a fill that’s higher than that, it becomes too many ads for the user, and you start to get into the tail of low-monetizing ads anyway. But if you can stay within 30% fill, usually it turns out to be a good balance.

If you see the user isn’t performing to the ads, maybe don’t show them any more ads. If they specifically close out one of your ads, don’t show them any more ads for the remainder of the session. These are all the things we’ve discovered as best practices, and now the product just behaves this way right out of the box.

GD: Are there any interesting products that you’re working on right now?

AB: In the short term there’s a lot of really good synergy between us and Inuvo. They’re very excited about a lot of the ad tech we have available. With the patented ConceptGraph we’ve built, they see immediate value in being able to categorize their own sites and enhance their own demand. Longer term, there are a lot of opportunities to grow. We’ve already started to dabble in video with our in-video units. We see a lot of opportunities to take some of the same learnings from dynamic gallery entry and apply them to video, both on mobile and desktop. A key focus for us over the next quarter will be to bring the two teams together, so we can focus our ad tech resources on the growth and development of a common platform.

GD: I was looking at one of those end-of-the-year articles that mentioned the most hated forms of advertising. Alongside pre-roll video, there were a few in-image things. How do you think technology like yours is changing that perception?

AB: I know we have a lot of competitors in the marketplace that have a very different theory from us, where if a user is trying to enjoy content, they’re just slamming ads on top of it at every opportunity. It’s not a good experience. That’s why we’re going for this publisher-first, user-first kind of mentality. The publisher needs to make money for their content, but you shouldn’t cover up an image all the time. Beyond around a 30% fill, you start to quickly see diminishing returns in user engagement and ad revenue. I can very much empathize with users that have bad experiences. But we want to be respectful of the user and make sure that if we do show them an ad, it’s actually a relevant ad, and we’re not showing them an ad all the time.