The New Image of In-Image Ads

Publishers Are Looking Anew at This Format

One of the great projects of digital media this decade has been streamlining and simplifying ad placements. We have the technology — publishers can study where on the page they can get the most engagement, then figure out how to place an ad unit there, to grab the user at just the right time, but without roadblocking the user’s flow of content consumption.

So where does that leave in-image advertising? You open a page, you hover over a photo, and an ad unit appears floating over the image. On the surface, it might seem like an old-school tool, one of those ads that appears on top of the thing you really want to see. And, well, in-image ads have been around for a long time.

But in-image advertising is also worth revisiting, having picked up steam among publishers in the last couple years in particular. In some ways, it’s not necessarily targeted and deployed in the same ways it was five years ago. In other ways, ops and content teams have come to accept it as a solution for what are now timely problems in digital.

More Images. More Revenue. Monetizing the Visual Web

Whatcha Got In There?

We can start with the technical piece. In its early days, in-image advertising was less sophisticated than some other forms, perhaps less appealing. Static images were challenging to target around, for the same reason video was challenging to target around. Targeting software was mostly designed to make sense of language, to look for keywords and patterns in text that indicated something about the environment on the page into which this ad would be placed. There have certainly been tech providers who’ve scanned the images themselves for targeting and to ensure brand safety–scanning for shapes that indicate what’s in the image, for example. But evaluating images can be a daunting proposition, demanding of resources and already lagging way behind what’s possible in evaluating text. And so, historically, when vendors have targeted in-image ads, they did the targeting using available metadata around the image.

The problem with that is, metadata wasn’t always sufficient in providing… well, the whole picture. Image metadata could be downright cryptic in that regard. Let’s say your advertiser is a major U.S. car manufacturer. Their legacy is important to your brand, and their brand’s Detroit heritage is part of that legacy. Problem is, stories about Detroit that news teams have been chasing over the past decade and change have been stories about the issues raised by the city’s economic decline. Now that car ad appears against a photo of a crumbling city block. It’s a bad placement for the advertiser, and it might not be in line with the message your content team wants to send either.

However, contextual targeting has evolved considerably since in-image first hit the scene. A number of vendors in the space will say — and publishers we’ve spoken with have backed this up — that the technical execution is more sophisticated now, as the targeting has incorporated strategies like scanning page content and evaluating user behavior. Now, for example, if you have a photo of a blighted block and that content is local news for the user, it might be an appropriate place to serve an ad for something like low-interest loans.

Not only has the targeting by and large improved, but vendors have increasingly given greater control to their publisher partners over how and when in-image advertising appears. Publishers may find in-image more appealing if they can set their fill rate, control how their audiences are targeted and decide what types of content can have an ad placed on it and what types can’t. That’s a significant change from the early days of in-image, when controls were often little more than an on/off switch.

Everyone On the Same Page

Another piece is that the demands of the marketplace have made in-image advertising more appealing to publishers now than it was a few years ago. As some publisher-side sources told us, on an anecdotal level, content teams and management are aware their businesses are under pressure. Only a few years ago, publisher sources have told us, it would’ve been fairly common for editorial to object to ads overlaid on photos– they would have considered it intrusive. But publisher adoption of in-image advertising has anecdotally spiked in the last two years or so. If in-image placements can be made relevant and unobtrusive, and they’re in naturally highly viewable and engaging spots on the page, the simple idea in itself that advertising is encroaching on content warrants less push-back from editorial. In this high-pressure environment, when presented with new ad strategies such as in-image placements, publishers are more inclined to at least give it a shot. In-image is one place where many publishers have been pleased with the results of the trials–consistently engaged audiences, and performance that advertisers value.

Furthermore, the business of digital being what it is today, editorial and ops teams are finding ways (and new reasons) to cooperate. If ops can communicate to editorial that relevant ads on a highly engaging piece of content will drive more revenue than 10 ads deployed by 10 vendors on less-engaging elements of the page, it’s something the two teams might be able to compromise on.

When I Told You I Needed Space…

That leads into another piece, about available real estate on the page. On desktop, there’s the long-running movement to de-clutter the page. That means fewer ad units, placed in more engaging and viewable spots on the page, displaying more relevant ads, driving more revenue. It makes for a better overall user experience, which ideally helps boost page traffic, and it also makes ops sharpen their strategic chops. Mobile takes the real estate issue to an extreme point–and increasingly, that’s where users are going in larger numbers, and they’re spending more time there. But the prospect of adding an extra ad unit on the small screen is very unappealing to ops, keeping UX in mind. In-image addresses the problem of having less space to feasibly fit an ad by creating additional inventory over an existing content, without–if done well–obstructing the user’s ability to consume and engage with the content.

Those last two pieces–available real estate on the page and market demands that have presented new challenges for publishers to monetize–come together in the issue of viewability. As one publisher explained to us, current viewability standards, and the more stringent demands and expectations from buyers, naturally mean in-image ad will likely drive higher viewability rates than traditional display. As another publisher-side source explained, users are hungry for images, and they’re inclined to engage with images and click deep into slideshows, where they can be served additional in-image ads that will also meet viewability standards. That’s appealing to advertisers, in an area where advertisers are often hard to please.

One question remains: What about ad blocking? Some vendors have touted in-image as a way around ad blockers, on the premise that the image will get through to the user as part of content, and the ad will piggyback on top of it. But according to publisher-side sources, while there’s certainly hope for in-image blasting past blockers, there are so many ad blocking products on the market, it’s very difficult to forecast across the board whether or not in-image placements are immune. It’s something for the publisher to take up with their in-image vendor, and to test across their audiences if surpassing the blockers is important to them.

The way the digital landscape has developed, in-image advertising is one of those spaces that’s become more appealing to publishers and advertisers alike because of factors coming from within and without. Part of the appeal comes from changes in capabilities of the tech itself. Part of the appeal comes from both increased pressures and new opportunities in digital at large. In total, it adds up to this being an interesting time to adjust on the image of in-image.