Ops Is Community

At an Ops conference, I normally expect to hear the word programmatic repeated ad infinitum, mish-mashed with so many other buzzwords (mobile programmatic native video guaranteed via private auction, anyone?).

But at the 2019 Ops conference, a somewhat unexpected word echoed throughout the sessions, from the morning keynote to the final talk: community.

My biggest takeaway from the conference is that the idea of audience is out of date, and the term too limiting. Publishers and brands need to be thinking about their visitors, viewers, readers, users, consumers, and customers as communities for monetization and messaging alike.

The Blavity Approach

Community was even in the title of our opening keynote conversation with Morgan DeBaun, CEO and Founder of Blavity. “The Future Of Advertising Depends On Community, Culture and Creativity” is truly a battle cry for the relatively young network of sites aimed at black millenials.

As magazines about black culture suffered along with the overall decline of print, DeBaun saw a younger black audience looking for a digital hub—an opportunity to fill a quickly growing cultural void. Five years later, Blavity boasts a portfolio of properties that cater to 30 million monthly visitors.

At the same time, Blavity has no problem bringing its content to the platforms where its community wants to consume—not necessarily owned and operated properties. As another panel on platform publishing illustrated, monetizing off-site is not the challenge it was just a few years ago. Blavity even curates content from its community, and has gown its Travel Noire vertical out of humble Instagram feed beginnings.

And monetization always has community top of mind. While Blavity is currently upping its programmatic game, it’s been more important to DeBaun and crew to work with advertisers on how to best message the community—advertising is content after all, and it can really stand out like a sore thumb on culturally focussed sites. Even substituting a pair of dark-skinned hands in a display ad for a pale set can increase positive engagement. And of course there are all kinds of clever opportunities for branded content.

It’s no easy feat to monetize in a community-first fashion, and one must note that Blavity has grabbed close to $10 million in funding rounds, which raises eyebrows after investment-backed media companies spurted out the pink slips earlier this year. Then again, $10 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions that Buzzfeed and Vice Media grabbed.

When I asked DeBaun what lessons had she taken away from the investment trials of Buzzfeed and Vice Media, her answer was on point: grab the venture funds is determining exactly what you need to meet realistic expectations, and don’t take bucketloads of investment cash to chase your wildest dreams.

Publisher as a Community

The community message threaded itself in and out of conversation all day in interesting ways. For example, the extreme fragmentation of the connected TV space is making it ridiculously difficult for content providers to develop audiences (or rather, communities), and just as hard for advertisers to reach their desired communities. The “Privacy Please” panel noted that worries about GDPR and CCPA have overshadowed the opportunity for publishers to use consent as a way to build a deeper relationship with visitors.

Another often missed opportunity? Dealing with ad blockers.

StockTwits and Raw Story both successfully used Admiral’s technology to engage with users employing ad blockers—not necessarily to force them to turn off the blocker or pay. Instead of ad reinsertion, the so-called “visitor relationship platform” allowed the publishers to negotiate a content value exchange that better suited its users. For Raw Story, this led to developing and iterating on subscription packages that are proving a solid new revenue stream.

But what about fly-by traffic? Can every publisher really develop a community? Well, the goal should be to encourage all users to become more engaged—and there are a ton of tools at your disposal, everything from engagement measurement to content recommendation services. Is that the revenue team’s job? Not necessarily, but it’s something they could do together with audience development.

Further, a publisher needs to think of its teams as a community with a mission, not a bunch of squabbling departments loosely tied together. As we’ve heard at Publisher Forums of late, the revenue team can be seen as a community builder, tying together editorial, marketing, audience development, and more.

After all, everyone working at the publisher wants to get paid, no?

End of an Era, Start of a New Day

Brand advertisers have been moving to community-driven marketing for a while, highlighted in the closing keynote conversation with Giant Spoon Partner and AdLandia podcaster Laura Correnti. You can see this in event spectacles like HBO’s Westworld and Game of Thrones exhibits at SXSW. Brands working with Giant Spoon are building content rather than creative, and Correnti noted that some (think GE or Red Bull) are truly making the leap to becoming publishers.

Brands becoming publishers doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t need to work with other media to bring across messaging… But we do need to approach such “collaboration” differently—something an RFP or a media plan can’t address. Relationships need to be tighter if we’re to discover where a brand and a publisher’s communities overlap. And in Correnti’s vision, the agency takes on the role of the facilitator.

Perhaps that’s a return to form—advertising and media are both highly cyclical industries, and talk of sponsorships and contextual targeting do have a whiff of “What’s old is new again.” But another overall takeaway from Ops—one I hope to dive deeper into in another article—is that digital advertising is nearing the end of a technological era.

Signs of this include Google’s major changes with its ad server; overall media consolidation, but particularly in programmatic; and the galactic rise of connected-TV advertising.
IAB Tech Lab’s OpenRTB 3.0 is actually the perfect symbol that we’re entering a new age—a sweeping rewrite of auction-enabling code that aims to deliver the transparency long sought by the most important parties in advertising.

I’ll argue that Ops showed me how the switch from audiences and consumers to communities is also a key part of this brave new world.