Publishers Prep Post-Pandemic Ad Product Evolution

One day, hopefully in the not too distant future, the Pandemic will meet its bitter end. But until then, publishers are adapting to the new normal and steadily planning for that fateful day.

For now, they’re living in the era of the pivot, where the most promising path to revenue stabilization is to become a more nimble, creative, and collaborative publisher. One who is willing to make data the central focus of their sales strategy, while finding that happy medium between users’ and advertisers’ needs. 

In the ad spend downturn—of Q1, Q2, and partially into Q3—publishers found the opportune moment to get their houses in order and started streamlining processes to better prepare for what comes next.

These were some of the big themes we heard coming from publishers at one of our recent Think Tank roundtable meetings, hosted by Celtra. 

Celtra is a Creative Management Platform (CMP) where creative and marketing teams collaborate to design and deliver digital campaigns across the ever growing number of channels, ad formats, variations, and markets.

As they ruminated about how the Pandemic has changed their operations, they also talked about this juncture as a time for being more flexible with advertisers and empathetic to the uncertainty occurring in the marketplace. It’s also a time, they said, for presenting big ideas that win RFPs and deliver on advertisers’ KPIs, with scalability in mind.

Flexibility is the Name of the Game

For the publishers we spoke with, collaborative approaches to working with advertisers have not only afforded buyers flexibility in modifying creative or messaging but also in adjusting optimization strategies and budgets.

“Budgets are changing so quickly and strategies are changing so quickly. This is not just from an ad products standpoint, but from an overall strategy standpoint of how we’re presenting to clients,” said one publisher. “We just need to be ready to be as flexible as possible. We’re noticing that now there’s a bit more need for that, as they’re asking for one thing one day and then when you present it they’ve already changed their minds on what they think they want to do.”

Overall, publishers have found that in times of Corona the biggest difference in working with clients is having to become more agile with package creation, which also means being less rigid with their processes. 

For instance, a local news publisher talked about how crazily things were shifting during the election cycle, especially in battleground states. In just hours or minutes, political advertisers were asking for major overhauls to their campaigns—whether it was their budgets, targeting data or creative.

“It was bananas. We’d get updates from the client saying, ‘Hey, you remember that thing we sent you 30 minutes ago? We actually need to make a change to that,’” the publisher shared. 

Can’t you just picture publishers scrambling to make these adjustments at the last minute, on the fly? It’s sort of like being in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and having to change the batting lineup because you need a batter who can hit a home run and not one who’s only going to hit a triple.

It’s worth noting, that when these rapid-fire changes are happening at the last minute and huge budgets are at stake, publishers aren’t willing to throw an error in the play and add friction to the process.

It’s also gotta be a two-way street. Buyers need to provide pubs with similar kinds of leverage when the pubs need to move things around fluidly.

“That will have a lot to do with the relationships with the sales reps and the specific clients. When we do have those relationships in place, we see they’re being more flexible with us as well and maybe giving us a little more time to go back to the drawing board,” explained one publisher.

Renewed RFP Processes and Workflows

With the slowdown, an enormous dark cloud hovered over publishers’ revenues. If there was any sunshine to be found, it came in the form of time—time allowing them to rejigger their RFP processes and workflows. 

Along with the Coronavirus, 2020 ushered in days and nights of racial unrest, and with it came advertisers attempting to address diversity and inclusion in their messaging. Some publishers have definitely begun to include more offerings that focus on diversity and inclusion to align with brands’ new focus in messaging. 

In the OTT and CTV world, on the other hand, one of the biggest pain points for advertisers resulted from the challenges of combining data segments with measurement and frequency caps. Because of this, publishers are learning to go heavy on that information in their RFP responses.

As publishers begin to streamline the RFP process, as well as new product launches, they’re looking at the RFPs coming in and figuring out where the gaps are where new products can be created to scale. A few publishers are slowing down their process entirely to collaborate more closely with advertisers and ensure that new ad products are developed really well and built to succeed and meet advertiser KPIs.

Data Driving Change

Overall strategies for building new ad products are also being reconfigured, as publishers tap into their data to focus on building out unique offerings. 

Some publishers told us that they’re expanding their market research efforts and creating surveys on the fly in response to RFPs, while others talked about working with their data teams to pull together data stories about what matters most to the brand. With data at the center of their strategy, publishers are building ad products that stand out from the norm. 

On the whole, publishers are slowly moving away from third-party data sets and putting more value into their first-party data and what it tells them about what users are doing on their properties based on contextual and keyword tags, as well as semantic targeting.

“We’re doing interesting things with geo-targeting, first-party data and contextual data and that’s where we’re headed in the next couple of quarters,” reported one publisher.

With an eye toward improving their products, another publisher is using this time to look for errors in their log-level data in real-time to see what that data can tell them about how to improve their ad products and ad engagement. 

The increase in consumer consumption, driven by stay-at-home orders, led one publisher to uncover errors in their analytics platform. Leveraging the data, the pub really dove in to understand how they could fix things with their programmatic partners. After lots of A/B testing for engagement, the publisher was able to determine the best mix for users and how it would impact consumption.

Another pub, using similar dashboards, broke down errors by partner, content and distribution platform to nail down any issues. “That’s probably the most impactful thing we’ve done as far as solving user-experience issues and driving more impressions through programmatic buyers,” the publisher exclaimed.

Can Ad Products and User Experience Just Get Along?

Traditionally at odds, the relationship between UX teams and ad ops is very complex. From a UX standpoint, too many ads could distract the user’s experience. Meanwhile, ad ops has the goal of monetizing traffic, which often happens at the cost of user experience.

But new ways of thinking are emerging within publisher organizations. Pubs feel it’s high time the industry stops thinking about the ad product as secondary to the content. 

“We need to find meaningful ways as we’re redesigning our apps and sites to incorporate the ad, not as secondary but as part of the content experience, and try to move away from just adding more ads to a page,” shared one publisher.

Pubs are starting to find their voice in their relationships with advertisers and pushing back on executions that won’t work for the user—and ultimately won’t perform for the advertiser. 

That kind of publisher-advertiser relationship takes into account what the advertiser really wants to accomplish and how it best aligns with the products and solutions that the publisher knows will resonate with their audiences. 

Executions that drive inspiration, like shoppable ad units or high-impact ads that build an emotional connection or even native executions that place the brand in the context of the vertical that the publisher is all about—and that the user has an affinity for.

This is a future that many publishers are building right now—a future where ad product and product are one cohesive entity. It’s where advertisers’ creative messaging blends seamlessly into the overall experience, while also standing out for being unique to the advertisers’ brand. In this enviable future, data will be the glue that brings it all together.