Turning Relationships Into Revenue: Admiral’s Dan Rua Explains Visitor Relationship Management (VRM)

After revenue loss from ad blockers reached an all-time in 2017 and then leveled off, publishers experienced only a brief respite as privacy concerns mounted sending them into a further state of panic and frenzy. The digital media landscape shifted, putting consumers in a position of power signaling that publishers’ relationships with their audiences had become seriously fractured.

But now, publishers face an opportunity to rebuild visitor relationships by improving user experience and providing audiences with trusted content and advertising, and greater transparency.

To that end, Admiral, the Visitor Relationship Company, helps over 15,000 publishers worldwide grow revenue with its Visitor Relationship Management (VRM) platform, including adblock recovery, paid subscriptions, email subscriptions, social subscriptions and GDPR/CCPA/PIPEDA privacy consent.

Following his VRM panel at Ops, we caught up with Dan Rua, CEO of Admiral and former VC investor in Napster, Grooveshark and others, to learn more about VRM and why publishers need to seize the moment to better engage their audiences.

Lynne d Johnson: Can you explain how the idea for ad block revenue recovery germinated from a music streaming service?

Dan Rua: There’s actually a wealth of lessons from digital music that inform Admiral’s vision and could help digital publishers long-term. As the first/seed investor in Napster, OneBigCD, and Grooveshark, I had a front-row seat as the music industry lost almost two decades and billions of revenue in a slow-motion version of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief & lossdenial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—about how monumentally user empowerment by the Internet changed their business. About the same time, the music industry reached their “acceptance” stage, and started to grow revenue again with streaming; another, even larger, user empowerment engine came along ‚ad blockers—endangering the core business model of the Internet.

Given Grooveshark’s reach (100+ million users worldwide), ad-supported business model and early adoption of adblockers by music lovers, our team got an early look at adblocker growth from a publisher perspective–now a multi-billion dollar problem for publishers worldwide. We also saw how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) helped tame the cat & mouse game of early music streaming and how adblocking was still in its cat & mouse phase, with few bright-line rules to protect publishers from outright theft of their copyrighted content. Lastly, Grooveshark’s team put a ton of emphasis on visitor experience and relationships — even calling individual listeners to say “Thanks for listening!” from Friday all-hands meetings — and it seemed that adblocking grew from a core breakdown in the publisher and visitor relationship.

We spun out Admiral’s founding product team from Grooveshark in 2015 to size and solve adblock losses for digital publishers. We got some great early venture funding on the strength of our serial team and we launched in the right place, at the right time, with the industry’s only DMCA copyright access control platform with an answer to 1) the cat & mouse of adblock recovery and 2) building visitor relationships in a respectful, consent-based way. With that foundation, we’ve quickly grown to help over 15,000 publishers worldwide, with adblock recovery, per-site subscriptions, multi-site subscription bundles, email subscriptions, GDPR/CCPA privacy and more — something we call Visitor Relationship Management (VRM).

LdJ: There’s been talk that some browsers will block the ad blockers. What does this mean for both users and publishers?

DR: Despite rumors to the contrary, Google Chrome will have ad, content and tracking blockers for years to come. So will Safari, Firefox, Microsoft and more. In fact, the browsers are actually building in blocking APIs so it will become even more native, secure and mass-market than ever before.  Empowering visitors to control their experiences is inevitable and a natural evolution as the Internet enters its coming “Age of Consent” with blocking, GDPR/CCPA privacy and more.  

The key for digital publishers to avoid their own Kübler-Ross stages of grief and loss is to get ahead of the visitor empowerment curve with their own access control and Visitor Relationship Management. Internet innovation empowers all. Just as visitors have a right to protect themselves from bad ad experiences and privacy practices, publishers have a right to protect the copyrighted content they fund and create.  An intelligent, dynamic, agreed value exchange protects both parties and grows visitor relationships over time. For a given publisher, one visitor may be OK turning off their adblocker, another visitor may prefer ad-lite experiences, another visitor may prefer paying for ad-free.

LdJ: Your recent research says 76% of ad block users agree that publishers have a right to earn revenue to help support their content. How did that insight influence your holistic approach to revenue recovery?

DR: All things are better and possible through stronger relationships, in our business and personal lives.  Why should it be any different online? For the first couple decades of the Internet, publishers got away with little/no relationship with their visitors because they could attach ads to their content, without any explicit agreement to that value exchange.

"The key for digital publishers to avoid their own Kübler-Ross stages of grief and loss is to get ahead of the visitor empowerment curve with their own access control and Visitor Relationship Management. Internet innovation empowers all. Just as visitors have a right to protect themselves from bad ad experiences and privacy practices, publishers have a right to protect the copyrighted content they fund and create."

That led to abuse from both sides: 1) publishers abusing visitors with bad ad experiences and 2) visitors abusing publishers with ad blockers. Early anti-adblock attempts like PageFair went out of business because they exacerbated the problem by trying to jam ads past the blockers via surprise ad reinsertion; annoying visitors by actively discouraging engagement, consent and relationship-building. We took the opposite path, pioneering engagement and consent-based access control—allowing both sides to protect themselves and grow a trust-based relationship.

In the process, we found that visitors wanted to reward the publishers they visit—via whitelisting, custom ad experiences, email subscription, privacy consent, social follows, paid subscriptions for premium content or ad-free experiences and more. That’s where this next wave—VRM—is going. Although VRM started by offering alternatives to adblockers, it’s now grown into a relationship-focused approach for all visitors, whether they use adblockers or not.

All that said, at heart VRM is focused on respecting visitors as people, not statistics. Relationships matter, so start engaging.

LdJ: Can you explain a little more about what VRM means in terms of negotiating new value exchanges with visitors?

DR:  Visitor Relationship Management presents an opportunity for quality publishers to stop thinking in vertical, siloed ways about competing adtech, data, privacy and audience fiefdoms and priorities.  Instead, VRM is a horizontal approach to thinking about the visitor relationship, revenue and experience. Instead of ten different tags, from ten different vendors, asking ten different things of visitors in clumsy overlapped ways that hurt relationships and revenue, publishers like NBC, PGA, RawStory and thousands more use Admiral VRM to streamline, target and coordinate visitor engagements to optimize the visitor experience from a single tag and dashboard.

Used to its fullest potential, VRM is the “Theory of Everything” that can bring together ad yield optimization, privacy consent, multi-dimensional metered paywalls and more. Relationships matter and relationships drive revenue.

When should a visitor get a privacy ask, a sponsor takeover, an ad-lite experience, an email ask, a social follow ask, a subscription ask and more?  VRM can tell you, or do it for you automatically, driven by relationships goals and ARPU (Average Revenue Per User or Visitor). Given that the ARPU of a subscriber can be orders of magnitude higher than the ARPU of an ad-supported visitor, optimizing the yield curve shouldn’t just be an adtech discipline. Optimizing by VRM opens your eyes to the full yield curve and diverse revenue potential of growing relationships.

LdJ: What about the privacy piece of the VRM framework?

DR: Privacy consent, for GDPR, CCPA, PIPEDA or the coming alphabet soup from other regulatory bodies, is a hugely disruptive force with potential impacts akin to regulatory adblockers. That said, privacy consent also comes back to visitor relationships.  In fact, privacy consent is at the core of a publisher’s relationship with their visitors. The strongest relationships are built on mutual trust. As such, privacy consent shouldn’t be a silo run by lawyers, separate from thinking about engagement across the full visitor relationship journey.

Admiral was an early participant in IAB efforts to help publishers with GDPR, launching one of the industry’s first CMPs with one of the largest tech publishers in the world — managing 70 sites across the EU and beyond. We learned a ton in the process, including how privacy consent fits with a publisher’s overall VRM strategy.  Getting compliant shouldn’t just be a checkbox exercise to minimize risk. Done right, with VRM in mind, GDPR/CCPA privacy compliance can actually be a revenue driver for a digital publisher and the cornerstone of a strong, sustainable, long-term relationship.