Where User Experience and Ad Ops Collide

Finding the Balance Between Monetization and Experience

The latest wave of advertising is giving me some chilling flashbacks to the age of endless animated MySpace banners, pop-unders and other horrors of the aughts. Instead of learning from that assault of awfulness, digital advertising has somehow grown more intrusive and annoying – in-feed units, auto-play video (with sound?!?!), auto-expanding banners, oh my.

With an ever-increasing amount of Internet users consuming more digital content than ever on a plethora of devices, ire towards advertising is greater than ever. Not only are users irritated by the advertising, they’re worried that page bloat is affecting their mobile data usage and more concerned than ever about malware. Their response has been severe: an Adobe/PageFair report says 45 million American Internet users are actively employing some kind of ad blocking software, an increase of 48% from the year before.

Since the dawn of digital advertising, ops has been publishers’ gatekeeper, offering entry to the site only for advertisers and creative that met a certain standard. Being the gatekeeper has only become harder as transaction technology has improved – or at least grown more complex – and digital advertising formats have evolved (think video and native). Imagine the castle structure has a bunch of secret entrances, while bandits with invisible cloaks climb over the wall. These ruffians and ne’er-do-wells are chasing out the good townspeople – that would be your audience.

Ad Security and Verification solutions to ensure a clean, safe & engaging user experience.

We’ve called it “quality assurance” in the past, but ad operations’ role seems to have expanded so that user experience may be as important as monetization. Well, actually the two are related: Your job as an ops professional may be to increase revenue, but if your methods prove detrimental to site experience and drive away users, you’re ultimately sacrificing revenue by depleting audience. On the other hand, facilitating well-targeted, unobtrusive advertising may please and even build your audience; help you identify influencers; and certainly make your advertisers happy campers.

Ultimately, ops should stand tall as the advocate for user experience when it comes to publisher advertising efforts.

Safety First 

Malvertising – advertising hosting malware – is, always has been and probably will continue to be threat no. 1 to user experience. If your user leaves a site with a nasty piece of code delivered by an ad, then ops has failed in its role as gatekeeper.

While desktop Internet is still rife with malware, particularly through toolbar downloads and the like, the new frontier for fraudsters is mobile. Here malware can take over operating systems, run applications in the background to garner fraudulent ad views, and suck up user data and battery. All kinds of data can be siphoned from the most personal of connected devices, and the increase of mobile commerce could prove a wonderland for fraudsters. Mobile malvertising can present a major quandary for publishers because programmatic channels – a major source of malvertising – are proving to be effective in monetizing hard-to-sell mobile inventory.

Malware can be delivered through advertising in many ways – through direct-sold campaigns, indirectly-sold ads from exchanges or networks, creative and tags. I’m sure some publishers are reading this and thinking, “Danger everywhere! I’m never letting a piece of third-party advertising on my site again!” There’s no need to panic – malware prevention is a matter of diligently executing a multiprong defense strategy. Some key aspects:

  • Most ad servers have tools that constantly scan creative for malicious code; make sure you are confident in your provider’s ability. An ongoing process is essential as code can be modified throughout a campaign
  • Just like “Indecent Proposal,” sales should be wary of mysterious strangers offering impressive sums. (“You want to do WHAT with my site?”) New and unknown advertisers approaching the site must be vetted, which means making sure their domains and email addresses are legitimate. Red flags should go up if the potential advertiser’s site is hosted in a different country than the company is based, or if the domain registrant’s contact information is hidden or suspect.
  • As malware can be delivered via tags, publishers need some kind of scanning software constantly monitoring code through whatever channel it enters the site. The provider must be able to warn you of malware in real-time or actually block the malicious code from appearing on the site.
  • Develop certification programs for any third-party vendor your advertisers use. You won’t be able to evaluate every provider your advertisers throw at you, but a majority is better than none.

If malware does sneak through, first ops must be able to identify where it’s coming from and shut down the source. Customer service should have a response plan in place and a list of questions to ask users to assist in finding the malware. All departments within the publisher should be notified of the breach and updated regularly on the response.

Sure, after a malware attack many a major publishing brand can say, “Oops, really sorry about that, won’t happen again” and win back infected users, but what about up-and-coming publishers that don’t boast household names? Once users realize where the malware came from, you can kiss that audience goodbye. Preventive measures are imperative.

How Many Ads Are Too Many?

In the dystopian future comedy “Idiocracy,” characters watch TV from a barcalounger decked out with both feeding tubes and a built-in toilet. While the TV screen is gigantic, the actual portion used for content is small, bordered by an armada of animated ads.

As the film came out in the MySpace era and right before the rise of content farms, “Idiocracy’s” vision seemed like a reasonable prediction for the future of advertising. MySpace’s user exodus (to a platform called Facebook, which originally had no advertising, then a little advertising, then a little more…) showed that consumers could reach a tipping point when it came to ad loads, and the majority of the industry turned it down a notch. Once again, we seem to be heading toward the limit of user patience – this time thanks to the mobile web.

A recent story on the Verge criticizing the quality of mobile web browsers was rebutted by savvy users noting that 9.5 MB were needed to load that particular page for 8 KB of content (text). Six MB were deemed “bloat,” or material unrelated to the article – you can bet a good deal of that is advertising. Certainly mobile data has become cheaper, but it’s still a limited and relished amount. Apple opening the door for ad blocking in the upcoming version of Safari could potentially save users huge chunks of data… while draining publisher revenue in a channel that’s already suffering.

In addition, the fade of Flash means an influx of HTML5 units, which tend to be large – the IAB specifications currently out for public comment top initial file load off at 200K, with a maximum of 15 http requests. These ads will load slower, potentially playing hell with viewability measurement. While asynchronous loading will help matters, heavy ad loads will weigh down a page, making for worse user experience.

As explained by StudyBreak Media’s Emry Downinghall last year, increasing the amount of ads on a page is not a sure-fire revenue generator. Beyond yield analysis, ops must keep user experience in mind when deciding how many ads to place on a page. The growing use of ad blockers, concern over mobile bloat and the rise of HTML5 creative all suggest a fluctuating level of consumer ad tolerance. This is even more apparent when it comes to actual units.

Let the Right Ones In

Here’s an easy way to tell you have an ad-based user experience problem: users are taking to social media or contacting you directly to say how much they hate the ads running on your site. Social media may often seem like an infinite echo chamber of bitching, but if an ad distracts a user from your content to the point they’ll tweet about it, you’ve got an issue.

However, you also have to analyze why users hate the ad in question – is it specific creative, or the unit itself?

One way to avoid such crises is taking a firm stand on which type of units you’ll actually allow on your site. And this is mainly about gut feel – as a user, what annoys you? What kinds of ads do you see on other sites that make you squirm at the possibility of being on yours? Expandable banners, autoplay video, outstream video, insterstitials, in-banner video etc. – what’s worthy of your site, your audience? The site is your baby, and you’re not gonna let anything or everything run on your baby.

Gather the stakeholders for discussion and develop a list of banned units. You’ll need to get buy in from higher powers. Salespeople – and ops for that matter – can be blinded by CPMs; they will want to appease their best clients even if it means subjecting your audience to terrible advertising. Especially as indirect revenue hauls mount into serious money, ops can get greedy and consider letting all kinds of junk in the door.

You have to stay hard and fast to your list, your principles. A handy tool that all ops should consider keeping is a “bad ad file.” Anytime you see a particularly egregious piece of creative, save it with a screenshot or even record it. When a salesperson comes your way boasting of an amazing deal that might have some kinda obtrusive creative, you can look to your file for an example of a similar unit backfiring. It may not be enough to kill the deal, but it’s better to have ammunition when defending user experience. From my anecdotal research, rarely was a CPM so good that it negated user experience.

However, user opinions change with time and the adoption of technology. Consider the amount of balking and exits Facebook witnessed when it first announced its ad product. The site still boasts more than a billion users as its ad offerings have grown (and arguably become more intrusive). Your list of banned units must be regularly evaluated; some types of units may become generally accepted over time, while others that are tolerated today may fall seriously out of favor.

Programmatic Conundrum

Sometimes a banned unit list isn’t enough to stop said units from appearing on your site. While on the direct side creative can be evaluated before it goes live, programmatic channels rarely afford ops a chance to screen what’s coming through. Sure, you can tell your SSPs not to allow auto-expandables or other off-limit units, but they have ways of sneaking through.

It’s not that the exchanges and various programmatic players are purposefully out to mess with your user experience: In most cases, they too are getting played. While publishers can’t tell when SSPs or exchanges ignored restrictions, bidders also trick exchanges by masking creative – for example, a piece of autoplay video may appear as a no-frills 300×250.

These issues are not specific to a single exchange – all players in the programmatic space are trying to slash bad actors to various degrees. However, publishers are increasingly employing more SSPs and other demand sources to drive revenue – with more players come more problems, and potentially more abusive creative landing on the site.

Of course, scanners can be used to detect illicit units as well as malware, but blocking creative can be challenging. And the more creative you have to block, the more revenue you’re missing out on. Sometimes it can be more effective to simply pause demand sources and let them deal with the culprit(s).

This means it’s essential you have relationships with your demand partners that are more than skin deep. You’re not going to be able to work quality assurance with a demand partner if there’s no communication. Beyond screen shots, you’ll need to supply code to help your partners identify bad actors. And you’ll have to be able to be able to show the trail – e.g., partner A might have passed the creative to Partner B and Partner C was wrapped in…

Ultimately, you must be vigilant in monitoring your indirect channels. As viewability and programmatic concerns have highlighted yield practices, some publishers have gone as far as installing teams to make sure only quality ads are coming through – no exceptions. Pubs with fewer resources need to be more creative. For example, one publisher mentioned that once a week, 30 minutes is put aside for the entire ops team to observe all the ads coming through the site and note if suspicious material creeps in.

Don’t Let the Ads Run Users Off

The Internet is vast, and content is abundant and repetitive. Many sites have struggled to install paywalls because users are damn good at hunting down similar content elsewhere that they can access without opening their wallets. (It ain’t free, as I’ve pointed out before.) Thus bad advertising can also drive users away to other sites with similar content. Certainly miffed users are not going to become regular visitors, and they’re not going to share your content, one industry resource notes.

Beyond making advertising work, the role of ad ops is to increase revenue (particularly through indirect-sold channels). But if you’re doing that at the expense of user experience by letting in intrusive units, shoddy creative and (heaven forbid) malware, those gains will be as short as short-term gets. Not only will a jilted user leave your site and forget its address, he/she also won’t recommend it to friends or the Internet at large.

You don’t want to build your revenue around impressions, but audience. Ops’ goal should not be to monetize a user only once, but encourage multiple visits. Wait, isn’t that content’s job? Of course, but knowledgeable advertising catered to audiences (or even specific users) can buoy a site’s reputation and possibly build an influencer network.

The operations role in digital advertising continues to expand and become increasingly complex. However, technological development show that revenue and user experience are highly connected – ops will need the help of partners to find the balance between the two.