NEWSFLASH: In digital advertising, less really is more

According to today’s Wall Street Journal, digital publishers are waking up to the undeniable reality that digital display advertising is a train wreck, causing grief for users and bringing little to no value to advertisers. No wonder, then, that in this ridiculously cluttered marketplace, revenues for digital display are crashing for publishers.

Publishers brought this on themselves. Instead of valuing their content and their users’ time and attention, they loaded up pages with banners, pop-overs, pre-rolls. And tracking scripts. Lots and lots of tracking scripts.

Aggressive and spammy ad tactics have helped drive an increase in consumer adoption of ad-blocking technologies in recent years, some industry observers say. Publishers may also be trying to get ahead of Google’s plans to introduce an ad “filter” to its popular Chrome web browser early next year, which could block interstitials, autoplay video ads and other formats from loading by default.

Publisher Little Things has been paring down its ad-load, quarter by quarter, both as a user experience improvement, but also as a method of increasing scarcity and, thus, driving up revenue over time. (Though they still have a ways to go. Their homepage has a giant roll-down ad space.)

The result: There are now fewer ads on each page, and the website generates less revenue from each individual page that users view. But overall ad revenue has increased.

 

“Users view more pages, share more content and are generally more engaged,” said Justin Festa, chief digital officer at LittleThings. He said revenue generated from each user’s session grew 38% in June, compared with a year earlier.

Less is more was the admirable (and, for some time, profitable) philosophy behind digital advertising network The Deck, which, for years, quietly proved this hypothesis, largely with nobody from the wider digital advertising community noticing.

Their model was simple:

  • Put one visually pleasing ad on a page.
  • Charge a fair price for it.
  • Allow advertisers and customers to find each other.

According to what sites in The Deck network reported publicly, it worked. Money flowed in and advertisers were happy.

For The Deck, though, there wasn’t a happy ending. After years of financial success, The Deck’s philosophy of simplicity collided with digital advertising’s increasingly manic push to ad more and more spots to a page. Deck founder Jim Coudal explains:

Things change. In 2014, display advertisers started concentrating on large, walled, social networks. The indie “blogosphere” was disappearing. Mobile impressions, which produce significantly fewer clicks and engagements, began to really dominate the market. Invasive user tracking (which we refused to do) and all that came with that became pervasive, and once again The Deck was back to being a pretty good business. By 2015, it was an OK business and, by the second half of 2016, the network was beginning to struggle again.

With the exit of The Deck, popular sites that counted on it for revenue were left to figure out a new path. The largest of these, John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, just announced what the replacement is. And it looks a whole lot like The Deck, only simpler, if that’s even possible. Gruber explains:

After the Deck Network closed at the end of March, I spent a long while thinking about what I could do to replace it. I’m a slow thinker.

 

What I finally decided was the most obvious replacement possible: selling Deck-like ads on my own, directly to advertisers…

The result is a revenue stream for the site that allows advertisers to stand out on the page due to the simple fact that they’re not competing with up to a dozen other messages as they might on other sites.

The ads are relatively small, but I am confident they are more noticeable in a non-objectionable way than ads on just about any other website in the world. The ads on Daring Fireball stand out without being the least bit obtrusive. That’s the sweet spot for ads, in my opinion.

 

For readers, these are ads that, again, are visually unobjectionable, and which offer the most privacy you could hope for. Not only is there no tracking involved, there is no JavaScript involved. They’re just images, text, and HTML links.

Glad to see the spirit of The Deck live on. And I’m really glad to see experimentation happening that brings value to advertisers and customers by respecting them both.

Maybe there’s still hope for digital display advertising.

Tim Windsor