COVID-19 is driving severe turbulence across the digital media space. Consumers aren’t behaving normally — by the pre-COVID-19 definition of ‘normal’ — and neither are advertisers. With global lockdown, shopping habits have changed and the effect on publishers is clear. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, online ad spend is down 33%, and PubGalaxy analysis shows that in some sectors the dip in ad spend has reached up to 48%.
This doesn’t, however, mean every opportunity is closed. It’s rare for any publisher to focus purely on revenue from one campaign vertical, and they can still navigate their way through — if they keep a steady hand on the wheel. While some major advertisers have halted investment, others, including Unilever, are finding the potential to increase their reach with dynamic spending and creative reallocation.
Where possible, publishers need to follow this adaptive example. In periods of crisis, those who thrive are often the ones that focus on action, taking small steps to adjust their activity for the best possible results now and greater future success. A proactive mindset can make a big impact.
1. Embrace the Chance for Experimentation
Digital media finds itself in a unique position, with some publishers seeing big increases in online traffic, but lower ad revenue, and others not faring well on either front. Yet there are familiar elements in these circumstances. The first few months of any year often see a dip in advertising, with the summer also especially quiet for some. What makes the situation different is that it’s unknown when the coronavirus-driven shifts will end or what will happen afterwards. But the benefit of unusual conditions is that they present an opportunity to experiment with new, and even better, ways of working.
With floor prices for programmatic inventory undergoing significant fluctuation, revenue is already disrupted, and the risk of adapting practices is lower. Now might be the ideal chance for a spring clean and refresh, such as pausing formats yielding low CPMs and trialing new ad types. By adapting standard supply and analyzing the impact on bidding and CPMs, publishers might discover they can drive higher revenue by mixing up the norm.
With visits to digital sites also at an all-time high, this could also be a good time for refining user experience. Maintaining strong traffic is always a priority, and evaluating the effect of minor tweaks in UX and user interface design could help draw larger audiences and pave the way for increased audience engagement after the storm passes – provided that overall site usability, content sentiment, and publication values remain consistent.
It almost goes without saying that testing should align with current profitability. If a publisher’s ad income is going strong, or remaining stable, then continuing the strategies that are working best is the right course of action; these publishers can save any spring cleaning for another time.
2. Pivot Toward Steady Programmatic Demand
Alongside testing, it will still be important for publishers to sustain steady demand, and this is likely to mean fine-tuning their programmatic set-up to accommodate buyer requirements. As a starting point, focus on optimizing pricing models.
For instance, campaigns focused on tangible performance — such as cost per click, cost per lead, or cost per acquisition — are usually stable during economic uncertainty, as advertisers are assured that they will only pay for engaged audiences and fuel strong returns. By opening up inventory to action-based demand sources such as Google AdWords, publishers can tap this reliable buyer interest. The added advantage being that any falls in demand will quickly be made up by the constant influx of new small businesses to the marketplace.
Publishers can also further boost appeal by configuring supply to suit performance metrics, particularly clicks. By pinpointing the ad sizes and placements that tend to fuel the highest click rates, as well as avoiding intrusion for audiences, publishers can increase availability of the inventory buyers are most likely to want. While, of course, carefully managing factors such as ad refreshing, which isn’t functional with AdWords. In addition, because ads must be viewable for 14 seconds on average to actually be seen and consequently clicked, auto-refreshing is best kept for areas of publisher sites that aren’t linked with action-centric demand.
3. Divide and Conquer to Boost SSP Value
In the face of a market downturn, it can be tempting for publishers to try to capture more buyers by integrating with as many supply-side platforms (SSPs) as possible. This tactic, however, brings sizable disadvantages; each new SSP will make their advertising stack heavier, which translates to increased lag for buyers that will fuel frustration and lost yield.
But this doesn’t veto all expansion; publishers just need to prioritize quality over quantity. Instead of aiming for maximum SSP plug-ins, the wisest move is enlisting a select group of specialists. By separating traffic into defined segments and trialing providers, publishers can determine which SSP delivers the best results for specific inventory. From there, they can then build smarter ad operations that make the most of varied demand for tailored supply, without additional complications and weight.
Publishers should also consider the high probability that there will be ongoing changes in regional ad spend during COVID-19 disruption. This makes it advisable to divide segmentation and platform configurations by country on a more granular level so that adjustments can be made rapidly and easily.
4. Keep Digital Media Content On Trend
Last but not least is optimizing digital media content itself. Recent PubGalaxy data evaluation has also found that alongside falls in ad spend for certain sectors — especially travel, occasion, and gifting-focused companies — there is uplift in several others that has helped stabilize total revenue. This includes categories such as computers and electronics (+9.71%), beauty and personal care (+6.57%), internet and telecom (+5.77%), and home and garden (+4.34%).
Of course, each publication has its particular focus and not all will match these exact topics. But shifting content creation in line with buying trends, as well as profitable ad formats, could place publishers in a stronger position to capitalize on market changes. By analyzing site yield to see which content categories are attracting the most ad spend, they can scale up production to harness current demand and make efficient use of internal resources while keeping ad dollars flowing.
There is no cover-all method for surviving market turmoil, but one thing is for sure: Adaptation will be essential for publishers. With constant twists and turns in buyer behavior, the supply-side must work to keep ad revenue consistent with a smart mix of experimentation, agile operations, and dependable demand. By exploring new opportunities, moving with buyer needs, and making the most of their assets, publishers can stay on the right course for success through COVID-19 and beyond into the new digital media scape, whatever form it takes.
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Lou Carpino is VP Publisher Development, North America at PubGalaxy, where his skills in creating data-driven strategies and leveraging smart tools play a vital part in optimising yield with quality ads and expanding operations. Carpino has over 15 years experience across the technology and publishing sectors, including positions at Bloomberg LP and Go Digital Media. He has also been appointed to the Luxury Marketing Council advisory board, earned membership of the New York Advertising Council and acted as a consultant for well-known brands, in addition to co-founding his own predictive and contextual search company, Hindsight.