The holy grail, Part 2

THOUGHTFUL content folks—writers, photographers, designers, editors and publishers—are engaged in an Arthurian quest for a business model that will support digital publications. The problem is that advertising is just not paying the bill, and readers aren’t ready to pay for content (as discussed in Part 1).

To recap, there is a Gresham’s Law of the Web: Unlimited inventory, combined with an anachronistic understanding of advertising as “space,” causes cheap ads to drive out the good. This has damaged the design of content web sites, and is poised to destroy the content apps on the iPad. There are two obvious prescriptions for this malady. First, greatly reduce the number of ad positions. Then, charge more for ads.

The way to do this is to create sponsor relationships with special packages, not the hideous network advertising that repels readers. To drive engagement, a package needs to be truly interactive. It has to attract readers, and then get them more involved in the sponsor’s product. A good example in current experience is the Camry campaign Toyota is running in The Sporting News, the Treesaver publication that began as an iPad app. (You can see them in the web edition beta, or go to the App Store.) Jeff Price, the energetic, perceptive publisher of Sporting News, made it possible for a single buy across platforms—the iPad app and for browsers on the desktop, laptop, and smartphone. (Hell, it works pretty well on the Kindle Fire—without advance testing.)

Toyota ads on The Sporting News
Toyota’s ad adapts to an Android phone, and in an iPad app.

Cue the Prelude to Parsifal. Saatchi, Toyota’s agency, didn’t just run an iPad campaign. They linked the ads to current web pages where you can get prices and “build your own” Camry.

Toyota's links to the web on an Android phone and an iPad
The ad links to adaptive pages on Toyota’s site.

If you are working with Treesaver or a building a more conventional web site that uses responsive or adaptive style sheets, like, you are creating one HTML publication that works on every size screen, on every device that has a current browser. The code is not trivial. New platforms emerge frequently (now the Amazon Fire’s Silk, next year a new one for Windows tablets), and there is an ongoing production effort needed to ready images and video for different sizes and OS/browser combinations.

Once you’ve figure all that out, you have a publication that goes everywhere, everywhere readers might be—onto their phones, their tablets, their laptops, and their desktop computers. As the Financial Times has discovered (although so far only for iOS browsers), this is a much better solution than building separate apps for each device, and keeping them updated. (Of course, web publications have support issues, too. There are always new versions of browsers, most recently Firefox, that change the way the HTML is rendered. And, worse, users expect any old browser should work, like their IE 7 sitting on XP. Geesh.)

The missing link is advertising. So far as I know, there is no ad network that serves desktop, mobile and tablet web ads at the same time, with the same insertion order. Doubleclick, owned by Google, handles iPad ads, as well as conventional web ads. Admob, also Google, sends ads to all the mobile browsers and different apps. But there is no single way to buy and insert adaptive ads across the platforms. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which has worked over the years to promote standard sizes for ads for the desktop web, doesn’t even list mobile ad sizes with its web ad units, offering only a PDF with “prevailing” sizes.

You see this confusion on all the sites and apps of big publications like The New York Times. Check it out, the ads are all different. That could be on purpose, but I doubt it. On the iPad, there were (when I wrote this) a bunch of LogMeIn ads, in a sponsorship play typical of their app. Okay! But, on the Android app on an HTC Evo, there is a tiny banner for the Cleveland Clinic. On the iPhone app, I didn’t get any ads at all—until a story was interrupted by a full-screen ad for American Airlines. Yay! But it was a pop-up with a deliberate “close” button, not a magazine style ad that you could just swipe past if you weren’t interested. 

The Times’ web site does not adapt to different sizes, so you get all the ads on every browser web. (To my relief, The Times doesn’t suggest you go to their mobile app when you are coming in on a phone, but maybe they set a cookie and know I have them.) You have to pinch and zoom, and the big leaderboards are nearly illegible unless you do. One wonders, however, if they still get get the full analytics from the web browsers—page views and all the requisite clicks that have made web design so ugly.

Toyota’s agency, Saatchi, is using adaptive web design to get the same ads to work at different sizes on The Sporting News. They link gracefully to adaptive pages on their web site. In addition to full-page or full-screen ads they’re running 300 x 250 pixel ads, a standard IAB “interactive marketing unit,” in this campaign. These also link to details on the site. (Note, those ads work fine on mobile, until you turn the phone sideways.) I suppose you could fall-back to the next sized down, 180 x 150. It’s proportional, but it’s 60 percent of the larger rectangle, and thus like IAB units in general, not on any grid. So, float it!

So what’s holding us up from making truly adaptive or responsive advertising across the platforms?

Quick aside: And what do we mean by adaptive and responsive anyway? In my lexicon, adaptive means a design that adjusts the layout while staying on a grid, and responsive means design that adjusts to any screen size. Scott Kellum, the design director at Treesaver, has made a demo for a truly responsive ad. The grid works from the biggest to the smallest screens, portrait and landscape. If you adjust your browser window size, the code smoothly refits the ad while you are changing the size.

It is too much to expect that the different advertising factions—clients, publishers, agencies, brokers and networks—will agree anytime soon on a multi-platform strategy, never mind develop truly responsive assets. What I am hoping for is that they will settle on the same basic column widths, preferably 300px so it fits on a phone. The need for standard cross-platform sizes suggests that the term here is adaptive sites, not fully responsive.

Mark Boulton, a British web designer, summed up the issues involved in a useful and comprehensive post on his site.

  • Web advertising is a whole other industry.
  • Ad units are fixed, standardised sizes.
  • They are commissioned, sold and created on the basis of their size and position on the page
  • Many ads are rich (including takeovers, video, pop-overs, flyouts and interactions)

The first point is that the ad side of the web is unfortunately separated from the publishing and tech sides, and we need more communication. On the web, advertising has followed the print CPM model, whereby audience and “impressions” trump good design and reader engagement. While advertising went its own way, the business model flew out the window.

The last point, rich advertising, is another artifact of the web ad glut. With sites filled with with crappy ads, advertisers pushed for attention-grabbing animated “take-overs” just as web sites started moving away from the balky browser-crashing Flash animations and toward simple, direct design that creates a connection with customers. We’ll see the crap fade away as soon as more adaptive formats are proven, the bankrupt web model is discarded, design starts favoring the users.

Boulton’s second and third points are the key to the ad world’s resistance to adaptive. Units are in fixed, standard sizes. This is a legacy of single-size page design, and the idea that a web page is “space” and we carve it up like an old newspaper. The client buys a web leaderboard (728 x 90) and a mobile leaderboard (320 x 50) as completely different orders. They are not even the same proportion. Without the sponsorship arrangement at The Sporting News, Toyota would have had to make at least two insertion orders for the same ads. Where is Google now that we need them?

Finally, there is the point about ads that are “sold and created on the basis of their size and position on the page.” This is tricky for adaptive ads, particularly in Treesaver, where there is no exact position and no exact page number. It’s all relative. A home page can have a bunch of ads on a desktop monitor, but obviously they won’t all fit on an iPhone. But if you sell sponsorships rather than spots, the exact position is not the point. The point is the connection with the reader.

And this is the holy grail. There are a few first steps:

  • Greatly reduce the number of ad positions
  • Charge more for ads
  • Sell cross-platform ads (web, tablet, mobile) with a single insertion order.

We’re talking about a whole new business structure, and these are just the pilings. Publishers will have to emphasize sponsorships and stop ruining their sites with network trash. Exclusive positions and cross-platform distribution and analytics justify higher pricers.

Still, we’ll have to work on the social layers for both promotion and feedback, and build great heuristics to make easier for readers to find what they are interested in. We’ll still need to watch the SEO, pay for external promotion including events—and offer subscriptions with real value. In other words, we have to keep improving the environment for readers, and advertisers. And, we’ll have to create wholly new advertising avails, like the digital equivalent of magazine outserts.

For it to work, we have to offer great stories. That’s what it comes back to: Wonderfully written, photographed and designed narratives about stuff that’s interesting. This is not a matter of “converting” magazines and newspapers to HTML5. It’s rethinking what we’ve done well in print, for the screen, on multiple platfroms. There must be new kind of design, as well as new technologies.

If we can make this change, then we’ll have an environment that encourages narrative, interactive advertising as well. And that, ultimately, can pay for it all.