If you are in digital publishing business and putting your best efforts on revenue optimisation, this might be for you.

Being an online publisher is harder than ever. Facebook is changing its newsfeed algorithm everyday, GDPR has been introduced in the European Economic Area (with uncertainties for many), who knows what’s going to happen in the USA and following countries in the upcoming months.

It’s commonly accepted that every publisher must be aiming for more traffic by chasing new users and multiplying their traffic sources at the same time but, isn’t this the famous chicken and egg problem we’re all facing? There’s also the fact that video is taking over the internet through all formats and devices, and we’ve already put all of our good resources into making high quality video content anyway? Right?

The way I approach at this issue is different, and perhaps I can prove this to you. I believe that once you have an audience that is following you and consuming your content for the right reasons, you may not have to chase new users every single day.

Here’s why: There are so many good video SSPs and programmatic ad partners out there, there’s definitely one that’s a perfect match for you.

Once I started working with Racoon Media (I made up this name for the sake of privacy) we had a video unit that was intrusive, distracting for the user, quite large in format, so all of the negative aspects you can pick for a video partner, and yet, it was not making substantial revenue. I mean, imagine you’re providing your ad partner good viewability to display their ads, with good traffic volume each day (coming from T1 countries like USA, UK, Canada), and your partner is providing about 50-60k video ad impressions, although you’re seeing $2 CPMs with $100 revenue in return. I’m sorry to say but this is truly BS.

You should be avoiding seasonality for these tests.

First step would be to negotiate with video partners to run a test period. I’ve spoken and done tests with so many of them over the last year including Unruly, Truvid, Playbuzz, Primis, AnyClip, Taboola (even if it’s not their core business, they still do video) and they’re going to say how many publishers they work with at the same time, and how much money they’re helping them make. Put all of these to the side because it’s really about seeing if they can monetize ‘your’ traffic.

The way we started was, we picked a partner, signed a test deal, received the codes and implemented to be seen on all content pages (excluding category pages and custom designed pages). We had a test environment so it’s always good to see how the video screen fits your own UI and content before pushing to live. Once we were happy about the look & feel, we ran a 10 day test to see how it brings in the numbers. (I’ll later on write a detailed post on the most important things to consider and metrics to keep an eye on during these tests. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading that.)

If you’re in a situation that you’d not be comfortable to run this test across all of your site, that’s fine, we’ve tested that too. While we were testing a certain partner, we picked a category, and implemented the code only to be seen across the pages that belong to that category. This way, you’ll see less ads ran across less PVs, although this is definitely a safer way in terms of sustaining your existing daily revenue routine.

There’s also the fact that you should be avoiding seasonality for these tests. So avoid beginning / end of a quarter, avoid shopping season (Nov-Jan), and I’d also avoid Jan-Feb since the ad partner might be recovering from a financial year opening, so might not be showing full potential. The best times are May-June, Aug-Sep, but any 10 days you may find in between would also do.

I’ll keep this short and jump to the numbers. Over a year of constant partner testing, this was the summary result we had:

Data and image credit: baybarsumur.com

That’s already a 120% increase from the video revenue we are making. I believe this is not too bad for a 12 month period.

Next? Finding a solid Programmatic Display Advertising and Native Content partner.

Choosing A Native Content Ad Partner

Let’s continue with native. You’ve probably already heard Taboola and Outbrain. Those are the two giants of native ad industry. If you would like to find out more about how content marketing business works, here’s a great article by Investopedia.

CNN prefers Outbrain’s Smartfeed format

How big is Taboola? or Outbrain? According to ComScore, Taboola reaches more desktop users in the US than Facebook. Now that’s huge. We’re talking about 150 billion monthly recommendations.

What I personally think does not matter at all

Jumping to the revenue optimisation process we’ve had, there’s really not much you can do other than 1-Trying alternative partners like Runative, Revcontent etc. and see if their content ads are a good match to your audience, 2-Trying alternative layout format options within a partner.

First we tried the infinity scroll with Taboola for a long time. They suggested it was the best way to maximize revenue, and that was main focus at the time. It’s that format that keeps on loading new content as the user scrolls down. For me personally it’s really annoying, especially if I’m on mobile. I’ve always felt a bit cheated by those even though many legacy publishers with legitimate content prefer it.

Although what I personally think does not matter at all. What matters the most is what your users think.

Again for us it was revenue first, but obviously we listened to our users, and the moment we had a negative comment we decided to stop and move to the 3×2 format. That means there’re only going to be 6 paid ads shown for each content page, so lower impressions, lower clicks, lower revenue?

Do not compare the numbers you have from weeks or months before to what you have today.

Doesn’t have to be. With Taboola we saw an immediate dip with ad impressions and daily revenue, although once we tried Outbrain with the same format, that wasn’t the case at all. This part is important: In order to make the best comparison test between partners, be careful to always compare apple to apple. So if you’re testing a 3×2 with Taboola, go ahead and test the same 3×2 with Outbrain right after, or if you can, at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, since this is all about seasonality, and the ad management power of your partner, do not compare the numbers you have from weeks or monhts before to what you have now. This can only lead you to confusion.

We tried a test run with Runative, then immediately stopped the tests on the 3rd day. It wasn’t just the quality of the ads, but we were expecting them to be more parallel to our own content, and at that moment the ads shown were really irrelevant, resulting with low CTRs, and low daily revenue. I guess our audience just didn’t like seeing them.

So in a summary, you need to concentrate on:

  • How related the content ads are to your own content, and if your audience find them interesting enough to click.
  • If the content ads are parallel to your brand’s guidelines, meaning; are you okay to see ads from any category? Gaming, real estate etc.?
  • Even if you get a good CTR, could the partner monetize those impressions and clicks, and bring you good daily revenue?

After we tested Taboola vs. Outbrain vs. Runative, Outbrain was the partner that fit best to all of these constraints we had, thus we decided to continue with Outbrain. Does that mean Outbrain is better than Taboola? Nope. It means it was better for us for the time being.

Before, we were seeing less than $100/day with 100k daily ad impressions, and this is what we had after the tests:

Looking at this graph, if you’ve spent enough time in this industry, you should be immediately thinking -Hold on a second, how’s that January number higher than December? Well, that’s for another blog post, but in short, that can be attributed to the ad management strategy of Outbrain.

Choosing A Programmatic Ad Partner

The next and the last bit is to run tests with your display ad management partner. (Please keep in mind these are not done in order, please do share your thoughts if you believe there’s value in trying in any order.) If you’re already using Google Ad Manager (previously Doubleclick for Publishers / DFP) or a similar solution in house, then you may stop here, because the next part is for publishers who’s recently abandoned AdSense with the dream of making higher revenue through programmatic, although still not big enough to hire an in-house programmatic specialist.

I’d say programmatic as the business space is still new and evolving even though we’ve been talking about it over the last 4-5 years. That means there are new partners, new layers, new technologies in the game every day. That’s not necessarily a good thing, a recent study by Warc claims that only 40% of advertisers’ ad spending is reaching to the pockets of publishers.

That being said, we were initially in contact with PubGalaxy, back in 2016. Then, we had no clue what value they might bring to the table, so we didn’t have an agreement and later on started working with Freestar. Meanwhile, we had discussions with Sovrn, Ezoic and similar, in order to discover if they have something similar to offer. I’d recommend getting in touch with all of them.

Here’s what happened: Freestar initially was pushing for higher CPMs with the existing units we have. They suggested we should be testing different ad units (both size & location) in order to find a perfect balance. I agree, it is important to test different ad sizes, in different locations. Ezoic even has an AI based product automatically doing that for you. We haven’t had the chance to try that but ended up doing it manually.

It’s also important to have solid consultancy and in this case, Freestar’s team was doing their best over emails and regular Skype calls.

Although as always, this is all about overall strategy, and the more research we started doing, the more data we felt the need to have a look at, and honestly Freestar’a dashboard wasn’t helping us much on that area. We felt like we didn’t have enough knowledge of what’s going on, on ad unit basis.

That’s why we started looking once again, and decided to try PubGalaxy this time. They offered a different scenario, their strategy was to first take a look at the ad units we have, how many ad impressions they were generating per day, what would our PageRPM be, how would that effect overall CPMs and so on.

Initially, we took a long time (about 2 weeks) deciding which ad units to keep and which ones to abandon. This is always a hard decision because you need to work with UI/UX and do a certain level of development to maintain your site at the same time. You can’t just click a button and replace an ad unit (Although that would have been awesome!). A healthy recommendation we had from PugGalaxy was to keep a max. of 5-6 ad units per page (which worked out quite alright, as you’ll see). More units might make the site heavier thus delay the page load times, and less might cut down daily impressions thus daily revenue. No we don’t want that.

What might be a good way of keeping 5-6 units and making more revenue? 1-Serving better ads with higher CPMs (that doesn’t happen over night, it needs a LOT of work on content, product, social, audience management etc.) 2-Serving MORE ads through that single unit.

The second one sounds like a more obvious (and immediate) solution and PubGalaxy was a real pro on this part, they managed a standard auto-refresh period for the units (yes we know, everybody’s doing it) although the magical part was to keep the ad quality for the refreshed ads, without harming the loading speed, ending up with filling the remnant inventory we had to its potential. What happens is; you end up serving more ads, through the same units, and if you’re lucky enough to have users reading your content for more than 60 seconds, you’ll serve enough ads to monetize that single page.

Power BI’s Dashboard for Ad Unit Level Data

Next, we started taking a close look on ad unit level data. It’s obviously not all about stacking ads as much as you can. It’s a combination of a lot of metrics, and the metrics that matter the most are: Viewability %, Fill Rate %, Viewable time, Revenue per unit, and eCPM per unit.

It’s interesting to realize that a sticky unit that you have on the mobile site for 100% of the time even doesn’t have a 100% viewability rate. Similarly, you’d automatically think that the billboard on top of the desktop site should have the highest fill rate or CPM but it’s really about that demand on that particular millisecond that ad’s being shown.

So if you’re keen to work in programmatic, you should be aware it’s a tough job in terms of the learning curve. The more time you spend, the more value you and your business will receive.

To jump quickly to the conclusion, here is what it looked like on the revenue sheet:

Again, it’s been a substantial increase over a 6 month period. What’s more is that the daily earning routine has become uniform, so no surprises unless we have a dip or spike in traffic, or seasonality effects.

If I have to say 2 things to summarise this whole post:

1-Pick a good partner that genuinely takes care of you and your content.

2-Never stop testing because you have nothing to lose but each test will teach you something new.

You’re a superhero if you’ve read until here, so please take one more step to comment & share your feedbacks and let’s keep the conversation going. Peace!

Published by Baybars Umur

Marketing and Business Development Expert.

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