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April 03 2013

10:33

What's Holding Back Responsive Web Design? Advertising

Responsive web design -- where "one design fits all devices" -- continues to gain momentum. Dozens of responsive sites have popped up, and a recent post on Idea Lab from Journalism Accelerator outlined how and why media sites should go responsive.

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But hold your horses. Despite the mounting hype, responsive websites are still far from becoming ubiquitous, and for good reason.

As much as responsive web design improves user experience and makes it easier for publishers to go cross-platform, the industry's struggle with delivering profitable ads during the first big shift from print to web is still happening. And in this second big shift to a responsive web, that struggle is magnified.

It Has To Look Different

The surface-level problem that a responsive-designed website poses for advertising is that ads are typically delivered in fixed dimensions (not proportional to the size of their container) and typically sold based on exact position. Initial solutions to this issue largely focus on making ads as flexible as the web page, i.e., selling ads in packages that include different sizes to fit all sorts of devices, rather than the traditional fixed-width slots, or making ads that are themselves responsive. Ad firm ResponsiveAds, for example, has come up with various strategies for making ads adjust to different screen sizes.

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These diagrams from ResponsiveAds show how display ads themselves can respond to different screen sizes.

But these approaches are not yet ideal. For example, when the Boston Globe went responsive in 2011, the site used just a few fixed-sized ads, placed in highly controlled positions that could then move around the page.

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Andrés Max, a software engineer and user experience designer at Mashable, told me via email: "In the end technology (and screen resolutions) will keep evolving, so we must create ads and websites that are more adaptive than responsive."

Here, he means that ads should adapt to the medium and device instead of just responding to set resolution break-points. After all, we might also need to scale up ads for websites accessed on smart TVs.

Miranda Mulligan, the executive director of the Knight Lab at Northwestern University and part of the team that helped the Globe transition to responsive, agrees. She told me via email, "We need a smarter ad serving system that can detect viewport sizes, device capability, and they should be set up to be highly structured, with tons of associated metadata to maximize flexibility for display."

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Moreover, many web ads today are rich media ads -- i.e., takeovers, video, pop-overs, etc. -- so incorporating these interactive rich ads goes beyond a flexibility in sizes. A lot of pressure is resting on designers and developers to innovate ad experiences for the future, but evolving tech tools can help clear a path for making interactive ads flexible and fluid. The arrival of HTML5 brought many helpful additions that aid in creating responsive sites in general.

"HTML5 does provide lots of room for innovation not only for responsive but for richer websites and online experiences," Max said. "For example, we will see a lot of use of the canvas concept for creating great online games and interactions."

Display Advertising Is Still Broken

In the iceberg of web advertising problems, what ads will look like on responsive sites is just the tip. According to Mulligan, a major underlying problem is still the lack of communication between publishing and advertising. The ad creation and delivery environment is infinitely complex. Publishers range from small to very large, and much of the web development code and creative visuals are made outside of the core web publishing team.

One of the problems is that there are so many moving parts and parties involved: ad networks that publishers subscribe to; ad servers that publishers own themselves; ad servers that publishers license from other companies; sales teams within large publishers; the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB); and more. The obligatory silos make it very hard for good communication and flexible results to transpire.

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The challenge of mobile advertising on responsive sites, Mulligan later said via phone, "has very little to do with the web design technique and has a lot to do with the fact that we have really complicated ways of getting revenue attached to our websites."

In other words, the display ad system is still broken. And now, the same old problem is more pronounced in responsive mobile sites, where another layer of complication is introduced.

"We have to go and talk to seven different places and say, 'you know how you used to give us creative that would've been fixed-width? What we need from you now is flexible-width,'" Mulligan said.

While responsive web design inherently may not be the source of advertising difficulties, the fact that it amplifies the existing problems is a good reason for web publishers to be cautious about going responsive. In the meantime, a paradigm shift in how web content generates revenue is still desperately needed. Instead of plunging into using responsive ads for responsive sites, perhaps everyone can get in the same room and prototype alternatives to display ads altogether.

The Boston Globe screenshots above were captured by the BuySellAds blog.

Jenny Xie is the PBS MediaShift editorial intern. Jenny is a senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying architecture and management. She is a digital-media junkie fascinated by the intersection of media, design, and technology. Jenny can be found blogging for MIT Admissions, tweeting @canonind, and sharing her latest work and interests here.

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March 19 2012

12:00

News-to-go is here to stay

For anyone who can remember being floored by the mid-1980s Chrysler sedan that warned “your door is ajar” in delightful monotone, it’s still kind of thrilling that Cadillacs come with wifi these days. But for a growing number of Americans, it’s hard to imagine going anywhere without an iPhone in one pocket and an iPad within arm’s reach.

Here it is, as if there was any doubt: The age of mobile.

One in four American adults now has a smartphone, and one in five owns a tablet. And 27 percent of Americans are getting news on mobile devices — increasingly across different platforms. That’s according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, and its annual report on the State of the News Media in 2012, released today.

One takeaway from Pew’s January 2012 survey of more than 3,000 adults is that our increasingly mobile reality brings new opportunities and, yes, more uncertainty for journalism.

Pew finds mobile devices are driving up news consumption, immersing audiences in content and strengthening traditional long-form journalism. But the industry is still following the lead of tech giants when it comes to the ways in which news is becoming more pervasive, which begs arguably the biggest of the big questions that Pew’s buffet of data raises: Who stands to benefit economically from the mobile shift?

“If they want to be everything, news is part of that, and people are spending more time with news.”

“When you look at the revenue side, we see even more that the tech companies are strengthening their hold on the revenue side, on who’s gaining the profits from this era of news,” the project’s deputy director, Amy S. Mitchell, told me. “While there may be some positive side in terms of what consumers are doing, the big technology companies are taking an even bigger piece of the revenue pie.”

Illustrating that point: Last year, five technology giants — not including Apple and Amazon — generated 68 percent of all digital ad revenue. By 2015, Facebook is expected to account for one of every five digital display ads sold. In contrast, print ad revenues were down $2.1 billion, or 9.2 percent, last year. Losses in print outweighed $207 million in online advertising gains by a ratio of 10 to 1.

This dynamic gave Pew researchers an idea that has been floated before: Could a tech giant like Google or Facebook swoop in and “save” a household-name newspaper by buying it? Mitchell says there are signs that “speak to the possibility of that happening,” namely the idea that technology leaders might identify news production as a path to omnipresence in consumers’ lives. But why would a profitable company want to acquire an operation — even one with a legacy brand — that’s in the red?

“The technology giants — the big technology companies — have all taken steps in the last year to kind of be an ‘everything,’” Mitchell says. “To not just be the king of search but to also have social networking, to have a video component, to also have your email as well as your social networking, as well as your news feed. While news may not be the revenue generator that these companies are looking to own, it is a part of how people are spending their day. If they want to be everything, news is part of that, and people are spending more time with news.”

Some of the other interesting tidbits in the report:

• Some rural Native American and Alaska Native populations are adapting straight from print to mobile, skipping right over desktops and laptops. It’s a pattern similar to what’s happening in parts of the developing world.

• Some 133 million Americans — 54 percent of the online U.S. population — are active on Facebook, and they’re spending about seven hours per month on the site. That’s 14 times as long as the average person spent on the most popular news sites. Just nine percent of adults in the United State say they regularly follow Facebook or Twitter links to news stories — despite the social media efforts of news organizations.

• Social media platforms “grew substantially” in 2011, but people are still more likely to use search engines or go directly to a news site than follow links from social media.

• Consumers perceive Twitter as having more news that’s harder to find elsewhere than Facebook. But most of those surveyed say they believe the news they get on Facebook and Twitter is news that they would have seen elsewhere without those sites.

• Print newspapers “stood out for their continued decline, which nearly matched the previous year’s 5 percent drop.” The latest Pew numbers show that total newspaper revenue — that means subscription as well as ad revenue — has dropped 43 percent since 2000. Over the last five years, an average of 15 newspapers (about 1 percent of the industry) has disappeared each year.

• As many as 100 newspapers are expected to put up paywalls (in some form) in the coming months. They would join the roughly 150 dailies that have already shifted to “some kind of digital subscription model,” which means slightly more than one-tenth of surviving U.S. dailies have a paywall or subscription service of some kind.

• More consumers are worried about their online privacy, which creates “conflicting pressure” for news organizations that need revenue to survive while also maintaining their audience’s trust. A separate Pew study found two-thirds of Internet users were uneasy with search engines tracking their activity, but they’re also relying more heavily on the services that such companies provide.

July 12 2011

19:47

Yahoo prepares new ad network to deliver content personalized to sites

Wall Street Journal :: Digital media company Yahoo Inc. launches a new content and advertising network later this year. It will be a market offering for entertainment websites and popular blogs to install Yahoo software on their pages that would deliver "content personalized", articles and videos to visitors tailored to their personal interests to increase time-spend-on site. It will be an ad revenue share model. Ad networks typically take half the revenue, industry experts say.

Continue to read Amir Efrati, online.wsj.com

September 30 2010

20:30

Double, double: More on the Boston Globe’s new two-site strategy

Big news today: The Boston Globe is planning to launch a subscriber-only website that will coexist with its current, free site. The new BostonGlobe.com, which is currently scheduled to launch in the second half of 2011, will feature premium content, in the sense of both quality and cost. And the current Boston.com — expected to be focused on “breaking news, sports, and weather, from a variety of sources, as well as classified advertising, social networking, and information about travel, restaurants and entertainment” — will become, essentially, a hyperlocal site for Bostonians.

In other words, the Globe is doubling down on, yes, doubling down. Take your mass-market audience and leverage it via a strategy that rewards mass itself: advertising. Then take your niche audience and leverage it via a strategy that rewards audience loyalty: subscription. (BostonGlobe.com, for its part, will likely feature advertising, as well, though the specifics are as-yet undetermined.) Or, as Bob Powers, the Globe’s VP of Marketing and Communications, told me when I spoke with him this afternoon: On the new BostonGlobe.com, “we’ll look more to the consumers to fund the journalism.”

The Doubleminty strategy is, in some ways, simply a logical extension of The New York Times’ soon-to-be-implemented metered paywall system: While the Globe’s sister paper is trying to serve both its broad audiences — the mass/casual and the niche/loyal — with the same property, the Globe is simply serving them by severing them: by creating two different destinations. Today’s announcement is the result, in part, of the paper’s studies of both market research (surveys of both heavy users of Boston.com and the market as a whole) and analytic traffic patterns (where people were going on the site, and which sections, in particular, were driving traffic the most). “And what we found,” Powers says, “is that there were different audiences: one looking for breaking news, things going on in the city, that kind of thing — and the other looking for the Globe and its high-quality journalism.”

Speaking of that journalism: Who, exactly, will be providing it? The obvious drawback of a site-bifurcation is that it gives you yet another hungry beast to feed. On the paid site, in addition to the content that fills the pages of the print product, there will also be slideshows, photos, interactive features, updates, and other such products audiences have come to want and expect on the web. The thought at this point, Powers says, is that “the same journalists, reporters, and editors will be producing the Globe online that produce the Globe — and generate content for Boston.com — but we haven’t figured out exactly where we need to add online skills and human resources.” And though “we’re prepared to invest in that,” he says, “we want to analyze it a little bit more.”

In part, the double-site plan could be seen as a “retention and switch strategy” for the Globe, Ken Doctor, the Lab’s resident economics-of-news expert, told me. Many papers’ recent experiments with merged revenue streams, Doctor says, are modifications of the one employed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — one ultimately aimed not at stopping print losses, but simply at slowing them. Newspaper companies still get a whopping 85% of their revenues from their print products (advertising and circulation), Doctor points out — “so if you can even slow that loss as you’re transitioning, that’s a good thing.” (Subscriptions to BostonGlobe.com will come free with the paper’s print product.) And BostonGlobe.com, which is being presented as basically a bells-and-whistles version of the print product, could help with that — while Boston.com “gives them the capability of doing, in an easier way, what everybody wants to do: maintain a robust digital advertising business.” The approach, Doctor says, “clears a path to keeping a robust, free site that has a big audience that they can monetize through advertising.”

The double-down’s other potential payoff? A killer app that is, literally, an app. BostonGlobe.com may well represent, Doctor suggests, a middle ground on the way to another, even more removed, destination for Globe content: an iPad or other app. “To the extent that the tablet becomes a switch medium,” he says, “you establish a price that gets reader revenue in the digital world” — allowing for experimentation with, and thus ostensibly refinement of, pricing architectures. You could read the site bifurcation, in other words, as a stepping-stone strategy: a way to help the Globe navigate toward a more tablet-centric world.

Which, though it could prove rewarding, is also risky. One of the commodities hanging in the balance here is also one of the most valuable to a news outlet: its brand. Particularly for the Globe, which has spent years building up its name, there’s the chance that a two-site strategy might solidify into caricatures — The Good Site and The Bad Site — with the latter, in particular, ultimately harming the reputation of the sites’ parent organization. When I asked Powers whether that was a concern during the Globe’s decision-making process, though, his reply was emphatic: “No. In fact, we think that by separating them out, they’re going to strengthen each — that there’ll be greater clarity of what each really stands for.” These aren’t two sites, as he puts it; they’re two brands. And that distinction could make a big difference as Globe staffers strategize about the sites’ content — and about the extent to which it will, and won’t, be complementary.

It’s in large part to allow time for such crucial decision-making that the new site’s launch date is set so far in the future. And that’s probably a good thing. The Globe is owned, of course, by The New York Times Company, and the web-bifurcation experiment, however it works out, will have bearing not only on the Globe itself, but also on other metro papers, among them its (big) sister in New York. (By the time BostonGlobe.com is launched, if all goes according to the paper’s much-publicized plans, the NYT will have erected its paywall.) Its results will offer lessons for magazines, too: The National Journal, it’s worth noting — the Great JournoPoacher itself — plans to implement a similarly divide-and-conquer-focused approach to its web presence. So in doubling down, to continue the metaphor, the Globe is betting big. And they know it. “We’ve got a lot of details to figure out,” Powers notes of the new strategy. “But we want to get feedback, as we develop it — and test what people want.”

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