No One Is Coming To Save You

I started yesterday’s newsletter with a who’s who of the best in adtech content producers, save for one. Maybe I didn’t share it because I fear being labeled a company man. Or maybe because I think it’s my ace in the hole. Either way, I failed to mention that Atlantic Media’s The Idea newsletter is, to me, the best and most enjoyable read of my week. Somehow beating Sara Fischer’s Axios media trends newsletter (another unfortunate oversight).

This week’s The Idea newsletter struck me, hard. About halfway down there’s a summary of how coronavirus has affected the media industry. First, they list the good stuff; increased traffic and subscriptions. Then comes the bad. First up, the list of “financial difficulties”.

Next, and I don’t have the heart or stomach to screenshot this part, they list the layoffs, closures, furloughs, and reductions. The NYT summary hits hard enough.

The New York Times estimates that around 28,000 people working in news media “have been laid off, been furloughed, or had their pay reduced.”

So it goes.

So this got me thinking. I wrote the below probably 6 months ago now and never posted it. At the time it was meant to get pubs thinking about the right thing to do going into 2020 budgeting. A bit of a kick in the pants that we badly need. But given the current covid-19 world we live in, I wasn’t sure if now called for pants kicking. But after reading Scott Messer’s great piece on Dakota winters it got me thinking maybe now is the perfect time. Instead of fretting about what we can do now (spoiler: not much) maybe we should start planning for the rebound. The world will rebound, why not put yourself and your site in the best position to succeed?

There Are No Easy Answers

One note, what I’m going to say next applies to media companies who actually give a shit. There’s great money to be had (still) by buying a bunch of dirty traffic and arbing your stolen content or having bots write articles on mesothelioma. But I assume those people aren’t reading me anyway. They’re too busy stealing change from Salvation Army Santas and penning their next great email scam. For everyone else, read on.

I’m going to say this, I’ve been saying it but I’m going to say it again for the people in the back. Your job is supposed to be hard. If a big decision feels easy, or a “slam dunk” then it’s wrong and you didn’t think of something. 

Our jobs are hard. Right now? They’re really fucking hard. But they kind of should be. We’re paid exceptionally well. And many of us (myself included) too frequently take the easy way out. Oh, what’s that? I can just add another vendor to the header and make 5% more? Load that sombitch up.  

We’ve lost sight. We think it’s our job to keep our company solvent. It’s not. That sounds super weird given the current circumstances but it really isn’t our job. My job is to set my company up to make the most money possible, forever.

When you set your timeline a little further out you start to realize today’s dollars matter but so do tomorrow’s. So when you see a yield trick that can make you 20% more this year but at the cost of 3% of user satisfaction. That first number is a one time shot in the arm, but it’ll be baked into 2021’s forecast. And now you’re hooked on that trick, whatever it was. You can’t stop using it, like I said, it’s baked into your budget. So you need to come up with a new trick next year. Meanwhile that 3% worse user satisfaction becomes compound interest (it’s not like annoying ads stop being annoying because a year has passed). Before you know it you’re working your ass off to come up with more inventive yield hacks and more and more of your audience is starting to hate the experience on your site. 

Eventually, a tipping point is reached. And this sort of sickness is auto-immune in nature. You’re shitty ad experience is attacking your own product, the reason people come to the page in the first place. And like auto-immune diseases, the cause of death is never “ads fucked us”. It’s some other thing. Some nerd tweaks an algorithm and your traffic shits the bed. Or DV now says your fraud rate is 30%. Or some state makes a law against auto-play video, everyone follows suit, and before you know it you’ve lost 50% of your yearly revenue.

The problem I’m seeing in other publishers’ ad strategies is they rely too much on gaming the system. There was a time where these things were just a Q4 shot in the arm, but that was it. Now entire 2020 budgets are relying on these tricks. We need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking these “yield hacks” are special. They stick out like a sore thumb. They’re not smart, they’re desperate.

Now is usually the point where I’d write some disclaimer saying “I know everyone has a budget to hit” or some such thing to not make everyone feel too bad about what I was to say next. But, really that’s all bullshit. These are unprecedented times. Make this the year you take your medicine. If your company is literally solvent because of these tricks then you have much larger problems than just your yield business. And sooner or later you’ll meet reality (many already have). Personally, I prefer to meet it on my own terms. So do yourself a favor. When you’re building your H2 forecasts, do a little analysis of what would happen if you just quit it with the bullshit yield tricks. What if 2020 was the year we stopped?

Stop refreshing ads on your page. I don’t care what sorts of tests you try to show me, refreshing ads makes each incremental ad less effective, period. Sure you only lose 20% of your CPM but get 40% more impressions and… money? Right? No, stop it. It pisses people off. It makes your core product less enjoyable. It makes your ads less effective. Buyers don’t like it, readers don’t like it. Isn’t that enough?

Stop it with your non-lazy loaded ad units. Your bullshit CPV or guaranteed CPM contracts that don’t take into account viewability. You think you’re getting one over on the vendors who signed them but really they’re making theirs by doing all sorts of shady shit to your users. You just gave some European adtech company carte blanche to do whatever they want on your page to make their margin. You know that’s dumb, right?

Stop it with content recommendation. That shit is going the way of the dinosaur. Do you want your 2020 budget to rely on income that might not make it to June?

Stop it with your “sticky” video units. Sure it makes GroupM happy, but your users hate you a little bit every PV for it. And the moment some ambitious journalist starts a The-Athletic-for-your-vertical you’ll lose audience overnight.

Stop it with multiple “high impact” ads on the same page. Respect your users attention. They only have but so much of it and if half of it is spent sighing and turning on their adblocker because your piece of shit site keeps lagging, then you’re not doing your job. You took the easy way out again.

Stop inserting ads on adblock users. Sure some number of them don’t notice and “it’s free money” right? No, it’s beneath you. Get your site into shape, track adblocking. If it’s a big number, then politely ask your Adblock users to whitelist you. If most don’t then keep fixing shit til they do.

Stop stuffing your client-side with a dozen partners. Don’t think you can outsource your way to more money (and that’s all you’re doing when you’re letting dozens of resellers in your stack… saying “here you figure out how to screw the same buyers out of more money”). You’re slowing your page and at some point, DSPs are going to be able to deduplicate requests and you’ll learn the harsh reality that your bid density reports are based on a lie.

Stop with the autoplay video at the top of every article. We all know this is poison, right? You’re not ESPN, you can’t get away with it. Oh god and please stop thinking you can win the arb game. You can’t. This will only come back to bite you.

Want to know what separates the great yield people from everyone else? They don’t take the short view on anything. They live and breathe the details. They’re up to their eyeballs in details. The yield people that scare me are the ones who don’t care about their own incentives or making friends or increasing programmatic revenue every year. I can talk to a dozen people about the little tricks they do on their page to hit goal… but I get more from 30 minutes of convo with someone too busy trying to understand how the buy-side is training their media planners and crafting their team’s PMP troubleshooting strategy to think about the yield lift from accepting [unnamed outstream vendor]’s RPM contract.

The only thing that will get you or your site through this period is a relentless focus on your customer, the end-user. Do you make the content they need? That’s great. Now figure out a way to make money with and from them. If you’re a scale play then play that game hard. There’s plenty of performance and DTC dollars out there. Figure out what offerings you can give those people. Be creative with your pricing. Be ruthless with your analysis.

Are you a vertical play? Know your audience. Segment them a million different ways. Differentiate your audience and your site and then charge out the nose for that information. Be relentless here. Do it well enough and your endemic buyers will beat a path to your door.

Do you have a strong direct sales business? Fantastic. How do you respond to RFPs? Proactives? What’s the rev ops output? What do your pitch decks look like? Your media plans? How are you pricing things? How did you arrive at those prices? Does your suite of offerings make sense with what clients want to buy?

Are you purely a programmatic play? Terrific. Get lean. Get a data science team. Log level or bust. You need to know everything happening on your pages in real-time. You live and die on your ability to understand every single aspect of your inventory. Where is your bid density best? Worst? Why is that? What vendors provide the most value? How do you know that for sure? Are you taking into account every variable? Not just revenue but user behavior. How quickly do you know if things change? How accurate is your data and how long does it take you to get it?

All the while you need to be constantly vigilant to the state of the market. What is Google doing? What do their changes mean for you? For the industry in general? What do your colleagues at other companies say they’re doing? Our editors might be competing, our sales teams might, but rev ops isn’t. I have no problem telling anyone and everyone my tricks to the trade. It’ll cost you some time and a few brain cells (Jameson will do that). Every good yield person I know is this way.

So how do we save ourselves? It’s simple. Work our asses off. Truth be told some companies are too far gone to be saved and very good people are going to be out of jobs. Control what you can control. Build up an internal alert. Does a decision seem too easy? Is the answer to a problem or a revenue shortfall “oh we just need to do ____”? That means you didn’t work hard enough.

There are no easy answers anymore.

One programming note. I’m changing up the daily cadence of posts starting tomorrow. Going forward the week will look like

  • Mondays — articles you need to read and my reaction to a few of them

  • Tuesdays — observations / yield 101

  • Wednesdays — long read day

  • Thursdays — new podcast episodes and an article discussing it

Shameless Self Promotion

Check out Erik and I’s newest episode of What Happens in Adtech. This week we talked to Scott Messer about SPO, DPO, and PADs among other things. Scott also showed off his extensive zoom background collection.

We also offer an audio-only version of WHIAT on Spotify and iTunes. Subscribe!

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Ok, that’s all for me. Have a great day, or don’t. I’m not the boss of you!