Publishers need to directly monetise content to sustain editorial

Just as the TV industry has developed to directly monetise content through interactive services, product placement and sponsored programmes, online publishers need to explore innovations that use more than just the space around the content, says Vibrant Media's Fiona Salmon.

Fiona Salmon: online ad systems should reflect the value of  the editorial
Fiona Salmon: online ad systems should reflect the value of the editorial

The internet has given consumers a sense of entitlement to free quality content. The "ad-supported media" business model that this has spawned is now rightfully focused on monetisation.

Yet as more media titles develop their online publishing business and sacrifice their price-per-copy and subscription models, concern must be afforded to what might be considered the "soft costs" of going "free". As advertising revenue becomes the sole source of a media title's income, the editorial team can feel undervalued, considered as a cost of business, as simply the vehicle to get consumers to see adverts, rather than as the life blood of the business.

Journalists got into the media game to inform, investigate, entertain, educate, but their job can now seem to be just about attracting eyeballs for ads, with little regard being paid to the quality of the content that they produce. As the focus of the media title seems to shift, tensions that may already exist between the editorial and commercial team can intensify.

If editorial teams become disenchanted, the editorial itself will suffer and consumers will visit another media title if they don't feel the content they're accessing is worth their time. This will impact the effectiveness of ad campaigns, compromising the revenue stream and making the publishing business unsustainable.

Core to this problem is that, for the most part, the editorial content of free online media is not monetised – only the space around it is. This means that the physical focus of value within the publishing business is directed away from the editorial, even though the content is what consumers really want and quality content is imperative to run effective ad campaigns.

Such an ad placement strategy stems from the constraints of the media industry's print heritage, where the only space available was that around the content. Yet online publishing offers a freedom to innovate that must be capitalised upon, particularly as the vast amount of time and money spent on evaluating the user experience means we know the interactive wants and needs of consumers, so we have to adapt our ad-placement strategy.

Just as the TV industry has innovated to more directly monetise its content through interactive services, product placement and sponsored programmes, so too must the online publishing industry deploy appropriate, unobtrusive innovations that use more than just the space around the content.

Moreover, the mechanics of most online advertising formats do little to support quality online journalism, intent as they are on immediately dragging the Internet user away from the content the editorial team has crafted. Banner ads at the top of online articles are proof of that. As most online formats are placed around the content, the clicks and impressions that are used to measure the performance of ad campaigns largely overlook the consumers’ interaction with the actual editorial.

If anything, such clicks may well be a measure of how quickly a consumer can be distracted from the site, rather than how much the internet user is compelled to consume the content. What's worse is that when a campaign that's run across a media title doesn't work for a brand, the quality of the editorial can be blamed. No wonder there are tensions between the ad and editorial departments.

Journalists need systems that demonstrate the worth of their work more directly. When consuming online content, internet users hover, click, drag and select editorial. Each mouse movement indicates that the user is engaged. Statistical reports of these mouse actions are gold dust to editorial teams that want to prove the effectiveness of the content they've produced.

Yet new metrics which show publishers how engaging the editorial is to site visitors fills just one part of the puzzle. Publishers have to be concerned with the money – not least because it pays everyone's wages. That means editorial teams need to negotiate with their publishers to establish ways that more readily prove their content’s contribution to monthly revenues.

In an ad-supported media business, this means deploying revenue-generation systems that value editorial, rather than just the space around it. A simple and effective way to deliver both editorial engagement metrics and revenue, is to place revenue generating hyperlinks within the content using a system like Vibrant Media’s. When a user engages with relevant hyperlinked keywords within an article, it's because that user is engaged with the content, not distracted by an ad.

All this takes a change in mind set, too. Few journalists got into the game for the money– if they did, they're in the wrong career – but developing a more commercial focus and purpose will shore up their position in an industry that's become so reliant on ad sales.

Rather than let the ad department get all the glory for the media business’s success, editorial teams need to insist on ad systems that more relevantly reflect the value of their work. Doing so will maintain the rightful regard for the importance of editorial standards and quality content.