The latest in the top ad formats for online publishers

Let’s answer a frequently asked question from start-up online news publishers: What ads should I put on my website? I’m not talking about which advertisers should you allow on your site – let’s hope your sales skills will be strong enough to allow you to make such decisions. Instead, we’ll talk today about which ad sizes and formats are worth placing on your pages.

The Internet Advertising Bureau publishes a standard for online ad sizes, but there have been some changes recently. And Google’s followed that by adding new ad formats to its popular Doubleclick for Publishers ad server. So it’s time for even experienced online news publishers to take a fresh look at their ad templates.

First, let me affirm my opposition to advertising that blocks editorial content, either on a website or in print. As a reader, I always despised front-page spadea print ads that blocked my first glance at the headlines of the day. Same goes for online. It’s one thing for an ad to expand and cover editorial content if I click on it. (If anything, that’s better than being sent off to another page or website with a click, IMHO.) But can’t endorse of suggest any ad format that blocks editorial content without a readers’ consent. So we won’t be talking about pop-up or takeover ads today.

Incorporating standard ad sizes in your website design is important because it makes it easier for larger advertisers (who typically run campaigns across multiple sites, and spend a lot of money doing so) to place an order on your site. If an advertiser has to create an ad especially for your site’s design, that increases the effect cost of advertising on your site to that customer. You can’t expect that unless you’re an established, major player in your market. And even if you are, it’s good business to try to keep costs down for your customers.

The IAB used to support dozens of ad sizes and formats, but in recent years, has cut down the number of its recommended units to four main “core standard ad units”:

  • 300-pixels-wide x 250-pixels-tall Medium Rectangle
  • 180 x 150 Rectangle
  • 728 x 90 Leaderboard
  • 160 x 600 Wide Skyscraper

(Yes, Internet old-timers, the 468×60 “full banner” has gone to the great server in the sky, along with the Netscape browser, Usenet and the Whole Internet Catalog.)

As it eliminates old standards, the IAB is implementing new ones. Six “Rising Stars” ad units are under consideration for official endorsement by the end of the summer. They are more interactive ad units, often incorporating Flash or advanced HTML to expand or move ad space upon user interaction, such as a click or mouseover.

  • Billboard – a 970×250 Flash banner that may be collapsed by clicking a “close ad” icon.
  • Filmstrip – a 300×3000 banner that is visible through a 300×600 space on a website. The filmstrip scrolls through the banner space, based on reader clicks or hovering the mouse over the banner.
  • Portrait – a 270×1050 space for the right side of pages, with defined spaces for branding, and defined areas for image galleries, video players, polls and social media interactivity.
  • Pushdown – a 970×90 banner at the top of the page that when clicked or moused-over expands to 415 pixels deep with advertiser content, pushing down site content.
  • Sidekick – a on-page wide vertical banner that when clicked expands to the right with ad content, pushing page content to the left, where it can be accessed via a horizontal scroll in the browser.
  • Slider – a banner anchored to bottom of browser window that, when clicked slides the publisher page to one side and brings in advertiser’s page.

Google’s free Doubleclick for Publishers ad server, popular among start-up and smaller Web publishers, recently added support for expandable and pushdown Flash ads, though a publisher would need to create a customer ad unit size within DFP to accommodate one of the specific “Rising Stars” formats. But the native support for expandable and pushdown ads is new to DFP, opening support for these ad formats to many more publishers.

As you consider which ad formats to support in your website’s design, also think about how you can place ads so that they will be seen and considered by a large percentage of your audience.

There’s no point in offering ads on your website if they lack the visibility that your customers need, just as there’s no point in offering news so buried that no one in your audience reads it. Google has offered some now-famous “heat maps” based on eye-tracking research that reveal the hot spots for ads on many typical webpage designs. (I’m still looking for similar research that incorporates the new rising stars formats, so if anyone has access to some that can be shared, please send that link.)

Finally, if you’re one of those new or aspiring publishers who also needs a quick overview of banner ad pricing terminology, check out the Wikipedia entry for CPM, as well as the links to other ad pricing alternatives, at the bottom of that page.

Ultimately, selling advertising on a website ought to be one medium through which you, as a publisher, help a customer address its needs by providing additional, relevant and welcomed information to your audience. Smart use of standard formats and responsible placement within page design can help you achieve that goal, instead of stinking up your site design with awkward or inappropriate ads that serve neither your audience nor your advertisers.

Creation or aggregation: What is the real added value of today’s journalism?

The following is an edited transcript of remarks I delivered last week at the WAN-IFRA Future of News Media and Journalism Conference in Singapore.

Generating original content, or aggregating someone else’s? If you’re running (or starting up) a news website, which model should you choose?

Actually, this is a trick question… because they’re the same thing. In journalism, our “original” content always has been the product of aggregation.

Let’s take a look at the newspapers where I’ve worked over my career, from a small daily in Bloomington, Indiana to the Los Angeles Times. Each paper has published reports from wire services, from feature syndicates, from freelancers… even letters and op-ed articles from readers. That’s aggregation. Even the supposedly “original” stories ultimately were works of aggregation. We aggregate interviews from sources; we aggregate documents that we ask find or ask for; we aggregate our observations of people, places and events.

If we weren’t publishing aggregation, if we truly were creating original content, we’d be writing fiction, spun from the creativity of our own imaginations. As journalists, we try not to do that.

This is a false choice: creation versus aggregation. The newspaper industry long ago optimized the use of aggregation for its medium. So the choice really becomes: Shall we use aggregation the way that the newspaper industry has always done it, or aggregation the way that it’s being employed by a new generation of online start-ups?

What’s the distinguishing characteristic, then, of this new form of aggregation that we’re now seeing online? Well, it’s that it’s being done really cheaply. It’s very inexpensive. They’re using automation, like Google News does, and social media, like Facebook, to bring together sources of information for far less expense than people in the newspaper industry can do that with a traditional newsroom model for reporting, editing and page design.

That provides online aggregators with a significant cost advantage in the competitive marketplace that all news publishers now face. But is there any social value in the cheaply produced aggregation that we’re now seeing proliferate around the Internet?

My academic background is a bit unusual for journalism: My undergraduate major was in math. So, ultimately, this reduces to an equation for me. The value that a publication ultimately has in an information marketplace is equal to what readers (or advertisers or funders) are willing to pay for it minus what it costs to produce it. That’s it. If that resulting number is positive, then there’s value in what you do. If it is negative, then you have a problem.

The expense of producing content is so low for many aggregators that they don’t need nearly as large a community of individuals to find great value in what they produce for them to be in the black. If a relatively small collection of people find value in getting information from the particular mix of content that aggregator provides, that gives them enough revenue, usually from associated advertising, that they can remain in business.

The irony is that a larger scale metropolitan or national newspaper can deliver huge value for an audience, with massive advertising revenue and direct sales, but that’s still not enough revenue for its owners in this competitive marketplace, because their production expenses are so large. So even if a traditional newspaper delivers more social benefit to an audience than an online aggregator, the difference in production costs favors the online upstart.

So the challenge for the newspaper industry now is to take a look at what these start-up aggregators are doing and perhaps, from that, learn what traditional newsrooms can do to change, to aggregate the information that they’ve been collecting from their communities in ways that are less expensive, and that would better serve the community.

That’s a word – community – that I hope we use a lot in the remainder of our conversation here today. I agree with Jeff [Jarvis, who spoke earlier that day to the conference] and Reginald [Chua, the editor of the South China Morning Post, who also spoke that day] that we, ultimately, are in the community business. We might think of ourselves as being in the publishing business, but we should take a step a few degrees over to the side and look at things from the perspective of being in the community business. From a different angle – see, I’m going back to math again – then the pathway to the future might become more clear.

The key to success in any business is to find where the market’s pain is: What is the community’s need? So your role as a journalist, trying to remain viable in your marketplace, is to understand what the pains in your community are. (I wrote about this in Doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organizing.) Then, once you’ve identified the need, think about how you can use information that you can collect – to aggregate – to meet those needs, to alleviate that pain.

If reader-contributed content is to be part of that solution, and I believe that it should be, then don’t make the mistake of segregating it within its own section of your website. The community you serve must come together on your site, and that includes bringing together readers (both sources and audience) and staff writers.

Even our traditional newsroom sources are using new ways to communicate with the community now, going around us. They’re on Facebook and Twitter; they’re blogging and e-mailing lists of supporters. They’re talking in existing online communities, message boards and social networks within the broader community. Let’s catalogue those avenues through which people in the community are communicating with each other and think about how we, as journalists, can create a network that will bring all those avenues together. And to do so in a way that will help use to play our role as the organizer of the broader community. Let’s keep aggregating community voices, but start doing that more and more with automation and social media tools.

So how do we do this without adding even more expense to our newsroom operations? Again, let’s learn from the upstarts. We need to be developing and employing more journalist/programmers, people with IT programming skills and a journalism sensibility. Some journalism schools in the United States are adding this to their curriculum. At Northwestern University, my alma mater, for example, the Medill School of Journalism has created a program to train programmers to create news applications for the next generation of computer-assisted research and reporting. We need people who can create tools that support thriving, responsible online communities, instead of relying on off-the-shelf commenting and discussion forum tools that are too easily hijacked by trolls. We need people who can take government data and industry data and create living applications that makes that information available to the public in ways and formats that they understand and that they can do something with.

This is another way that we can create value: We ought to create fresh ways for the public to take our data, our reports, and let them easily aggregate it within their own blogging, Tweeting and social network publishing. We talked earlier about how YouTube helped take over the online video market by providing easy to use code that allowed anyone to embed a YouTube video on a blog or website. We need journalist/programmers who are creating ways for us to reduce our distribution expenses by empowering our readers to become our own distribution network.

We’ve got to get over the mindset that aggregation is a bad thing. That mindset keeps us from developing tools that allow readers to aggregate our content, and by doing so, becoming partners with us in an information community.

So how do we make money off all of this? Let’s not forget that for many readers, advertising is content. People like to read certain ads. Why shouldn’t we create distribution channels for people to aggregate and syndicate our ads, as they might do our stories and blog posts and links? When people are interested in our content, including advertising, we must find ways to push that content out to a larger share of the community.

Think like a network. Why not strike deals with other blogs and websites covering your community to sell ads onto their sites, allowing your ad sales force to remain the market leader within the community? Trust me, those publishers would welcome the extra revenue, even if the paper took a cut. And why not go the other way, as well? Let bloggers who can reach and service smaller, neighborhood advertiser sell into our newspapers and newspaper websites, and let them take a cut of that revenue? It simply expands our reach into markets that our sales forces can’t afford to service, at no cost to us.

The specific model that you employ will be as unique as the particular community that you choose to cover as a journalist. But to find that model, then to create it, we must first stop demonizing aggregation. It’s long been the foundation of our industry.

So let’s instead view this crisis as an opportunity – to reconnect with our communities and to recreate journalism in ways that better serve the 21st-century needs of those communities.

Communities are key in building websites' advertiser support

If a website’s editorial mission focuses on building community, as I’ve argued, so should its advertising sales strategy focus on community as well. Don’t fall into the trap of selling potential advertisers nothing more than numbers; don’t neglect to sell them on the opportunity to support the community that you are building.

I got to talking about the subject recently with my colleague Sasha Anawalt, who runs several arts journalism programs for USC Annenberg. She was talking about the frustration that many arts organizations feel when watching the the reporters and critics who have covered them lose their jobs. These theaters, dance companies and orchestras fear that without news coverage in their communities, their audience – and potential audience – will hear less about local artists, which could lead to less interest and less support for their organizations.

It’s not just arts organizations that share this fear. In a blog post last year, tech blogger Mark Cuban, who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, argued why he believes that pro sports needs newspapers to prosper.

Bottom line is that despite the huge volume of sports coverage [online], the local coverage of teams for the most part sucks. There is little depth and certainly not the consistent coverage of a newspaper with a team beatwriter or 2. Thats a bad scenario for sports leagues. Teams in every league need as much local coverage as we can get. The more stories that are written by sportswriters and columnists, the more opportunities for fans to connect and stay connected to our teams.

The more time I spend on the “other” side of the journalism business, dealing with advertising, technology and business relationships, the more I become convinced that a good deal of what was passed off as editorial ethics over the past many years was less concerned with ensuring accurate coverage than discouraging and discrediting reporters starting their own news publications.

Sure, there are ham-handed sources and advertisers out there who’d rather just buy positive coverage. But many folks “on the other side” honestly recognize the value of what journalists do to build and sustain the communities that, ultimately, are their markets. There ought to be no shame in working with these people and these institutions to find ways for them to support our work. Enlisting their support isn’t “selling out,” it’s keeping journalism in their communities.

We’re at a point now in this industry where reporters can’t wait for someone else to start these conversations. Better we initiate them than run the risk of communities whithering as their sources of information founder and die.

Mark Cuban needs people covering the Mavs, to keep them part of the local conversation, just as the local orchestra needs someone reporting on live acoustic music. Smart managers also know that shills won’t build communities over the long run. Ads and “advertorial” can help drive attention from the community to the sponsor, but they don’t help expand and sustain the community itself.

As Cuban wrote, “I would far rather subsidize in depth coverage of the Mavs, even without any editorial control then spend more money on advertising.”

Of course, advertising can be one way that institutions provide financial support to editorial operations. My wife has contracted with a handful of advertisers who have told her that they don’t care about advertising stats – how many readers see or click on their ads – they simply want to support her efforts to build and sustain a community of violinists and violin fans online. Because they need that community to exist, in order to support their businesses.

The Web makes tracking readers who click ads easy. That then tempts many publishers and advertisers to reduce ad sales to simple math. But the economic value of creating an engaged community for a business to sell to isn’t so easily tracked.

Journalists who wish to stay in business in the brutal market of online publishing need to look beyond CPMs. Find would-be advertisers who are willing to invest in your community-building efforts, even if they do not yield immediate clicks and conversions. Take a look at the outfield wall at a local Little League game, or in the back of the program at a local theater production, and you’ll find plenty of local businesses whose owners and managers care as much about supporting community institutions as making an immediate sale. Talk with them. Show them what you are doing, the community you are building and what its survival and growth means for them.

Maybe, like Cuban, some potential supporters don’t want to bother with getting the ads. Perhaps they could fund fellowships that pay for additional reporters or pay instead for ads that promote other local causes.

Talk with every potential source of future support for your publication. Sell them on what you are doing and then talk about ways that they can support you. From these conversation, those of us who remain in the news business will evolve a new set of standards and practices for the news business, one that doesn’t simply protect last century’s model but that helps ensure that professional journalism will endure throughout this century.