A long time ago, I spent some time editing a small newspaper. I remember it like a scene from a movie; late nights at the printers with layout sheets, cutting and pasting blocks of text to fit the page, adding pictures, headlines, ads. Each of these assets was gathered in advance and ready to be laid out as we ultimately groomed each page toward the eventual publication and distribution.
Thank you, Internet. At first, we used this new found power carefully, cautiously. We only paid publishers when a reader engaged with, or clicked on, an ad. Then we started guessing how often readers would click and even how often they would turn into a buyer and thus eCPMs were born. As our scientific approach grew even more refined, we began to pay publishers for the value of each reader based on the page they engaged with at that precise moment in time: the CPM.
The approach was strong but it required data and that data came with a cost – a cluttered web, a slow web, an invasive and nosy web.
The two buzziest technologies this year, one a threat and one an opportunity, each owe their existence and their futures to this overgrowth of ad tech science. At their cores, both ad blocking and header bidding are tools to help publishers take their power back. And as these two technologies ultimately drive convergence all parties, including advertisers will benefit.
We all want content for free
Ad blocking is an old movie. Decade after decade some new innovation comes along allowing content consumption without ads. The photocopier, the VCR, the DVR, to name just a few, were all predicted to be the death knell to advertisers. Ad blocking for the web has been around for at least ten years, but the adoption curve is looking more like a hockey stick lately, a source of substantial hand wringing in our community.
Many of us have acknowledged that we’ve hurt our audiences by with indiscriminate and opaque data collection, targeting and automation. Nonetheless, the ad blocking die has long been cast. Paywalls and micropayments are no complete solution either. When you shell out $2.00 for the Sunday paper, you don’t expect an ad-free version.
The one clear path, and the righteous one at that, is to focus on solutions that improve user experience rather than erode it.
So how is that we improve page load time, produce less invasive ads and contribute to on page content without hurting bottom lines? We need new technologies that empower publishers to ship ads, still bought and sold in real time, from their own CMS.
Enter: Header Bidding
Before the recent surge in real time buying science, publishers were accustomed to subpar valuations of their unsold inventory. We didn’t have the technology quite dialed in to help publishers fill all of their ad space at a competitive price.
As real time buying technology improved in confluence with increased advertising budgets, publishers got a glimpse of just how much money was being left on the table. This naturally led to experimentation with blends of supply-side platforms – a motley crew of Google and a few other demand sources – sequenced in an order estimated to maximize payout.
Eventually, this chain of buyers proved to have its own drawback: there was no way for publishers to know the true valuation of each impression. Instead of calling ad networks in sequence, publishers began calling them at the same time from the head section of their web pages – the same method used to call the styling and layout resources to the browser.
Publishers using header bidding now have a tool, the auction in the header, to ensure that they are maximizing their price for each impression.
Publishers on board with header bidding are being cautious, and rightfully so. To incur any additional page load penalty or increase bandwidth utilization risks pushing readers with itchy ad blocking trigger fingers over the edge. So many, especially those with the right amount of technical know-how, are moving their auctions from the page to their own servers, thus placing ads straight into their CMS for direct delivery to their own page.
As the server-side auctions grow along with CMS direct delivery, what some have called server-side ad stitching, ads delivered to the page will be more difficult to separate from content. Pages will load lightning fast and wasteful third-party calls will fall away. Publishers will be treating their readers to a far more positive experience. The ad blocking detection process will slow just as adoption of ad blocking would begin to fade away.
It’s no surprise that the rapid adoption of header bidding and ad blocking have been almost simultaneous. Both readers and publishers have responded to a lack of transparency and control with technological advancements. The logical conclusion brings us to a future oddly evocative of our past, with our copy, our layout and our advertisements in hand before each page is published.