afaqs! news bureau

What publishers have learnt from experimenting with newer ad formats

Three publishers and one digital agency head hold forth with their views on a debate that is gathering considerable momentum in the digital world.

It may be unusual, but not unheard of, for panellists in a debate to agree upon something almost unanimously. The fifth session of Day 1 of the second edition of Digipub World, organised by afaqs!, had three panellists from the publishers' side and one from the agency side discussing their respective trysts with newer ad formats.

B Srinivasan, managing director, Vikatan, Ramakrishnan Laxman, head of digital business, ABP, Rubeena Singh, CEO, iProspect India and Shouneel Charles, senior vice president, digital, Times Network were the guests in this session moderated by Ashwini Gangal, executive editor, afaqs!. And they all agreed on one thing: the digital media business that was built on the twin pillars of banners and pre-rolls, has changed. Hardly anyone clicks on online ads and click rates are getting worse. In short, banners and pre-rolls don't work - anymore.

What publishers have learnt from experimenting with newer ad formats

The panelists (from left) Ramakrishnan Laxman, Rubeena Singh, B Srinivasan and Shouneel Charles with moderator Ashwini Gangal
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That newer ad formats are the way to get ahead is a debate that is not new. How do the panellists view it and which new ad format works best for each of them? For ABP's Laxman, "there is a lot happening in terms of video, which is primarily a big focus area for us." ABP is constantly on the lookout for ways to get in more brand advertising on video. Singh of iProspect observed that "Clients are also seeing how they can reach the customer across the funnel, middle of the funnel and bottom of the funnel." According to her, there is a huge play of data coming in to understand audiences, find out where they are and trying to reach out to them wherever they are.

What publishers have learnt from experimenting with newer ad formats

Vikatan's Srinivasan makes a point
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Srinivasan declared that Vikatan has made the right moves so far. "We moved online 20 years ago with a Freemium (a mix of paid and free) model. We have been able to consistently grow our audience and groom them by using audience measuring platforms. We reach about 20 million unique users a month and are trying to constantly retarget them. Native advertising is the answer and you need to understand the problems of your client. Right now, 75 per cent of our advertising is through direct." Charles of Times Network too endorsed the view that new formats are the way to go but everyone is struggling with direct sales. "It is getting more complicated as we chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. On the flip side, we are definitely in a good place as lot of Dollars are moving to digital."

But is banner advertising really dying? Or worse, dead? Gangal quoted one of last year's speakers by saying: "Is it true that 'the banner did not fail us, but we failed the banner'?

Charles agreed. "It was a case of publishing more pages, burning more banners and making more money. But that is falling apart right now. We are now moving to native, branded content." Now that publishers are moving to newer ad formats, does the onus of innovating ad formats too lie on the digital publishers, unlike print? "If so, is that fair?" asked Gangal.

"It is more of a question of survival. For digital, we need to go back to our roots and go back to our clients. Find the clients' problem and see if there is any way we can solve the problem through our website," said Srinivasan. So, it is the publisher on whom the onus to innovate lies?

"I feel that it is a collective onus. Formats per se have to be homogenous work across multiple publishers. No one has really succeeded with great innovations in ad formats other than a lot of us spending four, or five, years monetising home page takeovers," pointed out Charles. iProspect's Singh too felt that way. "It is a joint responsibility. It is not that agencies and clients do not want to innovate. Clients understand their product best - in terms of problems and solutions, what is available in the market and, therefore, stitch it together. But the fact is also that what works for one publisher may not for another. When publishers get the brief, they ought to come back to tell us what is possible. Does it happen on all campaigns? Maybe not. Should we do more of it? Yes, definitely."

With the rise of mobiles and the obvious opportunities that presents as readership moves to mobile, what are the kind of ad formats that work on this platform? What kind of tech support will make it a reality? Many formats that work on the web don't work on the mobile...

Charles pointed that what plays out on phones is the data not so much the format. It is still banner, still pre-roll and the differentiator is the real time data available. "We have not unthought the banner - which is the more bread and butter layer - yet," he said.

Talking about digital ads, what did the panel feel about ad blockers - and the fact that banner ads can be avoided? "Is there an antidote to this?" queried Gangal. "The ecosystem has become more complex. Instead of cleaning up and becoming better with better yields (video has not taken off), we are trying to reduce the bread and butter layer. The icing on the cake has to come from the non-banner space. However, at a business level, we will struggle with scale, which will become an issue down the line, although it is okay now," predicted Charles. Singh felt that users do not mind ads if these are personalised and customised. "There is lot of research that says that," she pointed out. Srinivasan echoed that thought. "I must say that if the material is relevant to the content consumer, generally blocking does not happen. You must be able to find the sweet spot of relevance."

So, looking into the future, what are the top three new ad formats that each panellist would vote for? Laxman's view was that Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality were the way forward - from an advertiser's perspective. From a publisher's perspective, pre- and mid-rolls will continue for some time. For Singh, video, voice and language (India is the second largest market to use google translate) are going to be big trends.

Srinivasan answers that question with an example. "We have TV programmes that are also carried on Youtube. There is a large section of the audience that has decided not to watch the programme on TV but watch it on Youtube. We have been trying to sell this to clients and agencies along with our TV spot - 'Why,' we tell them, 'don't you add on one more spot here or I can give you a brand placement on this. You can actually double your communication.' Somehow that is not reaching. If the efficiency of video is understood it can really change the game." Charles too is betting 'his dollar' on video and voice.

With brands wanting to integrate their content creatively on publishing platforms and publishers looking to innovate their way into clients' hearts, the relationship would seem to be heading for a win-win situation.

The event is partnered by - (platinum partner); Akamai and Facebook (silver partners); and Freshworks, Vidooly, comScore, Quintype, Times Internet, and 24 Frames Digital (bronze partners).