Webinar – Optimizing Display Ad Revenue and UX

Digital publishers are always striving to optimize their web properties. In this webinar, we discuss real examples and industry trends that publishers should be paying attention to in order to maximize their display ad revenue and UX.

You can hear from Chris Reid, CEO at Sortable.com, and Joshua Mendelssohn and Jeff Myers, Co-Founders of Factinate.com as they share their learnings and insights in the complicated and ever-changing ad tech industry. You can learn from industry veterans on challenges facing digital publishers in the current age, like

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If you need help implementing any (or all!) of the ideas discussed in this webinar, contact us at Sortable.

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Video Transcript

Craig: Hello everyone, and welcome to today's webinar on optimizing revenue and user experience. My name is Craig Ling and I'll be your moderator. I work on the monitoring team here at Sortable and I'm really excited to be hosting this session today. Co-moderating will be Jamie Murphy, VP of product here at Sortable.

Jamie: Hi everyone.

Craig: I'm pleased to introduce today's speakers, Chris Reid, Jeff Myers, and Josh Mendelssohn. Chris is our CEO at Sortable, and today he's going to share trends, themes, and insights from working with hundreds of publishers and having access to massive amount of data. ... Sorry. Jeff and Josh are the co-founders of Factinate. Currently in their second wildly successful digital publishing venture. Jeff and Josh are going to share their learnings as publishers in the industry and things they pay attention to to ensure they are maximizing their earnings.

Craig: Before I hand the mic over to Chris, I have a few housekeeping items to cover about this presentation. First we will be recording today's webinar, and everyone registered will receive an email within a few days with a link to the recorded version. We'd love to hear from you. If you have questions for our speakers, please feel free to send it through the Q&A tab in the webinar's software and we will try to answer as many questions as possible at the end of the presentation. So without further ado, I'd like to kick things off by welcoming our CEO, Chris Reid. Chris, over to you.

Chris: Thanks, Craig. That's great. So, I'm really excited about today. I'm just amped that Factinate can be here with us in our office. I think growing any business is really hard, and the guys at Factinate have really done an exemplary job. And so, as a bit of a serial entrepreneur myself, Sortable's my fifth startup, I just have a lot of respect, but I have sort of twice as much respect because my last business was a publishing business and really, being a publisher myself, really formed the impetus for why I wanted to start Sortable. And I'll give you a little bit of information about Sortable.

Chris: Again, I started because of the pain I felt as a publisher, and I really wanted to go out and build an agnostic and transparent company that really empowered publishers and had a core focus on helping them grow revenue, and there's really three key things that make up what Sortable does. And take a look at the next slide here. So, the three core focuses of Sortable. The first one is our client-side container, and the whole point of the client-side container is publishers need to do a lot of things on-page. They need to do real-time flooring, they need to handle bad ads, they need to be able to execute A/B experiments, there's a lot of data capture that needs to happen, you need to monitor viewability, you need to monitor bid-level data, UTMs, URLs. So, there's all that data capture, there's things like manage refresh, native [inaudible 00:03:15]. And so really, what we wanted to do was build a client-side container that made these things unified, they work all well together, and it works well with all the other platforms like Amazon.

Chris: The next thing we wanted to do was we wanted to have a data warehouse where all this really important data can be stored because we're huge fans of data and we don't really think we can run a business as optimally without the data. And so, to us, storing all this bid-level data and providing publishers with query tools, advanced analytics, allowing them to do yield and header bidding analysis, monitor of viewability, report on key-value pairs. And we'll get more into analytics as we go through this presentation, but data and analytics are the key part of what Sortable wanted to deliver to publishers. And then, the last thing that really makes up the third leg of the stool so to speak, is Sortable working directly with agencies and DSDs to deliver significant and different shaded demand to our partners. ... So, now I'd like to get the guys from Factinate, please ... Again, welcome. Thanks for coming today guys, and would love you just to share a little bit about your business.

Josh: Thanks, Chris. Josh here from Factinate. Just to kick things off, we're really, really happy to be here. Special thanks to Sortable for asking us to participate in this webinar. It's flattering. For the folks listening, probably useful to know a little about us. So, Factinate is, as the name suggests, a publisher of facts. We write on a variety of topics. Humanity, such as history, articles like, "46 Facts About Ancient Rome." We also cover a lot of entertainment and pop culture, whether that be facts about Friends or facts about The Sopranos. We're fairly new. Factinate launched January of 2017, and we've grown over the past two years. Two quite volatile years I'd say in the online publishing space. Now, a bit about us by the numbers. We're up to 14 employees. We do six million monthly visitors, 200 million ad impressions, and we've also had quite the journey on the Adups side, throughout which Sortable has been an incredible partner, and definitely get into some of the details there on the next slide. ...

Jeff: Thanks, Josh. So, I think by wildly successful, Craig's referring to the team that we've been able to build and lucky to work [inaudible 00:05:42] Factinate. But Sortable certainly helped us get there. We started working with Sortable as we were beginning to pick up steam, and we certainly drew the attention of malicious advertisers. It became a huge problem for us. Another hurdle we were facing is getting in touch with premium advertisers. Really hard for a small site, but since working with Sortable we've seen a [inaudible 00:06:02] increase in session value, a 60% increase in eCPM, and essentially doubled our page RPM. And over the next 30 minutes we're gonna talk more about how Sortable's been an extremely important ad partner and also strategic partner for Factinate. ...

Chris: Okay great, so the first thing we wanted to go through today is we wanted to talk about viewability, and I think viewability is something that became a hugely hot topic in 2017, that's continued through '18. It's still there and it's very much relevant. I think it's important to help everyone understand that viewability is all about what advertisers are doing, right? So, on the backend, the buy-side, they have requirements for certain levels of viewability, and if that's how they're buying, then the inventory you're selling is going to be impacted by that, those buying behaviors. And so, if you fall below these advertisers' sort of requirements, you're not going to be eligible for these higher paying campaigns. And there's a lot of things you can do, right? You can look at lazy loading, you can look at A/B testing, [inaudible 00:07:19], and you can really analyze your data and analyze your site performance and your UX to drive through these things, but let's take a look at some more details around viewability. ...

Chris: So, I think what we've seen is ... Again, the last slide sort of mentioned that there's cliffs, right? So, at some point you start to unlock an advertiser's dollars, and it really depends on site, it depends on ad unit. And so, there's no magic formula here, but there's generalization, and some of the generalizations are that definitely for certain sites and for certain ad units we can unlock higher CPM almost like a [inaudible 00:08:02]. It's not perfectly true, but we've definitely seen it. And what we're looking at now is a graph of a publisher where the step function was absolutely true, and as you can see, as viewability increased due to UX changes onsite, which we sort of A/B tested and worked through with them, you saw CPM lift right away, and then as bidders responded to that increased CPM or that increased viewability, CPM's continued to rise.

Chris: And the next slide, we can take a quick look at a bit of a scatter plot. Scatter plots are not the best way to curve fit a step curve, but this gives you an idea of distribution, of how are different viewability levels affecting CPMs? And one thing that I think you can see is that between sort of 55 ... You can start to see there's a lot of impressions that, say that low CPMs, and then they start to jump up, and so you can sort of see this viewability threshold, the sweet spot is between 55 and 70% where you can unlock these higher paying campaigns. And what Sortable really wants to do ... The reason why we track viewability at a bid-level, is so that you can really unpack and analyze viewability from any facet. And by being able to analyze viewability across any facet, you can then optimize and test across any facet, and we think that's really important. But I think what's best here is ... Let's talk to Factinate about this because you guys have some real-time experience, you've done a lot of testing around viewability, and you have a great story about how viewability unlocks additional sort of revenue opportunities for you.

Jeff: Yeah, we certainly do. In the last year viewability's become the metric we're hearing the most about from advertisers. So, advertisers don't just want to see a high volume of impressions, they want to see a high volume of highly viewable impressions. And in our conversations with our ad partners, we've heard that 70% is that level where you're really gonna unlock the PMP campaigns or maybe that higher tier of demand. In some cases, you'll see almost a point for point correlation between increased viewability and increased eCPM, but in many cases, as you sort of showed in the last two slides ago, there might be an initial increase, but then it takes time for advertisers to get used to seeing your ad units at that level, and then align their buys towards your better performing units. For us, when we switched, we switched from a page native layout to an only single page layout where every ad is lazy loaded, we saw a massive increase in sitewide viewability. We jumped up from around 50% to everything being over 70%.

Jeff: But for us, our eCPM's actually decreased as a whole when we moved to single page. We have some theories as why that might be, but we think this provides the best user experience, and clearly displays ads, increases intentional clicks, which actually provides more value to our advertisers. So for us, we're gonna keep investing in higher viewability, and over time we hope that our advertisers will reward us for that. Our articles are also extremely long, so we have some articles that run 8,000 words, so lazy loading for us was a must. I mean, you can imagine how if you load an ad at the bottom of an 8,000 word article, it's probably not that likely to be viewable. But for us working with Sortable, it's helped a ton using their analytics, and running traffic to different layouts let us choose the layout that we found the best balance between user experience and viewability. And you have to make some sacrifices, but we think overall this has been the best for us.

Jamie: I think guys it's interesting, you mentioned UX and user experience and balancing that. So, it's not just about viewability, but it's also about how you drive longer sessions, how you keep users engaged throughout those sessions. Can you talk about some of the trade-offs you made between UX, viewability, and also sort of session dynamics?

Jeff: Certainly.

Josh: [crosstalk 00:12:10]. Oh.

Jeff: We certainly can. I think what we saw, which I should've mentioned probably, is that as a result of the better user experience in running a single page layout is users are actually seeing more ads, and as a result our session RPMs are actually increasing. So, although eCPM might have taken a little bit of a dip, it was a higher session value for us, and that's really what we're looking for. We're looking to drop the most value [inaudible 00:12:36] on the advertising side, and also provide users with the best experience, and we're able to nail that.

Josh: Yeah, absolutely. And there's also things ... In terms of the UX viewability trade-off, there's common tactics that get used that perhaps are not the best user experience. And so, for example, as users are scrolling down our website, our ads do not stick. But if you did make them stick in viewport, for say 200 pixels, that probably would increase viewability. How much would that increase our CPMs? Well, it's tough to say, but these are sort of the things that we wrestle with, right? So, we might make that change, see how it works for a week or so, and if we see a substantial change, well we have a decision to make, and if not, we would roll it back.

Jeff: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, no it's definitely interesting, and it's hard to make these decisions without the data, right? And so-

Jeff: Impossible.

Chris: Yeah, we would definitely say impossible, so I'm glad you said that. So-

Josh: [crosstalk 00:13:33].

Chris: You can try.

Jeff: [crosstalk 00:13:35] successful.

Chris: Yeah, I mean this is the thing, right? We're trying to remove guesswork out of the revenue generation process. And so, another error where we've applied a lot of process to is bad ads, it's ad quality, right? This is another opportunity for data drip and insights. And so, first I'm gonna talk a little bit about ad quality that's subjective, right? One publisher's bad ad is another publisher's gold mine. In-banner video might fit that narrative. But every publisher has different needs, they have different audiences, they have different preferences on what they want their users to experience. And so, this is the area of subjectivity, and we view our area in the role of subjectivity is to really set up, maintain, and enforce.

Chris: So, if we're providing a managed service, then we're going to really help set up the blocks, whether they're URL level or advertiser level, set them up across the DSP, set them up across exchanges, and then monitor and enforce. And that's an ongoing effort. And we also work on letting users submit when they see a bad ad, right? So, getting user signals from the site level that, "Hey I didn't like this ad," and gathering some data around that so that you can really address that subjectivity. Because maybe it wasn't a malicious ad, but it was ... Maybe you run a clean eating site, and your user is really offended that McDonald's was serving on it. Fair enough. If that's where your preferences fit, then we're going to support you then.

Chris: But let's talk more about the ads that no one wants. ... So, if you think of that category, what ads does no one want? You thinking about the mobile redirects, you're thinking about broken creatives, you're thinking about sort of bad JavaScripts that hurts your DOM rendering, malicious ads. And you can get into the area of clickbait or phishing scams. And so, these are things that no one wants, and typically what you're doing, you have a bad actor and the bad actor is using a third party ad serving tool, and they're using that as sort of a point of intermediation where some of the times they'll send good ads. They'll try and send good ads to the scanners and to the white hats, and then when they have their targets requesting ads, they'll try and render the bad ads, and they'll even further try and mask the bad ads by having a clean looking creative and a clean advertising URL, but malicious JavaScript under the covers.

Chris: And so, that's a little bit about the premise, but maybe we can talk a little bit now about how do you deal with that? Because it's really tough in an environment. You have control of your website, but you don't have control over the serve environment as a publisher. You don't have control over the creatives. So, one of the recent introductions in the industry is ad monitoring, and we're huge fans of ad monitoring. At Sortable, we've always had a ticketing system, right? So every bad ad, every ad quality complaint goes into our ticketing system, and so we've had this really good ... We've had data around what bad ad complaints look like. What's the prevalence of them, or how often are they occurring? And Confiant who is probably one of the first companies to market with a product, we got them live, and we started implementing their software where they would block bad ads, and we were able to see a 46% reduction in tickets into our system for bad ads.

Chris: So for us, this is great, right? For the publishers, it's great. We're seeing a much lower prevalence. But to take this further, right? To go back to data, if you log every single one of these bad ad instances, you can do more. And so, that's what I want to talk about next, is how do you do more? ... So, right now this is data's looking at the malicious IBV and audio. So, instances of different types of bad ads and the block rates, right? So, block rates indicates the prevalence of them, prevalence of attacks on your site. And you can see that over time two things are going down. The base loads, so the base amount of blocking is going down, but also the severity of the attacks. Any time you see a spike, that's 'cause someone's attacked.

Chris: A good example is on Labor Day weekend, when the bad guys think everyone's left work, right? Everyone's at home drinking a beer, boom, that's when they come with the attacks. So, you see these spikes on Sundays, on Saturdays, on holidays when everyone's meant to be at home. And so, those are the spikes. But what you can do is if you're collecting all this data, and what we do at Sortable, is we use this data to track down bad creative IDs. We use this to institute blocks, we look at the underlying SSPs, we look at problematic exchanges, and we accurately initiate blocks. We talk to partners, we block bad creatives, bad advertisers, and we continually push down this route, and that's what's contributed to our accounts' continual decline in bad ad instances. But you guys have Factinate, and I really want to let you talk now 'cause I've talked way too long. You've had your own really interesting experiences with bad ads, and from a publisher perspective, can you speak to how that's affected you and your business?

Josh: Definitely. I mean, we used to get absolutely killed by bad ads. There was a time where we were seeing three to four attacks per month, and honestly it's hard to even explain just how damaging these attacks were. I mean, just in term of earning potential, we'd see our revenue per user cut in half while we were being attacked, we'd see time onsite cut in half, but there were also some other major concerns. I mean, it would alienate users, we'd start seeing Facebook comments, people saying, "It's a stupid spam site." And by the way, what I'm talking about here are really the malicious ads. These are mobile redirects where users gonna land on factinate.com, and then they're going to be told that they won a million dollars or an Amazon gift card, but newsflash, they had not. But they were certainly very upset. And it also creates a policy risk for us.

Josh: So we do Facebook marketing, we're expanding our audience to the Facebook ads platform. The Facebook policy team ... Even though we're not trying to redirect anyone, we are held accountable. If people are getting redirected when they're hitting our site, it's our ads that will get disapproved, and it's ultimately our accounts that are at risk of being in bad standing. This is one of the main reasons we switched over to Sortable. We know that they've had an ad quality team that was very dedicated. And that is true, we used to see attacks, and we would submit tickets, and their ad quality team would block these bad actors. But it's sort of fighting a losing battle still. The manual process, it just isn't enough because these creatives can continue to come through, you block it from one DSP and it finds your site through another DSP, or these bad actors just find a new way to continue to attack you.

Josh: It was really ad blocking scripts that started to make a huge, huge difference. We work with Confiant through Sortable's partnership with them, and they've been awesome. We're also working with a company called Clean Creative and really, since we started working with them, these guys are blocking these scripts and these bad ads in real time, and we've seen a decrease from maybe three or four attacks per month to getting attacked once every two months and for a much shorter duration because we're able to ... Let's say I email the Clean Creative team, and [inaudible 00:22:01], "Hey we're getting attacked right now," and they'll find the vulnerability, they'll block it, and things will return to normal. And this is critical, getting this under control. 'Cause not only is it so damaging for all the reasons I discussed, basically it also can destroy any tests you're running. If you're seeing what improves viewability, then suddenly you get attacked by a bunch of bad ads, well all your metrics are gonna plummet and basically your data is no good. ...

Jamie: Cool. There may be ... So, I think next ... We showed that graph with spikes, right? And talked a little bit about when a bad actor is initiating an attack, you get these huge spikes in volume. And I was wondering, why don't we take a look at the anatomy of one of these bad ad attacks? Do you guys wanna share your thoughts on what you see as publishers when one of these attacks sort of initiates?

Josh: Absolutely. So, you'll see here this spike in blocks. And what this is, is somebody deciding, "We're gonna target your site, we're gonna start redirecting users." And now, Confiant or Clean Creative steps in and they start blocking these attacks. Well, now the person who's attacking your site needs to adjust their strategy, they see that they're not actually making money attacking your site, and so they start to change and tweak things on your end. And then, they'll try and basically continue to attack you, and you call these "probing attacks", let's say from 13 to 22 on the graph there. And then eventually, they give up and they go and attack someone else, which is what you want. ...

Chris: Yeah, and hopefully everyone has a strong solution and the bad guys give up, or they have to regroup and come up with their next move.

Jeff: Yeah, I think that's the problem, is that they're always regrouping, coming out with the next move. So, it's on the guys like Confiant and Clean Creative to constantly be innovating, coming up with new ways to block those scripts, and it's extremely challenging 'cause the guys that are doing this are also very sophisticated. So, it's a constant battle, and you just have to route it out sometimes and hope for the best result.

Chris: Yeah, it's really fascinating. I mean, this sort of cat and mouse, it's never-ending. We were having lunch with the Google malware [inaudible 00:24:18] team and just talking about the different attack vectors and what things look like. And it's really fascinating, the bad actors are just continually getting more and more sophisticated, and as a publisher, I guess ... I think this is just a general theme, is how do you do all this yourself as a publisher, right? Are you gonna be an ad quality expert? Are you gonna be a big data expert? Because things are so hard, right? Because marketers are using such sophisticated tools, you now have to understand how marketers work because bad actors are using such sophisticated tools, you have to ... It becomes difficult, and I'm glad that at Sortable we've been able to help take some of that burden off of you guys' shoulders and let you focus on your core business.

Jeff: So do we. I mean, there's so many things to focus on. There's so many different players in ad tech, and they're all experts at what they do. And so, for a small publisher like us to be able to lean on our partners and not have to bring those people in-house, I mean we couldn't have done it, we couldn't have afforded all of those different specialists, so it's so important for us to have partners like this that can help us out.

Chris: So, I think the next thing we want ... We've been through viewability, we've been through bad ads. We want to talk about demand. We want to talk about sort of advertisers and why having advertisers is important. I think when you say it like that it sounds pretty obvious, right? If you have no advertisers, then there's no ads, and so what you need to do is you need to then think about, okay how do you have sufficient number of advertisers? How do you add demand density and unique and high quality demands so that your audience is being monetized at an appropriate level, right? Commensurate with the work you've put in as a publisher.

Chris: And so, I think a huge part of driving revenue is that demand density and making sure publishers have access to advertisers to bid on their inventories is critically important to us at Sortable, and so we always took this approach where we're gonna be an agnostic platform whose sole purpose is to transparently connect publishers to advertising dollars. And that sort of agnostic mission is why we're Google certified publishing partner, why we are one of Facebook's launch partners for Audience Network. It's why Amazon works closely with us and why their tech's integrated with ours. It's because we don't have a horse in the race. We're not demand biased. We really just want the best outcome. And I think part of that outcome, again, it comes back to technology, to generate really good revenues that results ... Even from a demand standpoint, there's a lot of technology involved. Part of that technology is your header bidding option, right?

Chris: So, at Sortable we became a member of Prebid.org because being a member of Prebid.org backs up our agnostic approach, right? It means that our publishers can work with anyone because everyone works with Prebid. It's the dominant auction ware in the world right now. And this is why we share on the mobile committee for Prebid, and it's why we do work directly with agencies. But if you think about the technology, one of the reasons why we built our Container was because our Container really helps unlock more revenue. It's how do you price to demand partners? How do you push them? How do you make sure that they're integrated well? How do you make sure that the cookie syncs are optimized? We talked about viewability. Viewability is this other thing where you're literally having a conversation with your advertising partner, and that conversation is, "Here's my inventory, here's what it looks like. Do you want to buy it?" And so, this sort of dance you're doing back and forth with demand partners requires a lot of tech for you to sort of execute well. And I'd really like to hear from you guys, how do you view demand? What's performing well for you? Where do you see really big impacts? Yeah.

Josh: Absolutely. Firstly, when it comes to demand sources, I recognize that what I'm about to say is not necessarily the conventional wisdom. A lot of experts will talk about how having four or five really premium demand partners can perform better than having a stack that hides, let's say 10 to 12 demand partners. For us, that hasn't really been our experience. For us, I would say having more premium demand bidding on our inventory has generally resulted in a higher eCPM. And Sortable's certainly been instrumental in bringing on these demand sources. We didn't have relationships with some of the people who are bidding on us now, Index and Amazon, some of them can be pretty tough to get, and Sortable certainly helped us there.

Josh: What we've seen is that a single source can really move the needle, and this can be good or bad. When we brought on Index for example, we saw our CPMs increase by 10% basically overnight. However, this can also go the other way where if you, for whatever reason, a DSP starts taking less interest in your inventory, you can see your numbers drop off quite significantly as well. And that's not to say that we're not selective with who we work with. We certainly are. But we typically would only remove a demand source if we're seeing all of the below. So, low participation rate, low win rate, low eCPMs. And latency is actually a little bit different than that. It's possible that there are latency issues. That could be a reason to remove demand even if the metrics are strong, but basically what I'm saying is you need to be seeing quite poor performance from our perspective for it to make sense to remove the demand.

Josh: And just the last piece to touch on, demand partner approval can be a bit of a slow process, and especially if you're a newer site, you wind up running a little bit of a rejection gauntlet where you're saying, "Hey please work with me," and various DSPs are coming back to you saying, "No you don't have enough traffic history." And that's certainly an area where Sortable really helped us. ...

Chris: That's great. Thanks guys. So, I think ... What I want to go into next is I want to talk about analytics. And