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David Pemsall FT Media

Guardian overhauls site in anticipation of publishers selling ads based on time


By Seb Joseph, News editor

January 28, 2015 | 6 min read

The Guardian has overhauled its site, trumpeting a flurry of advertising opportunities it hopes will fuel ongoing efforts to sell advertisers on reader attention not clicks, in an environment designed to improve the chances of branded content being seen.


Aware it needs to prove advertising effectivess beyond clicks, the publisher is increasingly leaning toward time-based metrics to push its inventory. Its site has been relaunched with this shift in mind, blending images, video and text in a “container” format that allows for more flexibility in terms of how content and ads are laid out online.

For the first time brands can now run a single creative execution on Guardian content across all device screen sizes.

The previous site was too restrictive, admitted the Guardian’s director of digital strategy Wolfgang Blau, limiting advertisers to a finite number of static spots on web pages. Now, ads can either be stitched into full-width banners or an expandable responsive banner of the homepage and section pages, increasing the likelihood of viewability.

Third parties have been hired to help the Guardian track its viewabiliy fulfilments as it looks to purge non-viewable ads from its inventory and therefore maintiain premium prices. The scale of investment acknowledges the urgency to resolve wider disagreements between publishers and advertisers over just how much ads are being seen.

Blau added: “What we’ve done with the ad formats answers one of the biggest questions around view time, which is how do you insert ads dynamically further down in the page instead of just having [static] ad spaces at the top and bottom.”

“Assuming that the market will move toward time metrics, we wanted to make sure that readers don’t just arrive at an article, they actually read it and spend time on it.”

This shift required a change in the presentation of pages. Its “old” concept of a homepage was “broken”, revealed Blau and could only be fixed by fulfilling the core “update” and “discovery” urges that keep pulling loyal readers back to the site. While content is more weighted toward news on mobiles, the concept aims to drive more people to the homepage in the hope that they keep reading for longer.

The revamped site’s fixation on homepage traffic feeds into its “audiences not platforms” sales proposition. In any given month, around a third of its 100 million visits from around the world land on the homepage, claimed Blau, demonstrating the “time” and “attention” the Guardian brand commands from loyal readers.

“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t repeat what we think we could have served with earlier responsive relaunches in the industry especially in the US,” he added. “We’re now able to geo-target sponsored content or target them according to certain tags because all the Guardian’s editorial content is now wonderfully tagged. There’s much more precision in what we’re doing.”

But the improved precision needs to be backed by more readers to the site, which is where social media comes in. Guardian visitors can now use WhatsApp to share content directly from their mobiles as well as tweet a particular part of an article such as a statistic or quote when they highlight it.

The Guardian wants the updates to help draw more social media users to its articles, despite the risk of increasing traffic from sources it can’t track. This so-called “dark traffic” is not as bad as it sounds, according to the publisher’s deputy chief executive David Pemsel, who said it was more of a concern for those publishers yet to master the art of being part of an “open” and “digital” economy. According to A/B testing a good portion of the Guardian’s dark social traffic flows from Facebook.

“It’s a strategic decision we’re making to be as open to the web possible,” said Pemsel. “I’d rather have the problem of having to decipher the dark social because you cannot underestimate it. The full proposition of the [relaunched site] is formed by our understanding of how content is consumed both on and off platform and if we are unable to understand the different ways our content is shared then we would not have the design that we’ve got today.

"The meetings that we have with the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter about how we can foster even more social interaction is with the highest level of their product engineers. I’d rather have that than us just trying to scrape the surface of what we can do on those channels.”

One area in which the site will have a limited impact is the publisher’s programmatic offering. Launched in 2013, the Guardian uses its internal trading desk to woo advertisers with the promise of what it has dubbed “premium programmatic”. Much of the work the media owner is doing around its next generation ad formats will support the offering but it is not a core part of how the site has been overhauled.

“There was a time when there were reservations from premium publishers and premium brands that programmatic was somehow contradictory to being able to deliver a premium audience whereas now I don’t think there is,” said Pemsall.

His observation comes back to the publisher’s anticipation that the publishing media metric of the future will include some form of attention-based metrics. While publishers in the UK have expressed an interest in the technique, the Financial Times is the only one of note to commit to testing it. A lack of standardisation and best practice guidelines are both hurdles that would need to be overcome by the industry for it to become a viable alternative.

Does the shifting advertisng landscape in publishing interest you? Then why not register here for our MediaSlap event. This event is about bringing together the exciting new developments of the new school with the experience of the old.

David Pemsall FT Media

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