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Tablet Publishing: Re-Inventing the Advertising Wheel?

No one disputes consumers’ demand for their favourite titles as rich tablet editions. Whilst the good news is that consumers are happy to pay for tablet editions, the less good news is that tablet advertising has yet to really get off the ground. Shaun Barriball looks at the reasons.

By Shaun Barriball

As we approach the second birthday of the iPad, tablet advertising is still very much in its infancy, as it struggles with a lack of standards, irrelevant metrics and generally articulating to advertisers the ROI for tablet adverts. In this article, I explore some of the issues, trends and overall maturity of tablet advertising.

As background, to justify demand, it appears from market research that consumers are happy to receive advertising in digital editions:

* More than 7 in 10 digital magazine readers find display ads in digital online magazines less intrusive than banner ads; 8 in 10 see them as “easier to read”, “inviting” and “more fun.”

* Nearly 8 in 10 digital readers report display ads in digital magazines as more authoritative, credible and trustworthy than banner ads.

Source (Magazine Media Factbook)

There is a titanic battle being waged between the print and digital divisions within many large publishers as to who owns tablet content. This battle has been a major contributing factor to the lack of standardisation. The print teams are familiar with circulation-based advertising where the total number of readers determines the cost of advertising a full or partial page ad. Print ads, in this static medium, never change. Contrast this with the digital online world where “CPM” (cost per mille) and “CPC” (cost per click) are common ad metrics. Adverts are dynamic and displayed only until the campaign is complete. The concept of an indiscriminate interstitial or pop-up overlay banner is generally fairly offensive to a pixel-perfect magazine editor.

Let’s examine some real world examples of tablet advertising. With the launch of Apple Newsstand, many publishers have bulk published PDF replicas of their titles. This was partly encouraged to satisfy outdated industry guidelines that required 95% of the content (including ads) to be used in digital editions for them to count towards circulation. As their name implies, these typically replicate the print adverts and are therefore flat, essentially single image ads, whose size and text are appropriate for print, not tablets. As something like the iPad 10” display is only half the density of a printed page, users have to pinch and zoom to read content.

Beyond flat ads, the Metro tablet edition includes adverts that are designed for the device. They fit the screen and include one or more call to action(s), typically links to web pages. Immediate Media (formerly BBC Magazines) has publicised the evolution of GoodFood from PDF replica into a profitable and award winning digital edition which is largely ad funded. Partnerships with advertisers like Tesco and John Lewis have resulted in fully integrated campaigns within GoodFood’s digital content. Arguably one of the best executions of tablet advertising is the Guardian iPad app, which includes a mixture of tasteful in-page contextual ads and full-page interstitials. The Guardian secured Channel 4 as the sponsor for the app launch in October 2011, with a campaign including an ambitious full page ad embodying the Channel 4 brand. This ad has a suite of brand interactions including rich media, add to calendar, newsletter sign up and even lets you play with the Channel 4 logo.

Lack of standardisation

The standardisation of online ad formats has been driven by bodies such as the IAB although, as yet, little has emerged in the form of tablet ad specs. Barriers to standardisation include:

* Different apps allocate a different amount of space to adverts; even full page adverts differ with some displaying the iPad’s status bar whilst others fill the whole screen.

* Fragmentation of tablets has become a huge issue with the proliferation of Android devices in addition to the iPad, Kindle Fire, Playbook etc. This fragmentation, particularly of screen sizes, makes standardisation difficult

* The authoring of tablet publications utilises different methods with many adopting InDesign with digital publishing solutions such as our own PressRun, others use pure HTML, PDF etc, and now iBooks2 joins the party. Each has its own set of supported interactivity for advertisers.

As a result of the above, each publisher tends to have their own ad formats forcing publishers to come up with exotic vocabularies to describe the ad options. For example, one of the best publicly accessible examples is Time Inc:

* Straight from Print – flat PDF ads

* Designed for Tablet – the optimised size for the iPad

* Enhanced for Tablet – rich interactive ads that include rich media, data capture, etc.

Let’s be clear, this lack of standardisation causes confusion and ultimately reduces the willingness of agencies to invest in these new media ad opportunities. This is particularly significant when you consider an inventory buyer will often want a single campaign to run across multiple apps. In fact, as an indicator of the immaturity of the market, many of these publishers are offering their own ad creation services to agencies – just not a scalable solution.

Thus far, much of the discussion has referred to fixed ads much like print. Given the connected nature of most tablets, one would expect that the online model would be more appropriate. On websites, consumers are used to ads being served in real-time which are targeted to them or their search. Unfortunately, there are certain characteristics of tablets and their usage which makes adopting the default online approach difficult. Firstly, these are mobile devices, therefore the connectivity status of the user may be 3G only or possibly offline completely. You cannot serve an ad to a device that is offline in real-time. Furthermore, a 10” screen like the iPad 2 needs an ad which is circa 1MB in size to deliver any reasonable resolution. Even for a user on wifi, the advert will take a noticeable amount of time to download and display if requested on-demand. So, as a result, tablet apps which use a pure online model tend to use small banner overlays which are a) small to download and b) not affected if the user is offline.

There is another, less publicised, reason why online models such as CPM and CPC are not being adopted by tablet publications. Until the true value of fully interactive tablet adverts is recognised by the market, there will be a nervousness that the CPM for a tablet ad would be compared to its online equivalent. This would make tablet adverts look expensive. Some of the most used apps such as Metro have reported one million-plus “PIs” (page impressions) per day, which if you consider only a percentage of pages within each issue are ads, the CPM rate would be an order of magnitude higher than online, scaring potential advertisers. The contrary is of course true, advertisers get great value from Metro.

The ad serving challenge

As publishers of digital editions look to leverage their online ad infrastructure within their digital editions, the challenges described above require new approaches to serving the ads. If you classify an ad served on demand as ‘real-time’, we’ve seen demand for providing advanced ad serving schemes including:

* Ads baked into the publication at ‘publish time’ in which the ads are requested from the ad server at the point the issue is published, and included in the issue download. This ensures the ads are available offline.

* Just-in-time ad requests at the point the app is launched, so ads are available ahead of the point it needs to be displayed. Ads are cached so that they are then available for offline display.

* House ads are baked in as fallbacks and if the device is online, ads are served in real-time to replace them.

The compromise in schemes which bake ads into the digital edition is that they cannot be targeted. This is an issue in sectors like technical journals, particular medical, where adverts legally cannot be displayed to users in particular geographies. As a result, you start to roll the targeting logic into the app so, for example, the app ships with two or three ads for a given slot, and the display rules for the ad that is shown are baked into the app. These rules, might, for example, check the locale of the device. This is an unsustainable approach as, inevitably, ad targeting rules will get more complex and the right place for ad targeting is in ad servers, not built into apps. This in turn yields yet another hybrid model; where the ads themselves are cached in the app, but a very lightweight call to the ad server is used to determine which adverts to show. This avoids any multi-MB creative download, but offers the advertiser some level of inventory control.

One question is, “What would Steve do?” given Apple defined the tablet medium. The three letter answer is “iAd”. It is beyond the scope of this article to analyse if iAd has been a success or failure, but certainly it has not been widely adopted within digital editions. Agencies want to be able to create ads which can be deployed across multiple channels, and today’s iAd is essentially a closed system, with a significant minimum campaign size which is well documented.

Analytics is another contributory factor to the immaturity of the tablet advertising market. Publishers at organisations such as ABC have been arguing over how best to measure the usage of tablet applications. Once again this harps back to the print model where certified metrics from companies like ABC are the basis on which advertisers trust the industry. What is “number of app downloads” worth as a metric if most people delete within five minutes? Should the “number of unique users” of digital editions be counted towards the overall circulation of a title? How should advertisers interpret the additional metrics that digital editions provide; like average time per page, average time per session, number of sessions per day etc, which all have value. In terms of oiling the wheels for advertisers, standardisation of metrics is also a major requirement.

The degree to which digital editions deliver much needed profit back into the publishing industry will be determined by the speed with which ad revenue flows into the tablet medium. We are arguably still very much in the stone age of tablet advertising today. The reality is that until formats are standardised, we as a provider of digital publishing solutions will continue to spend hours educating agencies on how to develop tablet ads and developing truly engaging ads ourselves. We’d rather be working on delivering amazing tablet experiences!