People called us mad.
“You’re going to hire a bunch of developers and build your own CMS?! In Ruby on Rails? That sounds time-consuming, expensive, and risky. Not to mention stupid.”
It was early December 2012, and the C-suite had been submerged in strategic planning since September. Where’s print revenue heading in the next five years? What about mobile surf versus desktop? Traditional television versus streaming?
What are the trends in charging for journalistic content? The trends in advertising? What online design trends will become normative and which are simply buzzwords? Are there any successful digital media companies and what are they doing? What are the successful, purely digital players doing?
And the biggest question of all:
“Where are our customers, and why aren’t they with us?”
I was asked to answer the question on what to do with our current CMS and which road we should take moving forward into a digital future. This text is about the road we chose, and how it now allows us to circumvent adblockers and achieve articles with ads that load instantly.
It’s about betting on the mad alternative for a change.
Adapting your business to fit the tool or the tool to fit your business?
I spent the fall of 2012 traveling all over Sweden, interviewing key personnel at MittMedia, as well as other media companies. Bits and pieces fit together, and by December, when I handed in my report, I presented three alternatives for replacing our current CMS:
- Buy a monolith CMS from a trusted vendor, rely mainly on its external development, and complement that with a small internal development staff.
- Build platform and products around an open source CMS like WordPress. Divide development between the open source community and development in-house.
- Hire our own developers, build a micro-services platform from scratch with Ruby on Rails, and plug in different third-party components such as the different components of a CMS.
Maybe it was the price tag, maybe it was my prose, or maybe it was the years of organisational frustration with the old CMS. Either way, the C-suite and board went for the recommended, third alternative, and on January 4, 2013, we started a massive tech platform overhaul that still today is not finished, nor will it ever be.
But this text is not about all the tough platform projects since the board’s decision. Nor is it a tech post with a platform and tech stack walkthrough, or a text about creating an agile, scalable development organisation within a traditional media company. It’s not even about our cultural journey or MittMedia’s digital transformation.
It’s about adblocking and the tough competition that media companies are struggling with today from tech giants like from Facebook, Google, and Apple. These are things we couldn’t possibly foresee in the fall of 2012, yet find ourselves well-equipped to battle today.
It’s about going for the mystery box behind door No. 3, and even though it’s time-consuming, adapting the tools to fit our business instead of buying a monolith CMS and adapting our business to fit the tool.
Adblockers and the battle over the Internet
Internet advertising has remained unregulated for many years, and, as a result we now have slow and heavy sites, ads that register views without ever being seen, ads that inject dangerous code or follow you across the Internet. Not to mention ads that block the content or crash your Web browser.
No wonder adblockers are rising in popularity. In 2015, there was a rise of serious investigations into why people install adblockers and the many media initiatives to stop adblockers. The two most common tactics from media sites are pleading for the user to allow ads or blocking the whole site unless the user pays.
Though I can sympathise with both alternatives, my main problem with these media sites is this: Your ad environment still sucks.
It still eats mobile surf, and it fools people. To me, if you’re asking or ordering people to turn off adblockers, you need to at least present some improvements to your ad environment in return.
The problem for media companies is that pleading for adblocking exceptions is easy-peasy, but reconstructing how Internet advertising works is a hard nut to crack. Media sites have no control over what ads are being served on their sites, nor how the ads are being delivered because these factors are up to third parties like the adserver, DSP, SSP, and so on.
But, one might ask, why aren’t the adblockers blocking ads on Facebook or in my Google search results, or in my favourite mobile game on my iPhone? In fact, with iOS 9, Apple even offers us the functionality to turn on adblocking in mobile Safari. Why is this? How come the largest tech players are safe and media sites are chanceless?
Well, in short, because Apple, Google, and Facebook are the Internet, and right now they are battling over Internet advertising revenue. In that battle, the media companies are just collateral damage, as stated in this excellent piece by The Verge.
Now, why is it in Apple’s interest to help you block ads? Because the biggest provider of ads on the Web is Google. It actually runs a huge adserver called DFP (Doubleclick For Publishers) that most big media sites use, as well as the largest ad exchange on the Web called AdX.
And, as for Facebook, well, it is its own ecosystem fighting to make people surf and search on Facebook instead of Google so as long as Facebook is also screwing things up for Google, Apple won’t interfere.
Why media companies should avoid becoming coffee farmers
Another thing that was highly debated last year was the tech giants’ sudden philanthropy toward publishers.
Google not only offered to help us improve our page speed through its Google AMP initiative but also offered media companies real cash through Google DNI. Apple launched Apple News Format, and Facebook was gracious enough to let publishers use their lightning-fast service Facebook Instant Articles and let them keep 70% of the ad revenue. Baekdal wrote a great article about this that I definitely recommend.
Out of these initiatives, I find Facebook Instant Articles the most troublesome for publishers, and I’m not alone.
By placing their content on Facebook, media companies are giving up a precious asset: behavioural data. It’s what Facebook’s been lacking so far. They know everything about you up until you click that news link. And even though you read the article in Facebook’s in-app browser, the company can’t see how you’re interacting with the content.
The only engagement Facebook can track is the time interval from when you open the browser until you close it. It doesn’t know whether you read the whole article, watched the whole video clip, how many images you flipped through, read several articles, visited another sub-section, or left a comment (unless the news site uses Facebook for comments).
Also, if I was Facebook, I’d be concerned about the fact that people tend to simply share articles without writing status updates thus making Facebook more of a Web portal.
Until now that is. With Instant Articles, Facebook gets to feed its algorithms all this precious engagement data it’s been lacking so far. And this is yum-yum to the Facebook AI, for instance, because image updates occur more often than text updates, and the Facebook AI needs to improve its image recognition.
So not only are the media companies giving Facebook all this by using Instant Articles, but they are giving them premium content to experiment with. Created by some of the world’s most distinguished media companies. So Facebook’s 30/70 revenue split with publishers is actually well-invested money.
Now we’re getting down to brass tacks. Think about the Internet as an ecosystem. Better yet, think about the news site as a coffee plantation with miles and miles of coffea plants, or articles. Think about the media companies as coffee farmers, and Facebook, Apple, and Google as giant, global coffee brands.
Which part of the ecosystem sounds the most exciting, profitable, and future-proof to you? Perfecting the art of producing content and growing coffea plants, or being responsible for transforming beans to pleasurable moments? Tinkering with recipes, trying out different flavours, different brands, pricing, marketing. Talking to coffee drinkers, monitoring user tests of new experiments, getting user feedback, evolving, adapting, and struggling with tough competitors.
The future role for media companies if they rely too heavily on the tech giant’s platforms is that of a coffee farmer: a mere content provider in a much bigger, digital ecosystem. It’s an existential question — for media companies and coffee farmers alike: What happens if you get stuck at the wrong end of the value chain?
Today we reshape the Web
In December 2012, MittMedia bet on the mad alternative to tackle an uncertain, digital future. That decision has now given us the luxury of a choice: What roles do we want to play in the digital ecosystem and how much should we rely on others like Facebook, Google, and Apple?
We need that behavioural data because we need to feed it to our own algorithms to improve the automatisation and personalisation of our digital news products because we think that is the future of news.
I am very proud and happy to be a part of MittMedia and this exciting journey because today we are launching the new version of our Android news app and uploading our iOS news app to the App Store.
These apps feature a revolutionary, new way to show ads. We took the hard road, we bet for the mad alternative, and now, as the first media company in the Nordics, we have reconstructed how online advertising works.
The new version of our apps will feature ads that are delivered on the server-side instead of the client-side. This means several exciting things, but to wrap up this text, there are two significant advantages:
First of all, it means that we can also have Instant Articles since all articles including ads can load extremely fast. Second, it means that the ads cannot be blocked since they are a part of the content. Yes, that’s correct. The ads will not be possible for adblockers to block.
The apps are just the first step. If all goes as planned, we can implement this on all our 21 news sites before the end of 2016.
This is not only a technical victory. Our new technology means that advertisers can direct ads to specific audience segments or geography, much like Facebook, and that we can show an ad until it meets its in-screen quota, and unlock new and valuable offerings to our advertisers.
This, in turn, will result in more relevant ads for our users, in addition to faster loading sites with less site-weight, consuming fractions of the old bandwidth.
Most importantly, it means that we can rethink what great online advertising should be like for our users and advertisers, and act on those insights. Once again MittMedia stands ready to meet the future even though we don’t know what that future holds.