Content Sludge – Why it exists and how to avoid it

We all nod in agreement when someone says ‘quality over quantity’. Whether it’s discussing sausages for the barbecue or picking out flowers for your wedding day, no one wants to be that host who compromises the experience for their friends. It’s a gesture you make to those who are willing to give up their time to spend with you, showing value and appreciation for their presence. The same can be said for client meetings, interviews and even dates, no girl has ever said “That was a really boring date, but I was really impressed he managed to talk for hours!”.

Similarly when we read magazines we are being catered to with the best Screenshot 2015-02-21 at 10.54.18experience possible, New Scientist is a relatively small magazine for the cost, but it never lets the readers down, delivering interesting articles that leave a lasting impression on an audience looking to broaden their understanding of the world.

When it comes to digital content we’re slowly starting to see quantity being valued over quality, without anyone really owning up to it. For publishers pumping out page impressions and growing unique users seems to be the end goal, delivering a quality experience seems to drop into the periphery.

Betraying the community 

Mashable Australia, a respected tech blog that delivers latest innovation, insight and opinion decided to cover a story that has absolutely no relevance to their tech community. This isn’t their first offence, just one of the most obvious betrayals of their editorial integrity.

Not Mashable's finest moment
Not Mashable’s finest moment

As a reader of Mashable I’m not impressed that they’ve deemed this an adequate dish to serve up. I’m dining at Sydney’s exclusive Rockpool Bar & Grill but being served a mainstream Big Mac, and the most insulting part is they expect me not to notice. Is this sort of article worth diluting Mashable’s output and alienating their audience? It really depends on what they’re trying to achieve.

Everyone loves a Big Mac

A story about sweaters for penguins is bizarre, cute, feel good and arguably quite funny. You’d be hard pressed to find a topic and hero image that was more sharable across Facebook across such a broad audience of people ranging from girls cooing over cute animal pictures or guys sharing random weird stuff to their mates. The likelihood is that this article was shared across social channels, attracting a different audience to the usual tech community, and helped to grow Mashable’s unique audience number for that month. Mashable clearly values quantity over quality, and whilst by now you might think this is an attack on their site, it’s a much greater industry problem over how we measure success for publishers.

Look at this headline from Nielsen, Australia’s official supplier of online measurement. It champions Sydney Morning Herald ‘reaching top spot’ for news within Australia – amazing! great news for Fairfax, they’re beating their arch rivals, News Limited, time to break out the champagne!

Nielsen Fairfax News

A minor point in the detail is that News.com.au increased their time spent by a huge 17%! When we look into the breakdown of the numbers below, Sydney Morning Herald only beat News by 2.4% for unique audience visitors, and when you compare the time spent per person, News.com.au smashes SMH with 71% additional time spent. News also generates 18% more sessions per person, indicating a greater loyalty from their community. So who’s the real winner here? I’d argue not the site being headlined.

News.com.au are killing it for audience engagement
News.com.au are killing it for audience engagement

 Reach the people who count, rather than count the people you reach

Advertisers can sometimes take headlines over audience reach far too literally, everyone likes to back a winning horse and picking media partners is exactly the same. It’s far easier to tell your client “You’re in the biggest site in the category” rather than debate audience quality. Who can blame Mashable for their content strategy when reporting audience growth seems to be the only thing advertisers value?

The challenge then becomes a question of who you reach rather than where. If I want to reach an audience of Rockpool food connoisseurs, I can’t assume everyone in there is right for me, if half of them are happily chugging down Big Macs and finishing off with a McFlurry.

Take Subaru for example, they’re advertising the new Liberty, a car that starts at $30k for the base model. Assuming they want to reach an ambitious high income professional, a great audience for them is Business Insider. The problem for Subaru is they happen to release the Liberty during Valentine’s Day, a perfect seasonal stimulus to pump out content sludge.

Not the content Subaru had in mind
Not the content Subaru had in mind

Baring in mind Subaru are likely to have been sold a business audience, it’s likely they paid a hefty premium for such a high impact sponsorship. The last thing they’d think they were about to appear against would be movie suggestions for Valentine’s Day; especially when the audience they’re trying to reach are likely to be literally dining out at Rockpool that evening.

This is clearly a case of Business Insider having their cake and eating it, claiming they have a strong business audience, but propping up their unique visitors with broad viral content that will dilute the premium advertising product they’re selling.

Three tips for advertisers to avoid content sludge

1 – Be specific with the content you buy

The most important tip is not to be seduced by ‘Run of Site’ CPM rates. Most of the time media buyers can get a discount on inventory if they’re happy to run across any pages within the domain, even cheaper to run across a whole network of sites owned by the publisher. The justification for this is usually that you can maximise reach, and a wrongly assumed guaranteed quality of visitors to such niche community sites. It’s buys like this which publishers can take advantage of and fill up their bookings with sludge.

Be channel specific within your environment – You may pay more for channel specific content but it ensures that you reach your desired audience, as well as being contextually relevant and aligning with your audience’s frame of mind at the time of exposure. If you have a finance product, then be in the finance content of News.com.au rather than Run of Site.

It’s also best if you drill into relevant sub categories to maximise audience relevancy. Within finance if you’re providing a mid market insurance product such as TAL’s ‘coverbuilder’, then your most relevant audience are within the subcategory Money, then subcategory budgeting.

Screenshot 2015-02-21 at 13.34.21

Very rarely is there a further premium for drilling into sub categories, so you’re free to be as specific as you need to be – Publishers won’t like it as it makes it harder for them to deliver, but stay strong and get the content you’re paying for.

Mashable post
Unimpressed Mashable fans

2 – Get the most out of audience data

When using Nielsen the most common flaw media buyers have is looking at total audience reach. No surprises that Mi9 or Yahoo7 have the most users of a particular demo, but it doesn’t indicate quality or relevance for the product you’re advertising. The best way to use Nielsen data is to look for the most relevant category breakdown and rank sites by greatest audience index (how rich is the site with your required audience). Whilst Nielsen audience data will always have its flaws over accuracy (as it’s panel based data), this method is the best indication we have in market at the moment. It allows you to weed out the sites who bloat their traffic with mainstream content sludge.

Once you have that data you can insert a layer of site quality to increase the value of your media. You can do this by taking the average user time spent on the site and divide it by the amount of pages they read, giving an average dwell time per page. If you pay for media on a CPM (cost per thousand impressions), it will give you more control to pick the sites where your ads are likely to appear next to engaging content and will therefore be viewed for longer.

3 – Embrace contextual technology

If there are specific content topics you want to appear next to then there’s ad technology which makes this a whole lot easier. Within real-time bidding platforms such as the DoubleClick Bid Manager, you can specify relevant keywords within your bidding strategy. Across millions of websites whenever a page is loading DoubleClick will read the page, detect a relevant keyword and bid on the ads around it. This is great for when you know what type of content you need to be next to, and you don’t mind where it is. For example with Kia’s new 7 year warranty, they can target any pages discussing ‘Car warranty’, and serve the audience a message with their unbeatable offer to an audience highly likely to be receptive to it.

As our media buying approach develops and our measurement technology evolves, hopefully publishers will be encouraged to focus on delighting their hard-earned community, rather than having to slap them in the face.

@martynshaw

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