Rethinking advertising + the homepage experience

The RevenueTwoPointZero event happened on Saturday in Washington. This is the report from the display advertising solutions team.

Homepages get more traffic than any other single page on a news site. Typically, they provide a convenient digest of the newest posts on a site, which is a convenience to users. But this benefit to users creates a problem for advertisers and content providers who depend upon advertising revenue from display advertising.

Here’s why: Depending on the level of SEO, 15 to 35 percent of users enter a news site at the homepage, then exit. This provides relatively few pixels on this single Web page to monetize an entire site. If homepages were redesigned to compel users to view more pages to meet their information needs, then sites would have more opportunities to generate revenue.

Given the time constraints, we offer our homepage ideas as a starting point. We realize our concepts may not be earth-shattering. We would have liked to push farther and offer a wide variety of presentations. And we hope that as the Revenue 2.0 process continues, we’ll be able to do that.

Every proposal offered by every group was about making money. We tried to build an organic, scalable solution with multi-platform potential that joins the needs of the advertiser with a positive user experience and a method for delivering the material we journalists create.

Where we began

The most useful advice I’ve ever been given is “Ignore what people say. Watch what they do.”

While I don’t wholly subscribe to the idea (listening carefully is an important skill), watching what people do has never been easier now that a billion people are online.

A small group of us volunteered to reimagine the homepage and display advertising. While we wanted to apply radical thinking, we put a higher priority on producing something realistic and something that gets users to behave in ways they do every day.

What’s the motivation?

In order to know what to design, we needed to know who we were designing for. Our parameters:

  • Design for a midsize market so the ideas expressed could scale up or down. “Aim for the neck,” was one comment.
  • Create a format that pleases the advertiser
  • Present information that’s useful for the end user
  • Do what’s possible to create a seamless multiplatform experience (computer – “living room viewing” – mobile)

We began with a few observations:

  • Computer users tend not to scroll on news sites, although some will.
  • Users shop online.
  • Users come to news sites to get news and information, not to shop.
  • Users like things that are free or save them money, are personally relevant, make them more knowledgeable, entertain them, and make them feel special.
  • Users do clip or print out coupons. (Free Ben & Jerry’s anyone?) They also use their mobile phones to text. A lot.
  • Most IAB-standard ads annoy or are ignored by the user and rarely offer a compelling call to action.
  • Television is still the dominant medium in our culture.

With these things in mind, we got to work.

What’s our homepage for?

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We know computer users don’t scroll, but many of our pages go on and on despite all the research. We cram content into the limited screen space “above the scroll” and confuse or frustrate readers and advertisers in the process. We also put “less important” information below the scroll where few people look, and that serves no one well.

We wanted our homepage to be a guide that would surface content. In addition, we wanted a format that was scalable, modular and platform agnostic. In considering how to accomplish that, we discussed the use of RSS readers and news aggregators as ways into our content and why people use them. In so many ways, creating a “content index” on our home page mimics the idea behind this, but also reiterates the job of the news organization to create a hierarchy.

Additionally, this approach gives our users a reason to view our home page – that immediate quick view (index/table of contents) of news and an easy ability to move further into content. DrudgeReport.com has found huge success in being an aggregator and creating this format, why don’t we learn from that model…but apply good design to it.

In order to begin visualizing this, we laid out stories in a modular grid format, leaving much flexibility for different options. Not only does this system leave many options available, but, it makes for an easy visual transition from Web to Web-enabled phone, and displays well on TV or large-format display.

We considered not having any ads on the homepage, but metrics tell us a countable portion of loyal users make the homepage their first, and sometimes only, stop. Not having ad content on the homepage would be like leaving money on the table, and frankly, we can’t afford that.

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Creating a cue for the multiplatform experience

When it comes to news, more people turn to TV than anywhere else. The Web, like TV, is a visual medium. So why not steal the “lower third” idea for our homepage?

In our comps, this “lower third” functions as a roadblock ad, which remains in the same place, regardless of platform:

  • It could be a paid sponsorship, where the goal is to increase mindshare and goodwill. Click and you go directly to the advertiser’s site.
  • It could offer a discount code, free sample or coupon that could be printed out or sent to a mobile phone.
  • It could offer utility, such as a savings calculator, ticket sales box, or best-price finder. The end user gets customized, useful information; the advertiser gets that user to take action; the news outlet, which may not have had the resources to develop their own utility module, makes money.
  • It could pop up a full-screen overlay that displays a microsite, video player or game.
  • It could be an opt-in consumer survey, product test or PSA.

Ads aren’t editorial, but they are content

Ah! But what about the notions that content is king, users come to news sites to absorb news, not to shop, and they tend not to scroll?

We put homepage content on a grid that’s set to a fixed depth. We add navigation that pulls content into the grid. All grid units are the same size; news priority is set by combining the number of blocks. We referred to Article Skimmer from The News York Times, but we also looked at other sites, including UXMag, which provided greater inspiration, both for it creative use of the grid and copy that compels you to click.

Rather than large and obtrusive ads on our homepage, we offer targeted, tailored ads within the grid. The boxes are set in rigidly specced companion type and the deals are simply stated. These clearly marked ads are visually subtle and meld better with the content and create a pleasant viewing experience.

Again, our modular approach makes it easy to visually transition back and forth from Web to Web-enabled phone to TV or large-format living room display.

We make advertising part of the content mix in two ways:

Deals of the Day:

On days when there’s no roadblock ad, we offer users “Deals of the Day.” A click takes the user to the advertiser’s offer or website. Readers vote on how good a deal they deem it, which gives the advertiser valuable feedback on user opinion. The listing itself could be tied to a recommendation engine.

The ads are coded with expiration dates, so results return valid ads. Other types of ads could include scarcity offers — for example, a limited time or limited volume reward for taking action. Whatever the Deal of the Day is, it must have a clear benefit to the user.

Permanent and pertinent advertising:

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On the homepage content grid in one our comps is a block clearly labeled “Advertiser Index.” It’s a fixed position, so users don’t have to guess where the ads are. They can filter their searches by business name, product, service and ZIP code. The Google-like interface is easy – no new behaviors to learn. People find what they’re looking for, with results tailored to their needs, culled from our pool of paid and free advertisers.

Search results are tied to a recommendation engine, similar to Amazon’s, which shows additional relevant advertising (and if so desired, related editorial content). Once again, search results can display some sort of scarcity offer.

By offering deals of the day, the ads train the user to come back – not just for the news, but for the deal. The ad index search box offers users the opportunity to find additional relevant advertiser information.

Model behavior

Our modest proposal for advertising on the homepage offers a way to address some of the things that frustrate the two audiences on news sites: the advertiser, which wants users to be informed, have a good opinion of them, and take action; and the user, which wants information relevant to them at the time they’re looking or it.

Our design incorporates and adapts the mechanisms that make other moneymaking and high-traffic sites and platforms successful. And we offer a coherent homepage that’s easy, useful and possible.

We hope some of these ideas are ones you’ll consider incorporating. Constructive feedback is always welcome.

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Core work group: David Kordalski, Kristen Novak, Chrys Wu
With additional input from Greg Linch, Eric Seidman, Vernon Loeb