Digital publishing may be a relatively young industry, but as excuses go, this just doesn’t wash any more. Collectively, we now have enough knowledge, experience, and expertise to assume responsibility for the challenges we face – and 2018 must be the year we grow up and take back control to secure our future, says the AOP’s Richard Reeves.

Standards must go above and beyond

Premium publishers have always been subject to high standards and stringent regulations, but the same can’t be said across the whole digital ecosystem. A single bad experience on one poor quality site can prompt a user to block ads across the board, meaning the minority has scarred the majority.

It is true mistakes have been made, so now we need to win back user trust and demonstrate that – as creators of original, premium content – we can provide a relevant, engaging user experience. This means working in partnership with agencies and advertisers to ensure ad formats are fit for purpose, and committing to standards that go above and beyond minimum requirements.

Industry guidelines such as JICWEBS and the IAB Gold Standard ­are a very positive step in the right direction, but we must strive to go much further and work to standards that guarantee quality audiences and inventory. During 2018 the AOP will be focused on delivering its Ad Quality Charter – which forms best practice guidelines – and will be another step forward in raising the bar for digital media. 

As brands fear for their safety, a premium context is a haven

In 2017, the industry was dominated by The Times’ exposé of brand ads appearing alongside damaging content on YouTube. While this was an extreme example, it did highlight the more general importance of context in digital advertising. What is deemed ‘safe’ for one brand may be damaging to another, so we need to start understanding what is right for each advertiser. Equally publishers must consider their own brand safety, and determine the right style of advertising for their sites and audiences.

To deliver the greatest value for advertisers and the best experience for the user, ads must be placed alongside contextually relevant content. Rather than continually chasing scale through mass generalised audiences on larger platforms, advertisers should consider niche publishers that offer premium, trustworthy content directly related to their product or service, and whose audiences – though smaller – have a genuine interest in the topic and are more likely to convert. Advertisers need premium context to be able to connect with consumers in an environment where they actively pursue their passions and are open to receiving relevant and targeted messaging.

Collaboration over consolidation

Further consolidation with the publishing industry appears inevitable, with Trinity Mirror nearing a deal to buy the Express and Star newspapers, but it is collaboration – rather than consolidation – that the industry really needs. Keeping sight of daily and weekly revenue is of course vital, but rather than simply reacting to the here and now, publishers must start planning for the long-term future.

Historically publishers have operated in relative isolation but moving forward we need to be open to working together, sharing resources and learnings, and committing to the same goals. We’re already seeing specialist premium publishers joining forces when responding to RFPs to better compete with the likes of Facebook and Google, and next year we should explore more opportunities for collaboration. 

The giants must stop marking their own homework

While premium publishers are liable for the content they produce and subject to strict regulations, platforms such as Facebook and Google that rely heavily on user generated content are not. We must continue in our mission to level the playing field and encourage these tech giants to be open to third-party verification.

That said, there are already encouraging developments, with Google’s DoubleClick recently signing up to JICWEBS Digital Trading Standards Group’s good practice principles, and YouTube rumoured to follow suit. Hopefully – as it becomes ever more accountable – the duopoly can use its significant influence over the digital advertising economy to drive it in a positive and collaborative direction.

The time has come for digital publishers to stop hiding behind the relative youth of an industry that is still learning. Let’s make 2018 the year we grow up and take responsibility for the challenges facing the industry. We need to be acting on issues rather than just talking about them, paving the way for a more sustainable, accountable, and reliable future for premium digital publishing.