‘Premium Content’ Is Center of the Debate in Digital Advertising

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Publishers are racing to be known for “premium” content to keep advertising revenue afloat, but there’s a swirling debate in the industry over how to define it.

For years, advertisers and publishers have chased scale to reach as many people as possible. But with growing concerns about “made for advertising” websites that cram ads onto pages, third-party cookies going away, and the growth of streaming TV, the push to go niche with premium content is becoming a bigger selling point for marketers.

But what does premium mean?

While many publishers have long claimed that their content is premium, the environment in which it appears and how it is sold to advertisers are increasingly playing a factor in how marketers view it.

For example, some broadcasters are pitching their streaming content as premium by selling it directly to advertisers without using third-party adtech companies.

And ad tech giant The Trade Desk recently made waves within the industry when it published its list of the top 100 “premium” publishers, ranking Hulu, Disney+, and Max as the top three most premium publishers. The Trade Desk is the largest independent demand-side platform that buys programmatic ads on behalf of advertisers, and its largest competitors are Google and Amazon.

Critics said that the list favored The Trade Desk’s biggest clients who use its products — particularly streaming TV ads that cost more and provide less access to data for marketers than the open web.

“The Trade Desk’s list will set if you’re a premium publisher or not,” said Joe Root, CEO of Permutive, an adtech company that helps publishers manage their data.

Marketers are pitching quality content to steer clear of MFAs

Shiv Gupta, the founder of digital advertising training company U of Digital, said that reports over the past year from the Association for National Advertisers, Adalytics, and Jounce Media about the underbelly of digital advertising have opened up new concerns for advertisers. The ANA said that advertisers spent $13 billion, or 15% of programmatic ad spend, on MFA websites last year that use tactics like clickbait, slideshows, and filler content to serve ads.

Two reports from analytics firm Adalytics this year revealed that advertisers’ ads were appearing on MFA websites, including a copycat version of Forbes.com. And Jounce Media’s research has focused on defining what makes an MFA website and tracking how ads appear on MFAs.

“You have so much discourse about these topics,” Gupta said about the string of reports about MFAs. “The quality problem has existed for a long time, and somebody has to call it out.”

To avoid these MFAs, many advertisers are consolidating their ad buys with a chunk of vetted publishers. The Trade Desk says that 50% of digital ad dollars are spent with 500 sellers and publishers.

The Trade Desk faced criticism of favoritism when it released its ranking of the top 100 publishers, which the company said it plans to publish every six months going forward. According to The Trade Desk, the list was assembled by considering factors like the ad experience, how publishers use adtech firms to sell inventory, and the quality of content. A spokesperson for The Trade Desk said that the company’s spend with publishers did not factor into the ranking.

But some saw it as a retreat by The Trade Desk from the open web, which includes publishers of all sizes, and toward “premium” content — as the company defines it.

“Historically, The Trade Desk has been the way to buy the open web, and they’re abandoning it,” Permutive’s Root said.

An executive at a digital media company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their relationship with the industry, said that while The Trade Desk’s list helps marketers identify top content and ad inventory, it also serves as a way for The Trade Desk to push products on publishers that don’t make the cut at the top of the list. As third-party cookies disappear for marketers to target and measure ads, The Trade Desk is betting big on marketers adopting its cookieless tools, including Universal ID 2.0 and OpenPath.

“They’re clearly trying to take up a lot more space and move the market towards them,” the digital media exec said.

U of Digital’s Gupta said The Trade Desk’s list signals that the adtech company is slowing down its buying of ads on the so-called long tail of the open web or small web publishers.

“By accelerating the death of the long tail, they get to move that money towards them — that represents growth,” he said.

Broadcasters are gunning for control of streaming ad dollars

At the same time, TV publishers are angling to define themselves as makers of premium content that appeals to advertisers.

As more ad dollars flow into streaming, broadcasters are using the term “premium content” to stand out and differentiate themselves from the boom of ad-supported streaming. AdExchanger recently reported that publishers are choosing to sell the bulk of their streaming inventory on their own, potentially cutting out adtech companies that charge publishers fees for selling their inventory. Nixing programmatic allows publishers to control pricing and demand.

Broadcasters argue that their content is considered premium because it’s long-form and designed to be watched on a TV. But advertisers are increasingly looking for content that reaches specific audiences and goals, said Rachel Eckerling, SVP of Publicis’ agency Precision US, during an AdExchanger event.

Instead of premium content, many advertisers are more concerned with premium audiences who are watching streaming content.

Still, Gupta from U of Digital said that broadcasters have the upper hand in deciding what is considered premium content because there is a lack of high-quality content in streaming environments.

“There’s only a finite number of great CTV companies with great content that advertisers want to be around,” he said.

Publishers are focusing on first-party data to win

So, moving forward, who will get to decide what’s premium?

Industry insiders said publishers with first-party data about their audiences — like email addresses or sales data — are better positioned to be considered premium as third-party cookies go away. Seventy-one percent of brands, agencies, and publishers plan to invest in first-party data this year, up from 41% in 2022, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

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