How Local News Publishers Can Make Revenue and Engagement a Single and Successful Strategy

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Too often, local news publishers are given an either-or — either focus on growing revenue or on making deeper connections with users.

Relay Media‘s head of product Barb Palser believes publishers can do both at the same time. Palser has spent most of her career in digital leadership roles. At San Francisco-based Relay, Palser is the lead in the company developing products to help publishers drive new engagement and revenue by distributing their Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) across the open Web.

I recently asked Palser to show how local news publishers can succeed on revenue and engagement with a unified strategy that contains no either-or’s. Our Q & A:

What’s happening on the Web that can permit local news publishers to pursue revenue and user engagement as if they were the two sides of the same coin?
For many years, the monetization of web content has been divorced from content quality and user experience. An opaque, tonnage-based advertising economy encouraged publishers to focus on impression volume and cram their pages full of unseen ads and obtrusive formats. Speed and user experience weren’t prioritized as business drivers, so websites just got heavier, slower and harder to use.

Now, consumer and market forces are shifting to realign monetization with quality. Consumers are installing ad blockers to thwart performance-taxing ads – or they’re just abandoning slow sites. Ad buyers are starting to demand viewability. The costs of clickbait and fraud are finally being recognized.

This disruption will be seismic, but ultimately will favor quality publishers who offer a fast, clean, well-lit environment for consumers and advertisers.

The big challenge is to swiftly change habits and mindsets; to build new websites and revenue strategies oriented to usability and performance. We see the AMP Project as a bridge to this new digital economy — which publishers can implement and learn from today.

Relay Media has been working with Accelerated Mobile Pages since late 2015. What are the most common questions or misunderstandings about AMP?
There are a few misconceptions that keep bubbling up.

First, that AMP works like Facebook Instant Articles. It doesn’t. AMP isn’t a proprietary format or a feed; it’s a format for super-fast web pages that can be crawled, linked and discovered on the open web.

Second, that AMP is only surfaced in Google’s environments. In fact, a growing number of aggregators and referrers are choosing to link to AMP versions of pages in order to provide a better experience.

Third, that AMP is a slimmed down version of a web page. It’s easy to find basic AMPs, where the publisher skipped things like site style, navigation, video players — or even ads. But if you know what you’re doing, you can build AMPs every bit as robust as the original page. (We like to say we specialize in “high-fidelity AMPs.”)

You’ve written about the importance of “broad ecosystem adoption of AMP.” How will achieving that help local news publishers strengthen their presently weak mobile revenue and user experiences?
Broad ecosystem adoption” refers to the fact that scores of ad tech companies, analytics companies and publishing platforms have developed AMP-compliant versions of their products. More are coming on board every week.

This will enable publishers to offer fast, light AMP experiences with the presentation, monetization and measurement tools essential to engage users and grow revenue. The mobile web should be both fast and robust – not one or the other.

Facebook offers faster load times, along with its distribution clout, through its Instant Articles. Now that publishers can offer AMP, should they pull back from Instant Articles?
Format fatigue is real; local publishers are under pressure to produce content for multiple proprietary platforms — and often end up doing a lot of things, but not very well and with limited view of results or opportunity cost. The decision to invest in any format or platform should be driven by strategy and data, not fear; if you’ve determined Facebook Instant Articles is ROI positive and/or advances your strategic goals, then keep doing it.

Barb Palser, Head of Product at Relay Media

Google says it’s committed to a broad AMP community. Based on what you saw at Google’s recent AMP conference, are you comfortable that Google means what it says?
Yes. I imagine Google executives cringing at the phrase “Google AMP.” Google is leading the open-source AMP Project right now, and drove adoption in 2016 by introducing AMP in search results. But the rocket fuel to AMP’s evolution will be audience scale, which requires many more participants linking to AMP content and building AMP-based products and websites. This will drive investment in AMP innovation and optimization, which ultimately benefits the entire open Web, including Google.

You analyzed 235 million AMP search impressions last December. What did you find out that was good and bad for local news publishers and their users?
The findings confirmed our observation that AMP-enabled publishers are advantaged in Google’s Top Stories AMP carousel partly because AMP adoption is still unbalanced. For example, in some local markets we’ve seen TV stations dominate the Top Stories carousel for local news topics because the main newspaper is not AMP-enabled. Obviously this advantage diminishes as the late-movers adopt AMP.

We also confirmed our suspicion that users don’t tend to scroll through the carousel; engagement is extremely high with the first two or three results in a carousel, then seems to drop steeply.

What should publishers do with their AMP pages to promote user engagement?
Publishers need to ensure their AMPs are not a dead-end experience. They should have site navigation, internal link circulation, header elements linking to key information such as weather, et cetera. All of these things are possible with AMP.

If you’re a small, independent publisher of local news in one community, can you implement AMP without creating a major strain on your resources?
Executing AMP well at this fast-evolving stage requires some effort and ongoing support; it’s not a “set it and forget it” project. Increasingly, CMS companies are providing AMP support. For publishers without a good AMP solution, Relay Media can handle everything.

Responsive mobile sites are great for flowing desktop-designed editorial content. But they can push right-rail ads toward the bottom of the scroll. How can AMP improve ad viewability?
Many publishers have learned that “responsive” often is not the same thing as “mobile optimized.”

AMP can optimize ad viewability in two ways: First, the way AMP handles ads enforces higher viewability rates. AMP won’t load an ad until the mobile viewport is close to the ad position; a footer ad simply won’t load if the user doesn’t scroll. Second, AMP offers publishers an opportunity to experiment with ad maps. Depending on how AMP is implemented, the publisher can use different ad sizes and placements on their AMP pages than on their standard mobile experience. (The resulting insights could then inform overall mobile ad strategy.) Relay Media spends a lot of time A/B testing various ad configurations and placement rules.

What can users and publishers expect from AMP a year from now if it’s achieving are its goals?
2017 should bring more AMP-enabled features and integrations, more AMP audience (from other referrers besides Google) and more case studies and data to validate performance.  One specific challenge for publishers is achieving or passing per-page revenue parity with standard mobile pages. Many national and international publishers have achieved this, partly because they have the resources to focus on it and partly because they’ve already moved away from non-viewable impressions and other legacy practices on their standard sites. The challenge is admittedly tougher for many local publishers, but I believe it’s absolutely doable.  More to the point, I don’t think it’s optional. This is the work of upgrading product and strategy for a new web with new rules.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.