Results Not Typical: Navigating the Publisher’s Rocky Supply Chain

Jul 09, 2018

Article ImageThere’s so much snake oil offered in the digital publishing world today. It reminds me of the Facebook posts I see about women who’ve lost 50 pounds in four weeks by eating peanut butter and bacon all day. It’s possible that they really did lose all that weight – and it’s tempting to jump on that train – but it’s only part of the picture. What’s her blood pressure right now? How long will the weight actually stay off?

Every day, ethical and well-meaning publishers receive emails from industry vendors, promising a 500% revenue lift if we enlist them as a partner. They may even cite a specific case study from a publisher who achieved these miraculous results. Of course, they’ll neglect to mention that this publisher was only targeting a specific niche audience segment – or that they doubled the number ads on a page. They’ll never provide the full picture behind the story, much like that 50-pound weight loss tale. We’ll never see that “results not typical” disclaimer.

Marketing Math Can Be Dangerous

The problem is that when these magic pill salesmen offer their stories to other publishers and departments, many believe them – and that creates a big problem for every honest publisher in the world. Our publications and our partners are then held to a ridiculous standard, one that cannot be achieved with any reliability or consistency, if at all. The “marketing math” involved in these claims is too subjective to be anything like actual math.

By “marketing math,” I refer to that brand of logic that touts very specific results as something typical and repeatable, like the 50-lb weight loss. Certain marketing professionals will broadcast a 400% higher result on a campaign that only targets a tenth of the overall audience with a ridiculous offer or a super-soft conversion point. It’s the kind of thing you usually see in vendor case studies – and you know it can’t be taken at face value.

For many on the revenue and operations side, our own colleagues will see these amazing promises, and demand to know why we’re not employing this incredible solution. Our teams may spend hours investigating claims of beyond-benchmark results, only to find that the results were, in fact, legitimate – but could only be applied to a very narrow subset of a very specific audience. That “marketing math” cannot be generalized across a broad consumer audience. It’s a frustrating situation for these teams.

How Do We Clean Up the Mess?

To monitor these claims and keep industry suppliers in check, we have only a few viable options. The first is to test. If a solution sounds like it might be worthwhile, even while claiming outrageous performance, test it. Test methodically and carefully, using only a designated portion of your inventory. Choose a time of year with predictable traffic, measuring the experiment against your control group. You’ll know if a solution is worthwhile – even if it doesn’t completely live up to the promises made.

The second, very important thing publishers need to do is build a network. With a network of peers across the industry, ops teams can ask others which solutions they’ve tried, what’s worked and what hasn’t. If a smaller publisher isn’t able to test a particular tool, it’s possible someone else they know already has – or can do it on their behalf.

Networks can be built by attending industry events, finding groups on LinkedIn, or joining different industry associations or organizations. While it’s great to find publishers with a business model or audiences similar to yours, it’s also helpful to look outside your vertical. Different markets may have new ideas to offer in terms of content delivery, advertising solutions , nd marketing, and a fresh perspective can be eye-opening and helpful, even if you can’t commiserate on every day-to-day issue. The valuable result is that you’ll develop a network of trusted peers who can offer advice and solutions. In some cases, if there’s a solution that several publishers want to test, you may find there’s strength in numbers – particularly when it comes to negotiating prices.

A Cleaner Supply Path

The mess of the supply path has to be cleaned up, and publishers themselves are the only ones in a position to do it. We’re the ones faced with constant sales calls and emails, and one ridiculous promise after another. We’re also the ones who are constantly under attack from advertisers who demand greater viewability, higher engagement rates, and lower CPMs. Our interests are not served by suppliers who imply that we could be delivering better results on all these fronts, when many of us have already implemented dramatic changes to improve results for our advertising partners. The 8 million percent lift promised by these snake oil salesmen does nothing but make hardworking, well-intentioned publishers look bad.

Publishers need to stand together to level-set, and a big part of that effort is talking to suppliers about delivering on the promises they make. It’s not something any one publisher can do alone. It’s on all of us to ask questions and kick the tires. We need to demand that “results not typical” label in situations where marketing math has clearly been applied – and raise a flag when we know that the numbers look too good to be true.

You wouldn’t trust food from strangers; by the same token, don’t trust data from strangers, either. Do, however, trust data from friends and colleagues. Build a network and refer and recommend the good vendors while protecting peers from the unethical players. Working together is our best way forward, and perhaps the only way to navigate this occasionally treacherous supply path.

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