Site redesigns are seldom newsworthy unless they're executed poorly. Consider The New York Times' revived NYTimes.com an exception to this rule. Often regarded as the gold standard in online publishing and "premium" content, the Times has updated its web presence with new consumer browsing patterns in mind, emphasizing video and photos while implementing a responsive-designed mobile site.
Along with these features comes the fact that the redesign will help the Times leverage native advertising in the hopes of receiving "eight figures" in ad revenue. This is quite possibly the biggest endorsement native advertising has received thus far. If the cream of the crop in online publishing is willing to try native, then there's no reason others shouldn't.
Yet the Times' effort could actually dissuade publishers from implementing native ad executions on its pages if it convinces websites that costly redesigns are the only way to do so. This is not true at all, of course. Native can be easy, and a publisher shouldn't be killing itself to change websites for more revenue options. Instead, look at how revenue options fit within its existing design.
Redesigns are costly and can negate the additional revenue. A publisher needs to weigh the costs against the revenue it'll receive from a new native format it tries to implement as opposed to using existing native ads that are available from third parties. The Times is an outlier in online publishing, an entity with the resources that allow it to overhaul its site.
Publishers shouldn't mimic this total overhaul approach. But they can look at the site to find the best placements for native advertising. For example, the Times built a place for its paid posts in the middle of its homepage. Clearly, the intent is to capitalize on traffic and drive some of it to the native placements. Another publisher can utilize its site analytics to find where consumers are likely to see sponsored or native content, and drive traffic that way. That may come very easily by using existing IAB display slots. It may also result in ads placed in the middle or end of an article, pushing readers from editorial content toward a paid native placement.
If there's one aspect of native that causes much of the controversy, it's the perception that it can be misleading or harmful. A publisher doesn't have to be the Times to maintain control of its native ads. No matter how it chooses to execute native advertising, a publisher needs to make sure that all of the placements align with the websites' standards.
The other piece of this is clarity -- something the Times has pledged repeatedly and something publishers should actually copy from the "Grey Lady." No matter the execution, native advertising should carry clear and conspicuous labeling so that site visitors understand they are looking at something an advertiser has paid for. This clear separation of editorial and advertising is as old as the publishing industry, but it's vital for maintaining a positive consumer site experience.
Improvements vs. overhauls
Of course, there are reasons for publishers to consider site changes at this current juncture. As the share of web consumption on mobile devices and tablets increases, publishers need to consider the benefits of responsive design sites that adjust according to the device. Sites still shoehorning their desktop sites into a mobile screen are only hurting themselves. The ads are ineffective, and even worse, they'll likely drive consumers away. But, adjusting for current viewing habits doesn't necessitate a total teardown. A publisher needs to look at what it can fix and prioritize the most important aspects.
It's not easy being an online publisher today, but the number of revenue opportunities is steadily growing, allowing publishers to profit without having to gut inventory for a costly redesign. Not every site needs to be on the level of the Times or USA Today -- websites just need to be functional and provide a good consumer experience. A publisher that examines its current sites and upgrades to its strengths will be successful in the long haul.
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