News publishers are struggling to move their traditional advertisers online, partly due to a lack of targeted ad offerings, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
“Audiences have migrated with brands to the Web, and advertisers haven't moved with them,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The study, released last month, examined 5,381 ads on the home pages and prominent inside landing pages of nearly two dozen news organizations—11 newspapers, four magazines, three cable news outlets, three commercial network broadcasts and two online-only publications.
Among the sites studied were: ABCNews.com, CBS.com, FoxNews.com, Google News, newsweek.com, nytimes.com, msnbc.com, TheEconomist.com, Time.com, USAToday.com and WSJ.com. The study did not include the sites of any trade publications.
News outlets' lack of targeted options partially explains why legacy advertisers aren't buying digital ads, the study concluded. Only three of the sites studied used high levels of targeting, delivering different ads to users based on their recent online activity.
Rosenstiel said many publications lack the resources and technology to match ads with users' interests.
“If a publication is owned by a company with only a few papers, its engineering opportunities may be rather limited compared to a big company like Yahoo,” he said. Large national news organizations Yahoo News, the New York Times and CNN had the highest levels of targeting of the companies surveyed.
Uncertainty about measurement and digital ads' effectiveness has also prevented some advertisers from moving online. Rosenstiel said advertisers and publishers often disagree on how to define certain metrics—such as what constitutes a page view—and it's often hard for advertisers to compare metrics from one publisher to another. “We can measure a lot about online behavior, but conflicting metrics create a lot of confusion,” he said.
Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Outsell Inc., agreed, saying universal metrics are still a work in progress. “There's a lot of apples and oranges out there for measuring ad effectiveness,” he said. “But if advertisers can measure it, they will measure it.”
The study found that 21% of ads captured were for news organizations' own products, making them the biggest online advertisers as a group on the sites studied.
But Alisa Bowen, general manager of the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, said the prevalence of news organizations' ads doesn't mean those publishers are struggling to sell digital space. She said their own websites are ideal places for publications to market themselves.
“By going on the website, users have already expressed interest in your brand and are predisposed to subscribing,” she said.
Bowen also said WSJ.com doesn't run low-value ads provided by third-party ad sales companies. “We don't try to sell every slot. We're concerned with quality, not quantity. Not taking low-value ads increases the impact of our digital ads,” she said.