With more than 110 million unique monthly visitors, USA TODAY NETWORK is one of the country’s top 20 digital companies. Owned by Gannett, Inc., it includes USA TODAY and 109 local publications in the U.S. and Guam.
Put users first and the rest will follow
To keep both their loyal reader base and advertisers happy, USA TODAY NETWORK needs to deliver a high-quality, multi-device experience for users. This experience applies not only to their articles, but also to the ads that appear throughout their sites. Jeff Burkett, Vice President of Ad Innovations at USA TODAY NETWORK shares, “a lot of digital advertising products were created without considering the user’s experience. We believe you must lead with the user, which in turn delivers greater results for the marketer.”
Digging deep into performance history
With that in mind, earlier this year the company took an insights-driven approach to designing a new set of custom ad units that would deliver a high-performing, user-focused ad experience. To better understand what worked best for both users and advertisers, Jeff’s team spent a year analyzing ad performance from over 10,000 ad creatives served through Google Ad Manager and Moat Analytics.
They collected these insights in a centralized platform called “Grandstand,” where a team of digital information analysts could identify performance trends. The team had some surprising yet valuable discoveries: simpler, more concise ads perform better, overly animated ads decrease performance, and ad color doesn’t affect performance.
Paramount ad units
Armed with these findings, USA TODAY NETWORK designed and launched the “Paramount” ad suite — five custom ad units designed to maximize return-on-investment (ROI) while maintaining a high-quality, multi-device user experience.
The “Paramount” units use Ad Manager’s native offering to test and optimize multiple creative elements. At first, Paramount had four or five customizable components, including headlines and calls to action. But they now offer a variety of modification levers — including support for video, image, and carousel functionality — so that ads can look quite different but use the same format. “Advertisers provide us the basic elements and we're able to take the individual pieces and drag and drop them in,” Jeff explains. “The ads are easily produced, and we can add on customizations in the review process.”
Double-digit improvements in performance
USA TODAY NETWORK is also taking an insights-driven approach to optimizing performance by running A/B tests with Paramount and non-Paramount ad units. Jeff shares, “it's very different when you have digital information to prove why a particular design should be followed. That's a much better conversation to have with an advertiser, and they're going be much more likely to follow your recommendations.”
Dozens of advertisers have tried the Paramount units since they launched in July 2017 and more are being tested every month. Overall, Paramount units are seeing a 12% lift in click-through rates and 39% higher video completion rate compared to traditional video units. They also stay in the user’s view for up to 52% longer than standard IAB ad units.
Planning for the future
USA TODAY NETWORK knows that speed is key to improving performance and user experience. To that end, the company launched a mobile website built on the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) framework. The next step is to apply the AMP framework to the Paramount ad units themselves to make the ads load faster and perform better. “Speed is a big part of these ad units and it’s what drives the way that we built them. We were invested in AMP very early on and have continued to do everything that we can to improve our site and ad speed. AMP Ads are definitely core to our strategy,” concludes Jeff.