The Paradox of Abnormally-High-Pageview Ad Environments

by on October 6, 2011 | posted in Marketing

Steve Jobs died last night. With his passing came what may have been one of the biggest swarms of visitors to tech news websites in the history of the web, as the inhabitants of the internet that Jobs structured his devices around gathered to learn and read of his passing. If the event had occurred earlier in the day, I’m positive each news site would see record numbers of interested parties – since it happened later, it’s likely that wasn’t the case.

However, despite this, the event brought light to a phenomenon that is unique in such a situation – an environment where pageviews skyrocket, but the number of actually-converting users can plummet, and almost certainly bring advertising conditions to a breakeven or even net-loss situation, depending on the advertising agreement.

In an advertiser-friendly environment, users come to a site casually, and based off a historical belief in solid content hosted on that website. Because of this, they are in browse mode. They don’t know what they are looking for – only that they are looking. Here, eyes wander, and attention is sparse. Even on sites they love, they can quickly lose interest, which leads to a bleeding off into spaces advertisers enjoy – their hosted adverts – whether in the sidebar, mid-story, or post-editorial.

In a Steve-Jobs-death situation, user focus is hyper-real. We know exactly what we’re looking for, and our emotional radars are locked. Every article likely has a death-grip on our attention, so we read it, and we are likely not parsed from its grip. We view more. We see all the content. But we are looking for it, and our emotional grip means we will stay with it.

Because of the reality of this grip and the emotional attachment to the subject at hand, we thirst for more stories like it, and browse and are swept up quickly by others of the same mold, driving pageviews on each of these news sites through the roof. However, as far as it comes to user-value-per-impression, our worth to the advertiser is at an all time low.

If I, the advertiser, am not based on a per month ad model, and instead agree to a variable CPM model, our total bill shoots through the roof, but the value and the true attention we gain from the CPMs is not nearly as valuable or drool inducing as the Analytics numbers might imbue.

In fact, it’s even possible that, in rare occasions such as this one, where our target market (tech people) is committed to this state of heightened attention for the subject (Steve Jobs death) – the net worth of that total traffic actually dips below pre-event numbers, as it is near-impossible for any target user to parse their attention back to our products because of the attention grab of such an event.

Display advertising is a wicked, increasingly difficult beast – but it becomes even more disappointing when we realize the conditional realities of events we should “hope for” – abnormally high impressions – may even result in a net value that is below standard market conditions for our advertisements.

  • Eric Pratum

    I really like that you are able to not jump on a bandwagon or post the same old idea as everyone else at this time, but instead use this to expand on something highly relevant to your job.

    That being said, the advertising model and cost structure should be different depending on the types of pages the ads are on. Some searchers are looking for very general information – “laptops.” Others, are further along the research cycle and digging in – “Apple laptops.” And, then, the next group is at the end and ready to buy – “Cheap Apple laptops.” The same happens in my industry, nonprofits, as well as in the information space – “news,” “Apple news,” “Steve Jobs death.” If you’re purchasing ads, your ads should target the different mindsets of website visitors, whether they’re coming to the page from search, direct, or rational surfing.

    So, if you placed ads on pages about Steve Jobs’ passing, but your ads are trying to sell computer parts, you might be a little out in the cold. If though your ads are promoting related information, you might have just struck gold.

    I will caveat this though by saying that it is difficult to scale this approach, but it is possible, and there is no way to do it perfectly since every visitor has a slightly different intent.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Thanks Eric. I don’t pretend to be an expert at the advertising game – I just had an observation about user behavior during an incident like this. But I do agree that event modeling the ad would create a higher ROI, however, it seems like in such a situation I am having difficulty finding a product that’s not a direct link to’s products that might sell well in this instance. :)

      • Eric Pratum

        Totally agree. Partnering an advertised product – whether news, CPG, tech, or whatever else – with the news that someone famous has passed is a difficult, and probably unpleasant, thing to plan for.

  • Jon Cooper

    Wow, this is very interesting. I’m having this problem on one of my experimental sites – people want to read the content so bad they’re not clicking on ads or buying my products.

    P.S. Thanks Ross for keeping me updated on twitter about the developments in Jobs’ death. If I’m correct, didn’t you ask for a tribute from Google’s homepage just hours before Google did so?

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