275: Optimizing Ads – How Food Bloggers Can Make the Most Out of Display Ads with Paul Bannister and Becca Clark

Listen to this episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast using the player above or check it out on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

An image of a laptop and the title of the 275th episode on the Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'Optimizing Ads.'

Welcome to episode 275 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Paul Bannister and Becca Clark from AdThrive about how ad revenue works and how food bloggers can increase the income they get from ads.

Last week on the podcast, we re-shared a Q&A we held for our Food Blogger Pro members where Bjork and Pinch of Yum’s General Manager, Jenna, answer questions about preparing for Q4. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Optimizing Ads 

Let’s talk about ads. They’re a simple way to make some money from your site (essentially, the more traffic you have, the more ad revenue you can potentially make), and there are many different strategies to help you optimize your ad revenue out there.

But ad placement and revenue is an art and a science. Paul and Becca from AdThrive are here on the podcast to talk about how ads work and how food bloggers can optimize the ads they run on their sites.

It’s an interesting conversation in how ads operate behind-the-scenes, as well as how incredible content is essentially the ultimate driver of ad revenue.

A quote from Paul Bannister’s appearance on the Food Blogger Pro podcast that says, 'Great content wins.'

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • What they do at AdThrive
  • Common traits of top ad revenue-earning sites
  • How to evaluate ad managers
  • How to optimize your ad income
  • What a Google Certified Publisher is
  • What viewable ads and sticky ads are
  • How recipe ads work
  • How to balance ad revenue and user experience
  • How to optimize ads for Q4
  • How the food industry is trending


If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

Learn more about joining the Food Blogger Pro community at foodbloggerpro.com/membership

Transcript (click to expand):

Alexa Peduzzi: Hello, hello, and welcome to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. My name is Alexa, and we are so happy and excited that you’re here today. This episode is a good one because it’s all about ads, and ads are, as I’m sure you know, just a great way to make some money from your site, and essentially, the more traffic you have, the more ad revenue you can potentially make.

Alexa Peduzzi: There are just so many different strategies that can help you optimize your ad revenue, but ad placement and revenue is both an art and a science, so Paul and Becca, both from AdThrive, are here today on the podcast to talk a bit more about how ads work on sites and how food bloggers can optimize their display ads for Quarter Four and beyond.

Alexa Peduzzi: It’s a really interesting interview. I don’t run ads on my site, but it’s been interesting to learn a little bit more about how ads work and how awesome content is essentially still the driver of ad revenue.

Alexa Peduzzi: So, it’s a really interesting conversation, and so without any further ado, Bjork, take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Paul and Becca, welcome to the podcast. This is one thing that I’ve learned when we have two people, I have to direct the welcomes so you don’t talk over each other. Paul, welcome to the podcast.

Paul Bannister: Thank you very much. Really happy to be here.

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. And Becca, welcome to the podcast.

Becca Clark: Thank you so much; excited, as well.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Okay, so we’re going to be talking about ads today, all thing ads, and one of the things that I’ve learned from being a part of, facilitating, building Food Blogger Pro over the past six, seven years, is this is really the heart and soul of so many different publishing sites. So many people are curious, especially food sites, about what it takes to do ads and to do ads well. So, that’s what we’re going to be talking about, but before we do that, I want to hear a little bit about your story. I’ve met you in person, each of you, but I know a lot of the listeners haven’t had that privilege, so would love to hear a little bit about your background, how you got started, and what it is that you do now at AdThrive.

Bjork Ostrom: So Paul, I’ll pass it over for you first to start, and tell us the elevator version, or the socially-distanced conversation version of who you are and how you got started.

Paul Bannister: Great, yeah. So, I will do an elevator version because my story starts a very long time ago and I will age myself massively with this. I started a website in 1995.

Bjork Ostrom: Nice, before it was cool.

Paul Bannister: Before it was cool, and it was one of the first sites on the internet to have ads. I have always loved media and journalism and publishing. I started, when I was 10, a newspaper for my block. I worked in the school newspaper in college. I love writing and creating, and it’s something that’s also been passionate to me, and I always knew advertising was a key way how the industry supports itself. So, I’ve been doing this my entire career and in varying different companies and different roles.

Paul Bannister: What I do know at AdThrive is I run strategy, which means a couple of different things, but a lot of it is working with advertisers and with big technology companies on the relationship side of things, as well as kind of working with our biggest partners, Google at the top of the list, on really big trends and changes that are coming up in the industry. That’s kind of what I spend my time on.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. We’re going to be talking about some of those trends that are coming down the line, which I know a lot of people will be interested in hearing about, so excited about that.

Bjork Ostrom: How about you, Becca? What is your story and how did you get started and eventually end up at AdThrive?

Becca Clark: Yeah, so it’s a lot different than Paul’s; definitely did not have a history or a background in the ad industry at all. My background was actually in psychology, in counseling; always have loved working with people and understanding more of their stories, and really kind of came into this position through a mutual friend… I guess, kind of the way a lot of jobs work these days.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.

Becca Clark: I had my first son and was looking for a job that I could do from home, and this opportunity came up, and started working with AdThrive, I guess it would be, about six years now, crazy enough; and then moved into the account management position a couple years ago, where really just able to work with some of our largest publishers to help them optimize their ad revenue, understand their business goals, and identify ways that we can both help them make as much money as possible while also valuing that user experience.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s awesome. One of the things that I appreciate from each of you, the perspectives, is this reality that what we do is the technical, it is the big company, it is the understanding ads and affiliate and business strategy, and you kind of touched on some of that, Paul, but it also is your background, Becca, in psychology and understanding people, and publishing really is an art and an science, and we’re going to talk about some of those things… even things as simple as the balance between user experience and revenue optimization, and that being a really interesting consideration for publishers, as well.

Bjork Ostrom: Paul, one of the things that you said that I think was so interesting, you said you had a neighborhood newsletter, and it reminds me of my wife, Lindsay… so, author behind Pinch of Yum, and the content writer and creator… she had the Cool Cousins Club newsletter when she was younger, and it almost seems like, for a lot of people who, this is what they do and they’re good at it, you can trace that back. For you, it’s interesting to hear; you traced that back to an interest in publishing, content creation, writing. At what point did you become fascinated in, “Whoa, there’s this entirely different world that I can go really deep on that kind of correlates to publishing world, but it’s not publishing, it’s not writing, but it supports that industry?” What did that change look like, and when did you know that you wanted to really shift into focusing on that?

Paul Bannister: That’s a great point. I mean, I don’t think it happened overnight. I don’t think there was a single moment. I think it was more realizing, for me, at least, what I thought I could be good at and where I thought I could add the most value, and even today, I still love content creation. I contribute to the AdThrive blog, I write things on the side for different purposes. I still like to create things and I still think that’s part of my DNA, and that’s not going away, but I also think I’ve been able to build skills over the years to think the same way a content creator thinks about things, but figure out ways to help them and kind of scale that up; in our case, across thousands of publishers, what it is we can build to help all of them?

Paul Bannister: So, hopefully, I’ve been able to build a mindset for myself, at least, that… in keeping with our needs at AdThrive of really being publisher-first, because for me, and I think for a lot of us, we have been publishers in the past, and we understand that pretty well.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. One of the things that you talk about is this idea of thousands of sites, and anytime that I talk to anybody who works in an industry where they have exposure to lots of different people at scale, I’m always interested to hear some of the through lines or consistencies that you see in the people who are operating in that upper echelon.

Bjork Ostrom: So, one of the realities of this industry is it can potentially be kind of siloed or lonely. You maybe are part of groups, and you have Facebook groups, but people only share certain things within that, or in food blogger posts, posting to forums, and people might share things they’re struggling with, but it’s kind of siloed. You’re kind of on your own, and so you don’t have really good measure of what it looks like out in the world.

Bjork Ostrom: I’m curious to hear from you… Paul, you can start, and then I would be interested to hear from you, Becca, as well… what are the common traits that you see in some of the publishers or creators who are coming to AdThrive and are in that, let’s call it, top 10 percent; so, these are sites that are earning a substantial income. Maybe it’s… well, I don’t know, maybe it’s a single author, maybe it’s a team. Would you be able to distill it down into some characteristics of how these people approach their business and their website that enable them to be successful publishers and creators?

Paul Bannister: I definitely share a perspective with Becca, but I think of two things. One is sort of simple, which is passion. I think you’ve got to love what you do. You’ve got to feel that you care about it. You feel connected to it. You feel compelled by it. My website that I started back in the ’90s, it was for video games because I’m a gamer and that’s what I love, and that’s what I want to do and that’s what I feel good about. I woke up every morning and wanted to write stuff because it was in me and I had to get it out of me.

Paul Bannister: So, I think the passion is a huge part of it, and the other one, which is more complicated and also hard, is you’ve got to be a Jack or a Jill of all trades. You’ve got to be a great writer and a photographer, and do you have WordPress set up? What’s your SEO? How do I capture emails? How do I build my own community within my site? How do I use social?

Paul Bannister: As you get bigger and bigger, you can get other people to help you with pieces of that, but so many of the creators that I’ve talked to are so multi-talented and so able to do lots of amazing things. Everyone is going to know what they’re best at. I remember a conversation between a couple of our creators of our publishers, where one was amazing at social and one was amazing at SEO, and one was amazing at building their email; they all have different skills, but they all really worked great across the board, too, so that’s what I think.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah, interesting. Becca, how about you?

Becca Clark: Yeah, no, it’s interesting you say that, because I’ve definitely seen the consistent where publishers have just shared, I don’t really know what success looks like. What’s the average following that you see on social media, or percentage of Chrome traffic or desktop traffic? And so, just those metrics for success are really hard to know how they’re performing and doing, which I think, like you said, can be really lonely.

Becca Clark: But I would agree with Paul that some of the main things that I see has really been passion, for sure. They love what they do and they started it because of something that they love.

Bjork Ostrom: As opposed to, I see that I can make money from this, so I’m going to do it.

Becca Clark: Exactly, yes. Yeah, whereas that seems more like it requires a lot more grind to kind of get it going… not to say that if you have passion, it doesn’t also require grind, but yeah, it didn’t feel as much like work in the beginning.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, the grind feels different if you enjoy it to a certain level versus if you don’t.

Becca Clark: For sure. For sure. I know they… like Paul said, having to be a Jack of all trades, but too, just knowing what you do well and at least being willing to hire out for those different areas that you aren’t great at. So, building a team, and if you’re not great at photography, hiring someone who is a great photographer or a videographer or whatever it may be… bringing on those additional people so that you can continue to focus on your passion and what you do well, which, in return, will help you be sustainable longterm.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Becca Clark: Just totally getting it out and done.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. It’s interesting, the passion piece, and you hear that as kind of a theme, but even I think about Lindsay, and I know that the thing… she always talks about going to the grocery store and being so interested in seeing what people are buying, what’s in their grocery cart, and I’m like, “I’ve never noticed that or looked at that.” One of her favorite things to do is when we get together with friends, to hear what they’ve been making; you can just see that she’s more interested in that, and that’s why it works for her to publish recipes one, two, three times a week for 10 years… the grind of that, which does feel like a grind at a certain point, but because there’s such an interest and passion in it…

Bjork Ostrom: And same for me, for this podcast, I love talking about business. I love talking about technology. I love talking about things like ads. I can look forward to this conversation that I’m having with you because it’s something that I’m interested in. If I wasn’t, if I was just doing it because I thought it was a good way to make money, pretty quickly you come up against that grind, and you’re like, “Maybe not worth it.”

Bjork Ostrom: So, what’s interesting to me is, in that analysis, a lot of it is the heart and soul and not so much tips and tricks, and that stuff comes, and it’s a really important piece of it, but it’s the really heart and soul. Especially as it relates to publishing, are you willing to show up every day, write about this, and publish content on a consistent basis over a long period of time?

Bjork Ostrom: But there is some important elements around understanding the tips and tricks and seasonality, and industry trends, and that’s one of the things that we’re going to be talking about today and I want to to hear a little bit about and share with the audience. So, as it relates to ads, I want to start high-level macro and then start to come down, but Paul, can you talk about the transition from the ad industry at one point kind of being handshake deals… “Hey, we want to put ads on your site.” “Great, Land o’ Lakes. You can put ads on our site.” “What’s your rate? Okay, we’ll shake hands, we’ll sign a contract, we’ll put ads in, do this thing called programmatic ads, or the other terms that that encompasses.” When did that happen, and has that transition fully been made?

Paul Bannister: So, it’s funny. I always use Mad Men, if people would watch it, as the analogy where people in dark suits are in smoky rooms negotiating deals and drinking martinis, and that’s really the way it used to be; even when digital advertising started in the ’90s and early 2000s, there was a fair amount of that, too, and probably less smoke than the ’60s, but other than that, it was a lot of handshake deals and people talking to people.

Paul Bannister: As the internet grew, and as the base of advertisers grew, it became pretty clear that it doesn’t scale. Again, to go back to the 1960s, when you’ve got four TV channels and 20 national newspapers of note, and 150 big advertisers, it was pretty easy to make those connections… whereas as the internet sort of taking off and there are hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of good sites that can be advertised on… I mean, even honestly more than that; hundreds of thousands of millions, at this point, as well as tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of potential advertisers, particularly now with the rise of the direct to consumer companies that are selling every single thing possibly directly to the people. It’s impossible-

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain real quick what that is, direct to consumer, for those who aren’t familiar?

Paul Bannister: The easy examples are Harry’s Razors and even Peloton, brands like that that don’t sell through stores; they sell directly on the internet where their brand is selling to you and they ship it to your house.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, they’re not selling Peloton in Walmart. They’re selling you a Peloton from Peloton.

Paul Bannister: Exactly. Exactly. There are thousands or tens of thousands of those kinds of companies alone, so this ability to do handshake deals has sort of fallen apart in a lot of cases.

Paul Bannister: So, what happened is maybe 2008, 2009, this new technology came along called programmatic advertising that made it so it was all based on auctions, where a technology set on a given publisher’s site, a technology was used by the advertisers, and both sides talked to each other, and every single ad impression on a given site was filled by an auction automatically in real time by technology. That started pretty small; it started slowly and had a lot of kinks and problems, and didn’t work in a lot of ways, but it kind of got going and going and going, and then probably about five years ago or so, it really, really took off and really kind of accelerated the process, to now where, the numbers I’ve seen recently, I think it’s like 80 to 85% of all advertising is done programmatically.

Paul Bannister: It is the market at this point, and there’s certainly some amount of the handshakes that still exist for very large deals, and we do some of that, but the overwhelming majority of what we do and what everybody does, at this point, is this programmatic advertising.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so I think one of the questions that a lot of people would have, and probably one of the questions that you have to deal with a lot is, if programmatic advertising is the norm and all different people are doing it, what’s the differentiator between advertising companies… and you can talk holistically, as opposed to doing maybe like a business-to-business comparison… but how do people make that decision around advertising companies understanding that you’re representing AdThrive and you’ll have a bias towards AdThrive, but what does that look like? How do you make that decision and what are the variables that people should be looking at, and the considerations?

Paul Bannister: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I’ll have some thoughts… I mean, Becca probably has some thoughts on this, too. I think that, without getting too much into the details, aside from running Google Ad Sense and just putting a line of code on your site, none of this is simple anymore. If you look at the big publishers, you look at what New York Times, or Meredith, or Conde Nast, or these big companies is doing, they’ve got a team of 10 or 15 people, probably, at each of those companies that is setting up the technology, that is managing the relationships, that is dealing with the optimization, that is dealing with their ad services, dealing with all these pieces of running a programmatic ad business… where, to some level, a lot of the people that might, in the past, been focused on talking directly with an advertiser now are focused on running these systems and really making them work perfectly and work well.

Paul Bannister: So, what an ad-measured company does, like AdThrive, is basically provide those services to a lot of publishers. So, instead of us working for Meredith or Conde Nast or The New York Times, we work for thousands of publishers that… I wouldn’t say people can’t do it themselves, but you’re going to be challenged. It’s heavy technology, it’s heavy… there’s a lot of relationships with technology companies. There’s a lot of optimization. It’s a pretty challenging business and getting more so every day, so for a good ad manager, you want one that really has great relationships and it has best-in-class technology, and understands how to squeeze every last penny out of every ad impression that appears on a site, and has that data and that analytical expertise to make that work. Those are some of the things that I think about, at least.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s one of the… it kind of ties into the building a team category, and one of the things that I’ve quickly realized with the work that we’re doing, is one of the quickest ways to make quick progress is to work with people who have walked the path or done the thing that you’re trying to do hundreds or thousands of times, and that might be somebody who is submitting taxes or running ads, or building a website, or doing branding. Ads definitely are an example of that, where it’s complex; it’s not something that you want to do on your own, by any means.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things that you had said, Paul, that I would be interested to hear your thoughts on, Becca… number one, additional thoughts on what Paul had, because he kind of called out to that, so you can start with that; and then the second piece would be, that thing that Paul mentioned, which was squeezing every little bit out, and I think one of the things that people want to make sure that they’re doing is optimizing on their site. Are we doing this right? Is there ways that we could be increasing ads?

Bjork Ostrom: So, first any additional comments to take onto Paul’s, and if not, what does that look like for a new site who’s coming on to optimize and make sure that they’re in a place where they’re earning as much income as they can?

Becca Clark: I think the only thing that I would probably add, just to really simplify it a little bit, is that a lot of different ad managers have different minimum requirements, so that could naturally just filter down. Which one would be a good option for you based upon your current traffic profile and page views and that sort of thing? Obviously, like you said, I’m biased, so I think AdThrive is the best and would encourage you to come to us.

Becca Clark: Yeah, right, but definitely just making sure… asking a lot of questions. Are they a Google-certified publisher?

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain what that is for those who aren’t familiar? When you say Google-certified publisher… Paul, you had talked about Google being a really important company, so when people hear an ad network or an ad company, why is Google included in that conversation?

Paul Bannister: Google is…

Bjork Ostrom: Sorry, I didn’t direct that. I need to get better at double interviews.

Paul Bannister: No, no, no. No problem.

Becca Clark: We’ll let the expert talk on this.

Paul Bannister: When we think of Google, we think Google.com and their search engine. You might think of Gmail and you might think of YouTube if you know they own that. So, you think of those parts of what they do, but they actually also run the largest advertising systems company that publishers work with, so they run ad servers and ad exchanges and all these other pieces of what a given publisher needs to set up, as well as working directly with advertisers on the outside, too.

Paul Bannister: Not only are they very large in the world in general, but they’re very large specifically in the kind of publishing and digital media ecosystem, so everybody has to work for them. Like I mentioned before, if you are Conde Nast, you just go to Google and say, “Sell me an ad service, sell me an ad exchange, sell me these pieces,” and that works, but what Google has also done is they’ve set up this program called the Google-Certified Publishing Partner program, which is a real mouthful… the GCPP, for short… and they’ve authorized-

Bjork Ostrom: Even that isn’t that short.

Paul Bannister: No, it’s not. Yeah, they need better marketing.

Paul Bannister: They have basically authorized some companies, us included… we’ve been one of these partners for a long time now… to run advertising for other publishers. So, it means that you’re authorized to work with Google, you can use their tools and technologies, and if you’re not authorized, you actually can’t do that, so it’s sort of a program that makes sure that, as a publisher, you know you’re working with somebody who, at least, there’s a baseline of knowledge, there’s a baseline of connectivity, and you’re known generally as good company, and that’s what the program is meant for.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and I would imagine that part of it for Google is… they have a huge supply of people who are running ads through them, probably one of the biggest digital ad companies, and so if they can channel into other places, you’re maximizing your revenue by working with Google by increasing the amount of advertisers who are potentially bidding against your content to place ads on it.

Paul Bannister: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Back to the question of optimization… so, we’ve talked about that. I think people think about that a lot. Becca, would you able to speak to… let’s say a site isn’t working with AdThrive and they come on. What are some of the immediate ways that you will be able to start working with that site to increase ad earnings? It can be as basic as possible, but let’s say that maybe have ads, they’re using Google Ad Sense, which is different than kind of the Google that we’ve been talking about, not optimizing in the same way.

Bjork Ostrom: So, what does that look like to take those initial steps to increase some of the earnings from a site?

Becca Clark: Yeah, so an ad manager is really going to figure out where your readers are spending the most time, and also make sure that you’re using the most highly viewable ad units and placing them in those places where your readers are going to be engaging.

Becca Clark: That might be looking at the different sticky ad units that are available. Here at AdThrive, we have three different ones, and I’m assuming that probably most of the networks work with these, as well, so we can talk through those if you want and-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, can you explain that? One of the things you said was viewability, that being a term that maybe some people are familiar with and some people aren’t. Can you talk about why viewability is important and what a viewable ad actually means.

Becca Clark: Yeah, so a viewable ad is one that is on screen, I believe, for at least a second or longer. It continues to keep changing. But basically, it’s a way that advertisers know that their ad is likely to be seen, so obviously they’re going to pay more if they know that their ad is going to be seen by a reader versus someone just quickly scrolling past and not even seeing it at all. That’s why different sticky ad units are so valuable, because they stay on the page as a reader is scrolling down the page. The viewability tends to be a lot higher, and then you also can get those additional ad impressions as that ad will refresh for readers spending longer on the page.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Yeah, so, a couple important pieces with that; that idea of viewability. I would imagine seven, eight years ago, 10 years ago, maybe, the technology didn’t exist to know if an ad was viewable, so you might have ads that, if you can imagine… it’s always hard to describe on a podcast… a desktop version of a site, and then if you have the mobile version, that squishes everything; then, you have ads that suddenly end up way down at the bottom and are never viewed, and if you’re a company… it’s great if you’re a publisher, because then you don’t have any ads and you’re getting paid for it… but if you’re a company, nobody is ever going to see that ad, and at that point, you’re probably paying for it, and so viewability becomes a really important thing because, now, they’re able to track… I don’t know when the technology for that came… but, “Hey, is the ad actually showing up? Great. We’ll pay for that. If it’s not, we’re probably not going to pay for that.”

Bjork Ostrom: So, one of the strategies that I hear you saying is, it’s important to have ads that are highly viewable, sticky being one of them, meaning it sticks to the page in some way. It’s on the sidebar and you scroll down far enough, and your script’s sidebar ends, and it stays on there. Maybe an example would be if you have a video and you’re scrolling… you can see that kind of collapse down and it sticks in the bottom right-hand corner.

Bjork Ostrom: You had mentioned a few other ways that you can have sticky ads. Can you talk about what those are, just briefly?

Becca Clark: The biggest one that tends to lead to the highest revenue is the sticky footer ad. It’s, I think, what I heard you refer to before as an overlay ad. It basically just sticks at the very bottom of the page, can be enabled on all devices, and it just takes up that small little portion, to where I’m sure the majority of you probably don’t even notice it anymore because it’s almost on every site that we go to, yet you earn so much from that little ad unit because it’s sticky and you’re getting those additional refreshes, and it has high viewability because it’s always on screen.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s like 100% viewability. There would be an ad that’s 100% viewable, or maybe there’s some small little pieces or technology reasons why it wouldn’t be, but essentially it’s 100% of the ad and it’s probably going to be there… I guess the disclaimer would be if somebody leaves before a second, then it’s technically not viewable.

Bjork Ostrom: So, the other thing that you mentioned was not only sticky ads, but you also said parts within your post that are the most popular places for people to go. So, can you talk a little bit about, in a recipe site… we can speak specifically to recipe sites… where do you find are the areas that are kind of the hot zones for people to spend a lot of time, and then potentially the opportunity for people to create more income by putting an ad unit in those places?

Becca Clark: Absolutely. So, the recipe card… if you are a food blogger and you don’t already have a recipe plug-in on your site, highly recommend adding one of those; kind of the top two tend to be WP Recipe Maker or Tasty, but basically what it does is it’s a plug-in that allows you to add the set ingredients and instructions, and then in turn, you can enable some recipe adds within that recipe card. So, the readers who are coming to your site, making that recipe, they tend to spend the majority of their time hovering and having the screen open to that recipe card, and if your recipe plug-in is formatted so that, at least on a desktop, the instructions are below the ingredients, you can insert a recipe ad right there next to the ingredients or instructions, so as someone has your site open and is making that recipe and figuring it out… what ingredients do I need to pull out of the pantry, or how much of this item do I need to have… you’re bringing those recipe ad impressions, which, in turn, just helps drive up that revenue and how much you’re earning from those recipe cards.

Bjork Ostrom: My guess is that there are some people who are listening that are like, “Man, this all sounds like there would be code involved and it would be kind of complicated.” What does the process look like in terms of making decisions around putting these in? How much say can somebody have in where they want things to be, and then how do you actually make that happen?

Becca Clark: Great question. I mean, I’m, like you heard, not very tech-savvy.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain the co-development process behind the optimization of the ad networks?

Becca Clark: Pass. No, so it’s a plug-in. I mean, it’s kind of like this plug-and-play. You download the plug-in, activate it, and then you’re just adding the text, the ingredients, the instructions; definitely want to note, make sure that you are not including the specific steps and instructions earlier in the content, because if you tend to include it higher in the post, it’s less likely that your reader will actually scroll all the way down to that recipe card.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s where people will stay, yeah.

Becca Clark: Okay, look, with that assumption, you’ve added the ingredients and the instructions into that recipe card, saved it. It’s an easy feature that you can just add into as you’re editing the post, especially within WordPress, and then you would just reach out to your ad manager… or, hopefully, they would be reaching out to you, and they would be able to identify the best placements, and you would be able to say, “Yeah, I like it there. I’d rather have it here.” There’s a lot of customizations that you can make in terms of where the ad could appear within that recipe card.

Bjork Ostrom: The last question that I have in that category is this kind of the art and science that we talked about before. Do you have any advice for people who are looking to weigh the balance? This is something we always are trying to figure out with Pinch of Yum. I remember back to when we placed our first ad, a single ad unit; we were like, “Is there going to be outrage on the internet?” Just so nervous about it… and over time, starting to realize a great way to optimize revenue is to strategically place ad units, but also an important consideration to the user experience is how many different ad units somebody has to interact with?

Bjork Ostrom: There’s kind of this balance, you referenced it before, where you kind of need to figure out what people are used to; you don’t want to overstep. As people get more comfortable with things, it might be easier to introduce those. What’s your advice for people who are looking to understand how to balance the art and science of revenue optimization and user experience?

Becca Clark: I’d just start off by saying that more ads doesn’t equate with more money. You just don’t want to go off and start throwing all those ads in everywhere you possible can and then hope that you’re going to get as much revenue as possible, so really focusing on those areas where your readers are spending the most time, adding the highly viewable ad units like the sticky footer ads, sticky sidebar ad, recipe ads.

Becca Clark: Then, also listening to your readers and knowing your readers. Sometimes you can try something and then you could get a lot of negative backlash from it, and then you’re like, “Oh, okay, wait, I need to scale that back a little bit more,” and that’s okay. Like you said, it’s that constant dance of figuring out what your readers… what works well on your site may not necessarily be what works well on another site, so you have to, one, enjoy your site yourself as a reader and not be annoyed going to your own site, but then, two, know your readers. That varies depending upon site by site.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it’s a great answer because it’s going to depend. It depends on the norms, it depends on the industry. If you are in a niche of minimalism and simplicity, that’s going to be different if you’re in the niche of making money from a website; maybe they’re going to be more comfortable with that idea and understand it, so it’s really about knowing your audience and also knowing yourself and your own comfort level, which is so important.

Bjork Ostrom: Speaking of niches and different industries, Paul, can you talk to the reality of different sites having different earning potential, based on the content that they publish and product, and where does a recipe site fit in there? Is it on the lower end? Is it on the higher end? What does that look like for recipe creators and publishers in regards to the earning potential for recipe content?

Paul Bannister: I would say recipe sites are on the higher end when you look sort of across all verticals. They’re definitely not the highest. If you’re writing a blog talking to finance professionals, that’s going to do really well because… whatever.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about why that is? I think it’s an interesting case study.

Paul Bannister: Advertisers are generally targeting their ads on a bunch of different criteria, but the two primary ones are, what’s the concept on the page, and who are the users? It’s funny sometimes; when I speak at a conference, I’ll talk about this, but when you look at a magazine… it’s a pretty good analogy… if you look at a travel magazine, you can think about, “Well, who is the audience of a travel magazine?” It’s going to be someone who is probably a bit more affluent; they might skew a little bit older; they’re obviously interested in travel, I know that about them, but what other things can I figure out about the audience of that magazine?

Paul Bannister: If you open a travel magazine, you will see ads for, maybe not today, but cruise lines and airlines and destinations around the world and whatever, but you will also see ads for maybe luxury cars. It’s funny, the last time I did this, I opened a magazine… I don’t open magazines that often… it had an ad for Botox because the audience skews slightly older… so, things like that. You’re still thinking about the, what’s the audience?

Paul Bannister: In digital advertising, advertisers are working the same way, and they’re thinking, “What’s the audience of a given website?” So for food, these are people who probably are the main shopper in their household; they’re going to the store every week. They’re going to the grocery store or they’re ordering online.

Bjork Ostrom: Making purchasing decisions.

Paul Bannister: Exactly, and that’s a really important criteria. They are actively in the process of thinking about what to buy, so the time to talk to them is really relevant. You know something about them. You know that they either like to cook or they have to cook, so therefore food advertisers obviously are going to want to be there, and food advertisers are a very large category of advertisers. It’s all different and all over the place, but those are some of the reasons why food does pretty well relatively to other verticals.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What’s on the low end? What would be the sites that, in the ad world, don’t earn much at all? I think of, I don’t know if this is true, but celebrity gossip sites as potentially low-earning sites. Is there anything else, just out of curiosity?

Paul Bannister: Yeah, celebrity gossip doesn’t do great. Sadly, one vertical that doesn’t do well that we’re actually working on ways to help them is news… doesn’t do great. We all want to support journalism, but advertisers are a little wary.

Bjork Ostrom: There’s no purchase decision necessary.

Paul Bannister: There’s no purchase decision and advertisers are wary of being near content about wildfires or coronavirus or whatever else.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Can you talk about that as one of the reasons why ad networks might be able to charge a premium, and how that works as it relates to programmatic advertising, by having standards for who they’re approving as their sites? I remember this conversation from a while ago, but the idea of swine flu… potentially talking about a pig and then a pork ad running against it, and they’re being like, “Wait, no, this is not what we want.” So, one of these strategic advantages that an ad network would have or an ad agency that’s helping bloggers is, they’re able to curate high quality sites… is that still true, and why is that true?

Paul Bannister: It’s one of the most important things that we do, is we only work with the best sites, and it’s hugely valuable to the specific publisher that we bring on board, but it’s hugely valuable to all the publishers. You go back to what I was saying before, there are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of sites than an advertiser could buy with, and sure, they know Facebook, they know Google, they know Spotify, they know Better Homes and Gardens; they know some group of very large and big, well-known brands.

Paul Bannister: But once you get past that first hundred or two, people don’t know who they are, and so a big part of what we do is we show to advertisers the value of this collection that we’ve brought together, that they’re all so good and so passionate, and their content is such high-quality. Their audiences love what they’re doing. That goes a long way to getting advertisers to say, “Yeah, we’re going to add these”… I’ve forgot how many sites we have, but hundreds and hundreds of food sites… because we can show the quality of the aggregates, advertisers say, “Yeah, let’s blitz advertise on all these hundreds of sites,” whereas if you’re not with an ad network or you’re with one with lower standards, they might say, “I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know if that’s good enough for me. I’m just going to stick to these ones over here that I know are good.” The aggregation and the quality and being really super careful about who we work with is really, really important.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that makes sense.

Bjork Ostrom: We’re coming up to an interesting season. We’re in an interesting season. 2020 is an interesting season, but speaking specifically from industry standards, we’re coming up on an interesting season, which is Quarter Four, and Becca, I’m interested to hear you talk about why Quarter Four is important. Why is this kind of the sweet spot when you’re thinking about food sites, when you’re thinking about publishers, and when you’re thinking about ads, in general? Why is Quarter Four such a big deal?

Becca Clark: Year over year, Quarter Four continues to be the peak advertisers’ spending. If you think and look at the trends year over year, you tend to see huge jumps in Q4, so that’s really the time to optimize those placements on your site, because that’s when the advertisers are going to pay the most to sell ads in those placements, and especially this year in the midst of COVID and everyone being stuck at home, we all are looking for reasons and excuses to celebrate, right?

Becca Clark: Yeah, so holidays are that much more important, and readers are beginning to search for those recipes, search for different ways to celebrate, fun activities to do with their kids, whatever it might be, even if it’s from home, but different ways to celebrate that, and they’re starting even sooner. So, I guess my encouragement to the listeners is that maybe in the past, you would wait until a little later to start publishing and putting out the holiday recipes and the holiday content. This year? Start sooner. You could even start now. I guess when we’re recording this, I don’t know when it’s going to be released, but we’re about a month out from Halloween, and readers have already been listening a month prior and looking up those recipes for Halloween a month ago.

Becca Clark: What we have known from the past doesn’t necessarily apply in terms of reader behavior this year and where we’re at, but we do still anticipate that increased advertiser spending as we did before.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and it’s interesting how that changes. I think of even March and April, and I remember reading, I think, maybe even some of the articles you had put together, Paul, about how different traffic was, and also how different ad rates were; where traffic went up, ad rates went down because advertisers are spending less, everybody was at home hanging out, looking for recipes or DIY projects or whatever it might be.

Bjork Ostrom: But let’s say it was a normal year, which is maybe hard to imagine. Can you talk about how things work? This was something that I learned maybe a few years ago and started to understand, but Paul, what do the trends look like on a yearly, and then quarterly, and then even do you see trends and differences on a weekly basis, looking at the food vertical?

Paul Bannister: Definitely. I mean, food vertical has been very strong over the years. It’s seen growth year over year, over year, which has been great. Part of that is just digital advertising is getting bigger; people are spending more time online; advertisers are coming online more. I think last year was the first year that digital advertising was the largest form of advertising, outpacing even TV advertising. The money going into digital is getting bigger and bigger, and food is a huge component of that. I think food might be the largest place where people spend their money, so there’s a lot of advertising money there, which is great for them because the trends have been positive, and on a year-by-year basis, they’ve been positive.

Paul Bannister: Even this year… this year has been very unusual on a variety of ways, but we’ve definitely continued to see… I keep knocking on wood because you never know what’s going to happen this year, but things have continued to get better from when they weren’t great back in March and April to today, so that’s a good thing.

Paul Bannister: On a week-to-week, month-to-month basis… I mean, Becca mentioned some of this, but holidays are huge for food. Labor Day, we saw huge spikes of people looking for barbecues and salads and different things like that. All the summer holidays are kind of similar. Halloween is huge, whether it’s stuff for your kids or theme parties for your college; there’s all different things people are looking for where they’re looking for recipes, and in some ways, this year is the same. There are still those spikes, there are still those things. In some ways, this year is a little different sometimes, because earlier this year, we saw big spikes around baking. Everyone was looking to bake at home; that was a huge thing. We saw a huge spike around cocktails. Everyone was like, “Oh my God, I need a drink at the end of day, and give me something good.” There were definitely different things this year, but that seasonality and those holidays and those events are really…

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. If you were to say, “Hey, looking at a year, Quarter Four is high,” would you say Quarter One is a low in terms of ad rates? Is that something that we should expect, and then if you were to rank them, best to worst, Quarter Four top, Quarter One bottom, where do Three and Two fit in?

Paul Bannister: Quarter Two is the second best.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay.

Paul Bannister: Quarter Three is the third best, and Q1 is the worst. So, it’s Q4, Q2, Q3, Q1 roughly.

Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Interesting, because it’s kind of hard as a publisher; you see Quarter Four against Quarter One… when you look at those and you’re like, “Wait a minute, why did these things dive?” Can you explain what’s happening on the company side when they’re spending money, and why you see sometimes a spike at the end of any quarter and a dive at the beginning? In some ways, it almost seems like Quarter Four is the best because it’s the end of a quarter and it’s the end of the year; why does that exist? I mean, we know it’s Christmas and gift buying and Hanukkah, and people are getting together and celebrating, but from an ad/spend perspective, from a budget perspective, why is that happening?

Paul Bannister: Yes. Budget is the key word. I mean, advertisers are saying… right now, actually, they’re planning their budgets. I mean, some of them are already done, but they’re planning their budgets for next year right now. They’re thinking, “Okay, what did 2020 look like for us as a company? How effective was the advertising that we did? What were the kinds of advertising that were good, that were bad? Where do we cut? Where do we add?” They’re making those decisions right now and thinking about their budgets, and then, at the beginning of next year, they’re going to say, “Okay, in the first quarter of the year, we are going to spend 10% of our annual budget in this quarter.”

Paul Bannister: So, on January 1st, a whole bunch of… well, hopefully, not January 1st… January 2nd, let’s say, a whole bunch of people go into the office… or not the office, to their virtual office.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, to their basement with their sweats on.

Paul Bannister: Exactly. They sit down at their computer and they start setting up ad campaigns. They say, “Okay, I sell chocolates, so I’ve got a campaign for my chocolate bar, and I’ve got a campaign for my chocolate chips, and I’ve got a campaign for my candy bag.” They’ve got different ads that they have and they’re setting up different campaigns, so at the very beginning of the quarter, people are literally typing into their systems, “I want to buy this many of these ads on these sites and with these criteria, and here’s the ad and what it looks like.” They’re setting things up, so in the beginning-

Bjork Ostrom: Literally getting started.

Paul Bannister: Exactly. So, the beginning, few advertisers have done it. They’re just not set up yet. They’re not ready, and then as the quarter wears on, more and more people are set up. More and more things are happening. More and more people are understanding. They’re like, “Oh, this ad that I’m running over here is working well. Let me spend more on that one,” and beginning to optimize and push more on the places that are working to see more money coming through.

Paul Bannister: Then, at the end of the quarter, you get the funny corporate America and corporate world stuff where people are like, “You’ve got to spend your budget.”

Bjork Ostrom: Got to spend all my money, because then I’m going to lose it.

Paul Bannister: Exactly. If I got 10% less at the end of the quarter, I’ve got to plow that through the system because I’ve got to spend all of that.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s such a weird reality of budgets.

Paul Bannister: Exactly, exactly. In some ways, it’s abstract. When you think about it, it’s literally people sitting at their computer, setting stuff up; that’s what’s happening, and so it’s happening thousands of times over again, so there’s not one advertiser; there’s tens of thousands of them.

Bjork Ostrom: When you think of that on a quarterly basis… “Oh, we’re at the end of the quarter, we’ve got to spend our budget”… the culmination is Quarter Four, where we have money from the year and money from the quarter; “We’ve got to get through this. We’ve got to spend it all.” You see this kind of perfect storm, not only on the recipe side… more people making recipes in November and December… but also, companies being able to make more because it’s the peak season for buying, and then it’s the end of their spend, so it’s kind of this perfect storm of being able to optimize ads, which is awesome.

Paul Bannister: I’ll tell you one quick funny story on that, really quick. This is six, seven years ago now. It was the end of a quarter, and we saw this huge spike in spending from one advertiser. I think it was March 31st, like 10:00 at night; we’re like, “What is this huge spike?” We looked and it was Caterpillar, the company that makes the trucks. They were advertising on food sites and parenting sites, and we were like, “What is”… then we were just like, “They’re just going to spend their budget.” I’m like, “Thanks, Caterpillar.” It creates such weird incentives.

Bjork Ostrom: For all of those people looking to buy a backhoe and a bottle of ketchup… it’s a really small market, but it’s the construction and condiments market, so, that’s great.

Bjork Ostrom: Coming to the end of this, one of the things that I like to check in on and hear a little bit about is… what is your encouragement to the people who are in their early stages, still? The people who are just getting started, who want to get to the point where they’re able to work with an ad network, but they’re still in that early stages and trying to get that traction… Becca, would you have anything that you would say to those people and advice that you would give them as they’re looking to get started, and hopefully, some day, be able to start monetizing their site and running ads and potentially working with AdThrive to do that?

Becca Clark: I would say continue writing and answering the questions that you would have as though you were a reader looking for that recipe or whatever topic it is that you’re talking about. Algorithms continue to change, they continue to try to optimize how people will find the various content. I think if you really just focus on the reader and answering the questions that they have, you’ll be more likely to see the growth that comes along with that.

Becca Clark: And then, just pushing it out through all the different channels that you possibly can, making it as easy as possible for readers to find and access your content.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. I think it’s one of the recurring things that we hear that’s so important is, to not get lost in the kind of surrounding things around publishing, which is optimization and social media and tips and tricks. Like I said at the beginning, all of those are really important and they’re a piece of the puzzle, but the core is to make sure that the thing that you are creating is helpful and valuable and insightful, and that somebody is coming to that and saying, “You know what? This is helping me, whether it’s a recipe, informational article, entertainment”… that you’re getting better at doing that core thing is, I think, such great advice and such a good reminder for us to look at getting really good at that as the thing that we do. So, I love that.

Bjork Ostrom: How about on your end, Paul? Is there anything that you would say for people who are in those early stages as a consideration, as they’re looking to grow and build and eventually create an income from their site?

Paul Bannister: I’ll say the same thing a slightly different way. Great content wins. Even if today, it’s hard and it’s a grind, and you feel like you’re not having success and you’re not where you want to be, if you believe what you’ve got is great and your little audience or bigger audience or whatever feels that it is great, keep doing that.

Paul Bannister: It’s funny. I’m a big home cook. I love to cook, and seven years ago, I remember looking at blogs and being like, “Eh, I don’t think these are good. This isn’t quality stuff. I don’t trust this. Whatever.” I would go with the big recipe sites and get my stuff there, and now, everything I cook is from blogs, every single thing. There’s so many amazing people. The people who are great floated to the top, and I think if you think you’re great, just keep doing it.

Paul Bannister: I’ll say the other side of that is that, that’s what advertisers want. The number of meetings I’ve walked into with advertisers, and we’re like, “Oh, we worked with them this site, and this site, and this site,” and they’re like, “Oh, my God. Pinch of Yum. I love Lindsay.” They don’t know Lindsay, and I’ve only met Lindsay once, but they love that connection. So, with advertisers, when they see great content, that’s where they want to be, too, so I think it’s important for both sides.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What helpful insight to know it exists; outside of just the reader, it’s also the people you’re partnering with, whether that might be advertisers or sponsored content.

Bjork Ostrom: So, obviously, most people, I’m guessing, are familiar with AdThrive, so I’ll do a little plug for that, and a simple AdThrive Google or AdThrive.com if people want to check out AdThrive and see what they’re up to. But thank you both so much for coming on the podcast. Just like my intro, in my outro, I will direct these to each of you, so Becca, thanks for coming on. Really appreciate it, and thanks for being a part of it.

Becca Clark: Thank you for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: And Paul, thank you so much for coming on and being a part of the podcast.

Paul Bannister: Thanks very much. It was awesome.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome, yeah, great to connect, and hopefully, we’ll be able to connect again in the future. Until then, thanks, guys.

Paul Bannister: Good luck. Bye.

Becca Clark: Bye.

Alexa Peduzzi: And that’s a wrap on this episode of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Thanks again for tuning in today. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you have any feedback or comments, we would love to hear them at foodbloggerpro.com/275. There, you’ll find the show notes for this episode with any resource links that you might need from the episode, as well as just a quick recap of the episode as a whole.

Alexa Peduzzi: I also wanted to draw your attention to an email opt-in that we actually have on our homepage. So, if you go on over to foodbloggerpro.com, you’ll see an email opt-in right there in the middle of the screen, and in addition to getting podcast emails and blogging newsletters, and just more emails about who we are at Food Blogger Pro, you’ll also get a free PDF download of 16 Different Ways You Can Monetize Your Food Blog. It’s huge. It’s super long. It has a ton of awesome information in it, and we think you’re really going to enjoy it. So, you can opt in free, get that free at foodbloggerpro.com.

Alexa Peduzzi: All right, that’s all from us this week. Thanks again for tuning in. We’ll see you next time, and until then, make it a great week.

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