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AdTech Unscripted

by AdButler

Pattison Media is one of Canada’s premier radio and television companies - serving the needs of listeners, viewers, advertisers, and communities throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Robert Janes
Head of Product, AdButler
Ben Aston
Founder, Black & White Zebra

In This Episode

Ben and Rob sit together to talk about adtech trends.

They covered:

  • Subscriptions vs. Ads (using Netflix and Gaming sites as examples)
  • Tricks for Publishers to improve their inventory selling process
  • AdBlockers and (ethical) tips to bypass them

Introduction (00:00 - 05:19)

Rob:  It's Rob with AdButler here today. I'm joined with Ben Aston, he's the founder of Black and White Zebra. It's an indie media company based out of Vancouver, British Columbia. He's on a mission to help people in organizations kind of succeed. Not to be confused with Ben Aston - the model or director. Ben did you want to give a little introduction to everybody about yourself today. Let everybody know who you were and what you're up to.

Ben: Yeah, thanks! Rob, thanks for having me on the show. And yeah I guess I lead the company at Black and White Zebra. We've been going officially since 2012. It was when we started and we launched our first website which was the digital project manager dot com. And we run now a portfolio of different websites across project management, HR, customer experience, eCommerce, and a ton more. And yeah, we're on this mission to help people and organizations succeed to help people get skilled, and get connected with one another. We see this need out there in the world where we have these emerging disciplines - emerging roles, and skill sets that are required changing.

Rob: Awesome! So how would somebody go about you know connecting with your company, connecting with Black and White Zebra and how do you help them? You know if I were a publisher or a small company, how would you engage with me?

Ben: We've got a slightly interesting business model. So BWZ or Black and White Zebra is our company name. Within that company, we have a portfolio of web properties. So, one of our web properties that I talked about is Digital Project Manager and we have a membership, training and coaching as well. We have courses - many courses - that people can buy. And then we also monetize through advertising and so we have this multifaceted approach to monetizing the content that we are creating.

Rob: Gotcha and I will 100% get to the monetization part in just a minute - because you know obviously, we're an ad tech company. I have so many questions which it's going to lead into a little bit further in the conversation shortly. But, what's kind of the bread and butter - the one that's getting the most traction right now in the market?

Ben: Yeah, so the Digital Project Manager we launched in 2012 and it was a side project for me for 13 years. It wasn't until 2018-19 that we launched and started launching some new sites when I started doing this full-time. So yeah, the Digital Project Manager is our biggest - it gets the most traffic. And then the next up-and-coming site is a site called peoplemanagingpeople.com and that's all about HR, HR for non-HR people and HR for startups. And helping people lead and manage their teams better. So those are the those are our top two.

Rob: Awesome! Awesome! That's great. You've been around since 2012 - so pushing 10 years now that's incredible. Any plans for your 10-year anniversary?

Ben: Yeah, we're coming up to 10 years. No plans yet, but I probably should.

Rob: That's a big milestone. So you mentioned a key part. Um that you kind of you have this multifaceted approach to how you monetize the site and how you monetize the content. Could you elaborate? So you mentioned you do advertising. I'm assuming you're just selling. You know, either catalog like the subscription catalog to the content. Maybe the courses or whatever - how does that work.

Ben: Okay, the easiest thing to understand is our online training -it’s a course that you can buy that's super straightforward So that's a one-off purchase. That's where we started, then we launched membership which is a kind of ongoing professional development subscription. That's also cool and it addresses a different need in which you know people are wanting that ongoing community that ongoing training and development. So it kind of scratches that itch. And then on the advertising side, we have a mix of products that we can offer to people which include pay-per-click. So we have advertisers who pay per click and they feature in lists that we create and they bid on that pay-per-click. We also collect data from people and then sell those leads.

Subscription vs. Ads (05:19 - 10:28)

Rob: Awesome! Awesome! So one of the things that I kind of wanted to talk about and I think might resonate a little bit with you is - a subscription model versus an advertising-based model. Just recently, I was talking to a game development company - as an example so a little bit little different vertical but - they dabbled in this world like hey you know we have a game here, That's free to play with ads. You can pay to unlock X levels and pay for the full game. And they still ran ads even in the paid version and they had a lot of negative feedback. People kind of felt like they were double-dipping. And they kind of backpedaled. They said “okay! well, you know what? If you pay the money you're getting rid of all the advertisements.” In your experience, what have you found works really well? Have you found subscription works better Have you found ad? Or is there a cohesion between the two that you can make both work?

Ben: Yeah, we're making both work. And I think at the forefront for us is a really good user experience. And I think yeah, the challenge is how you balance monetization with user experience. We make sure not to stuff too many ads in. We don't use standard ad units. Rather, we create our own custom ad units which integrate more seamlessly with the content on the page. So we don't have a leaderboard on the site or we don't have the standard formats. What we do is inspired by native ads. They've got some really cool formats. It's just like - hey you can have your logo, background color, text and a call to action. Take it or leave it. We try to make this site look nice. The interesting thing about our display ads and this style of ads is the click-through rate is so high. That’s how we are able to sell it for quite a lot.

Because it's become a lead gen tool as well. I mean, typically with display there's a brand piece that people are doing it for, right? They just want to get their brand in front of people. Everyone knows that clickthrough rates going to be poor. But what we're finding is that people are buying it as a lead-gen. Going large with ads is this going to impact the user experience negatively. If so we would rather not make the money and try and build our audience. Because that's more sustainable in the long term than turning people off by sticking too many ads.

Rob: Right, that's music to my ears. User experience is a big thing. So I Love the fact that you guys kind of stick to that mantra. Since you mentioned that you have such a high click-through rate on your display ads what's your audience like? So I'm guessing people that are coming to the site, know what they're looking for. They're looking for project management. They're looking for these courses and so forth. So I'm guessing you have a little bit of a niche audience.

Ben: Yeah, an example - three of our biggest advertisers will be Monday.com, Smartsheet, and ClickUp. So these are project management software. And our audience is obviously a bunch of project managers who lead and manage projects and trying to get better and trying to get tooled up to deliver their projects better. So our advertisers know they're talking to the right people. These guys might not be the decision-makers. They're not necessarily the ones who get the sign-off on the budget to buy the tool. But they're certainly the ones that will recommend the tool and try and push that through. So yeah, and that's really part of what makes our advertising so effective is the fact that we've niched down. Obviously, for our advertisers, it makes sense to advertise on the Digital Project Manager. It’s like “we're a project management tool, so we should be there.” There is a brand piece and there is a lead-gen piece, checking both the boxes.

Tricks for Publishers to improve their inventory selling process (10:28 - 21:33)

Rob: Shout out to ClickUp, by the way, we use that here internally as our project management tool and love it. I didn't find it through your website, unfortunately, but shout out to ClickUp. I just got to give credit where credit is due - that platform is amazing. Awesome! In the advertising world we work with publishers - that could be online news publications. Well, we call a publisher really anybody that's showing ads on their site. A lot of them are news publications or retailers or things like that. Is there any sort of like trends in the market or any like recommendations or maybe like business development tricks that you would give to maybe smaller publishers right now. Where should they spend their money where should they not spend their money?

Ben: Yeah, in the early days for us in selling ad space, we started off by using ad networks because. There are some ad networks - example Adwords - with this, you're not going to get paid very much money but it will give you an idea of who you can just see who those advertisers are who are advertising using those display ads. And then what we did was start contacting those people so like Monday.com and get them to advertise on our site. The next really important part of the process was building a media kit. There are obviously a ton of indie media publishers out there - people who are writing content - but why should an advertiser take you seriously? Why should they take your publication seriously? I think a big part of it comes down to the media kit that you share with advertisers. Just having a really good understanding of what you're selling the value you're able to deliver and being really clear about what the options are and not making it too complicated. That was really game-changing for us - forming direct relationships with advertisers rather than going through ad networks. The amount that you're going to get paid is a whole lot more but in order to do that. You need to be able to put on a much more professional face and get people to believe in your product.

Rob: Yeah, I see that time and time again, right? It's not necessarily a chicken or an egg scenario but people come to us and they're like you know, “we have this site. We've got great traffic. We monetize with the network. How do we make more money? We could reach check to these brands individually and built and foster that relationship.” And then all of a sudden they're like, “Okay well you know they want to get detailed statistics - so they want to know about your audience or what they can run” and things like that. You're absolutely right? A Media Kit. You know it's often one of those things that people kind of forget. Or they don't prepare beforehand and then all of a sudden when they get there and they're like, “wow if I had a really good media kit that would have saved them a ton of trouble.

Ben: Yeah, I mean, it is basic things. What is your traffic. What is the dwell time? What is the expected click-through rate? Then I think, beginning should be being able to sell people campaigns- and being able to say, “hey look give us $1000 you can expect this many views, you can expect this many clicks.” I think that is one of the challenges with whenever you're selling or advertising is that - people who are buying can be quick to point the finger and say your audience isn't very good and your traffic's not worth it. This is why case studies are important for your media kit as well. Like, “hey, we typically get conversion rates of 8 to 10 percent.” Knowing that number typically allows you to go back to people when they say hey this isn't converting. And say, “well let's look at why that might be. Is the messaging on the Ad does it match what's on the landing page? Is there the intent carried through and being delivered on?” Sometimes, it’s just lazy marketing.

Rob: Yeah, sometimes that is the case. I'm really intrigued. So do you have a marketplace or a portal where advertisers can go in and they can buy the ads on your site. Cab they essentially log in and buy that ad space without having to talk through a salesperson.

Ben: Yeah, oh no, no. In the starts, we got a lot of inbound inquiries because people are searching for stuff and our site keeps popping up and so we get a lot of inbound requests. Then the sales team would reach out to them. Talk them through the media kit - talk about some options, some campaign ideas, and then create an account in our system to allow the vendors to be able to go in and provide or upload their collateral to start their campaigns.

Rob: Right. Are there any that - you find - are they able to manage the campaigns themselves at that point? Like change their creatives. What about creative control and quality control for you managing the content on your site. Because as a publisher you have to make sure that everything that's running on the site is cohesive and works with your audience.

Ben: Yeah, we do gate it quite heavily. So there's an approval process. Sure, you can go in and change it. But then we have to approve it before it gets changed. So yeah, gating is important for SEO and user experience. If you give advertisers complete control - and we've learned this lesson - they will find funny ways of doing silly things. They will find the bugs in your system. So that's why we introduced the gating process. We get to look at things and make sure that we maintain the integrity of the publication.

Rob: Makes perfect sense. Yeah, it's funny I've seen the same thing here. On our platform, publishers that use our self-service solution. I always - like one hundred percent of the time - put some sort of approval process in place. Because there's nothing that says a disgruntled employee at the end of the day can't log in and schedule something. And now all of a sudden. It's panic mode on a Friday afternoon because there's an ad running on the site that really shouldn't be there. We've run into that from time to time. So yeah, it's good to hear that you know that was a learning curve for you guys as well. So have you had any feedback from your like your viewers and your readership? Have there been any complaints or concerns or anything like - “hey the advertising is intrusive even though we're a paying member.” So the reason I ask is you know it's a hot topic right now. If you're not living under a rock, then you would know that there's a potential that Netflix might be going with an ad-supported model. Which is really intriguing, I don't know how that's going to work out. But I'm curious to hear from other people in the industry. You know, would you rule out advertising if they went to a subscription model. It sounds like you're kind of doing a mix of both and it seems to be working. Maybe it's because of the audience. What do you think?

Ben: Yeah I think it's a delicate balance. It comes down to where we started - like user experience. We haven't really had a ton of complaints about our ads.

Rob: Relevancy, right? If people are learning about project management and they see a project management tool, they would think, “oh this is something they recommend or it's promoted product.” You don't really treat the same as an ad, right? So I guess that does make sense. It's gonna be really interesting to see where that market goes. I think Netflix is gonna be a big driver in this. They've lost like 20,000 subscribers this year for the first time ever in 20 years. I don't know whether or not they decide to go the ad revenue or the ad-supported the model. I feel like we're just stepping backwards and going back to old school TV, right? But who knows!

Ben: I think the other interesting part in this is paywalls. Membership and paywalls are often kind of conflated. Our goal really in the publication is creating content so good that it's worth paying for whether or not that is through training, through membership, through creating really good content.

Rob: I love it.

Ben: Just driving page views and trying to increase views with a diminishing user experience. Or just posting content because you're trying to publish more stuff to get more pages to get more views. Ultimately you want return visits and you want to create a sustainable long-term business which you know might be slower. But I think user experience is ultimately more rewarding.

AdBlockers and (ethical) tips to bypass them (21:33 - 25:00)

Rob: Oh absolutely, I completely agree. I've got one last question because it's something that I face quite frequently here in the advertising space - adblockers. As a publisher yourself, you know you have advertisers paying for this ad spend. Have you had any issues with adblocker? Do you notice that revenue decreases with adblockers? Are you circumventing ad blockers in any shape or form? You know there are ways obviously to get around and there's the Acceptable Ads program where you use non-standard formats I don't know if you follow within that like acceptable ads program. What's your challenge with adblockers so far? What have you noticed?

Ben: Yeah, we're kind of flying under the radar and we're not part of the acceptable ads program. What we've done instead is our custom formats. Which in our minds are much less intrusive and our ads are much more relevant. So, we haven't had a problem with ad blockers and that's because they are not coded as ads. They are the part of the content.

Rob: That's all what we've noticed too lately. The last numbers were like 30% or 40% of the people using Google Chrome use like adblock plus or some sort of adblocker.

Ben: Yeah, yeah I do yeah.

Rob: I work in ad tech and I use it for troubleshooting, sure right? So there are a lot of publishers out there losing money to ad blockers. It's interesting that you say it's a part of the site because that's usually what we recommend as well. Now it sounds like you're doing something kind of proprietary. But essentially, running it as like a server-side ad or having it as content on the site. So yes, it's a sponsored post. But it's not coming from a third-party script or it's not coming from something external that an adblocker recognizes. It's really good to hear that you guys haven't been caught or flagged or anything. Hopefully that keeps up. I think having a niche audience helps.

Ben: Yes, exactly.

Rob: If you were to just start throwing random ads from AdSense or something, you might tick off the user-base a little.. Awesome. So before we end here because I know we are kind of coming up on time, tell us what your future looks like and what's on the horizon. I'm a big fan of the show hot ones I don't know if you've ever watched but it's really good. They have this wing challenge where they interview celebrities and they go through eating hot wings from like a mild hot wing to like the hottest hot wings in the world. Anyways and they always end the show with like you know they roll out the red carpet to the guest. You have a few minutes to talk about what you guys are doing in the future I want to roll that out to you as well. You know what's on your radar. What's coming up for for Black and White Zebra or your other projects a little bit - here to sell yourself.

Ben: Yeah, on the radar we've just announced an acquisition we made which was http://crossdesk.com which is a software comparison site portal and they have some ad tech that we've acquired and we'll be rolling out across our portfolio of sites. So That's that's super exciting. It means we can retire our old tech and bring in some new stuff and we also will be launching some new sites and just doing more of what we're already doing. We're. trying to create content so good that it's worth paying for. It's great that we make money through advertising but really we want to be creating products that are market fit. We're creating content the reader. Those selling direct to consumers as well as combining that with the advertising for us is super Interesting. So yeah, we'll be continuing to roll out more sites in our portfolio integrating our new technology and having a lot of fun along the way.

Rob: That sounds exciting and if anybody any of the listeners of yours wanted to go check out your sites and more about what you and get in touch with you. What's the best way for them to reach out.

Ben: Just go to BWZ.com that's where we're at.

Rob: Perfect, excellent. Well, thanks again. Ben, it was great. We're going to stop the recording here. It's been an absolute pleasure.

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Our website does not play well with adblockers


The nature of our business causes adblockers to block parts of our page even when we don't show you any ads. This can make the experience of browsing our website significantly worse. Could you please disable your ad blocker?

I Understand

Our Website Does Not Play Well With Ad Blockers

The nature of our business causes adblockers to block parts of our page even when we don't show you any ads. This can make the experience of browsing our website significantly worse. Could you please disable your ad blocker?

Our website does not play well with adblockers


The nature of our business causes adblockers to block parts of our page even when we don't show you any ads. This can make the experience of browsing our website significantly worse. Could you please disable your ad blocker?

I Understand