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Balancing advertising with user experience

  • Client: Trusted Reviews
  • HMW: Helped one of Time Inc's most popular websites explore new ideas for their advertising?
  • Sector: Publishing
  • Role: UX, Front-End
  • Agency: Clearleft
  • When: 2016

This is the story of how we helped one of Time Inc's most popular websites, TrustedReviews, explore new ideas for their advertising and affiliate programmes and demonstrate their feasibility through a responsive HTML prototype.

Time Inc's most popular site was serving upwards of 180M page views per year. As a result, TrustedReviews generated significant ad revenue–but it came at a cost. The abundance of ads was starting to hinder a user's ability to read news and reviews across the site. Full-screen ad takeovers, auto-playing videos and slow-loading pages were just some of the adverse effects resulting from too much advertising across the site. The TrustedReviews team knew the experience could be better, but wanted a second opinion.

Some ad types worked better than others, but not all were responsive. The TrustedReviews team was interested in seeing how a mixture of new and existing ad formats could be used to create a better user experience without proving too distracting or frustrating. The team had also been trialling a new affiliate tool developed in-house. Such a tool offered the best of both worlds: it supplied TrustedReviews users with useful and relevant buying options, and it generated healthy revenue for the site without distraction or interruption. Could we make the affiliate product work harder to offset the need for so many display ads?

We knew TrustedReviews generated lots of revenue from their display advertising. We needed to demonstrate the value in shifting their mindset towards less - but more targeted - ad types and formats.
Jon Aizlewood, Project Lead

The Results

Better SEO.

Our revision of the TrustedReviews information architecture and navigation made better use of a strong underlying taxonomic system. By exposing categories and topics earlier in the navigation, users could find the reviews that interested them more quickly and easily.

Exploring responsive ads

By ensuring reviews and news came first, we blended better ads into the overall site experience. We adopted existing ideas from other Time Inc properties as well as propose new formats that were not as intrusive but worked across all screen sizes.

Better ads but even better UX

Our work focused on the reading experience, supported by ads and affiliates. Not the other way around. We proposed small changes for big impact, making it easier for users to find, engage with and act on TrustedReviews’ fantastic content.

The Full Story

How do you balance display advertising with user experience?
After listening to the needs and requirements from business stakeholders, we created four user archetypes to help focus the business on who used their site and why:

Discovered user archetypes

These archetypes helped us create stronger distinctions between users interested in News versus those interested in Reviews. We posited that readers looking for reviews were more inclined to buy, versus enthusiasts or post-purchasers who preferred keeping up-to-date with the industry or certain products.

We worked closely with the TrustedReviews team to sketch out various approaches for review pages, news articles, category pages and new ad formats. We revised the site's Information Architecture (IA) to make better use of the underlying taxonomy, which was under-utilised and negatively affecting search engine ranking. The new IA not only helped expose more of TrustedReviews' great content to search engines, but was future-proof. The structure allowed the TR team to make forays into new, emergent technology topics without being restricted to an IA made solely for the consumer electronics domain. If Trusted Reviews began reviewing autonomous vehicles or VR products tomorrow, the new IA would provide them with a solid platform from which they could publish on.

Sketching out the IA concept

How do you express a vision without visuals?

Concurrent to the innovation project, the TrustedReviews brand was undergoing a major refresh. Rather than add design debt by creating assets and materials already out-of-date, we created a fully-responsive, grey-box HTML prototype. It would serve as a single source of truth for our recommendations and explorations, exhibiting our ideas for advertising, navigation, page structure and IA. Above all it was shareable, and testable with real users should the need arise.

Responsive HTML prototype

It was incredible diving into the world of online media. There are many intricacies and commercial complexities that we never knew existed. Incredibly, there still looks to be so much potential in new ad formats for the responsive web that have yet to be realised.
Jon Aizlewood

Considering new approaches in display advertising

During our stakeholder interviews it became apparent that many online ads are targeted either at an individual (re-marketing) or no-one in particular. Alongside the TrustedReviews team, we realised that by switching the focus from product to demographic data, we could present better, contextually-relevant and useful ads to readers.

Ad approaches in prototype

To test this theory we created the opportunity for brands to sponsor entire 'hub' pages, creating cross-sell opportunities that previously didn't exist. For example if Ford wanted to push into the electric car space, they could sponsor the entire technology section of the site, increasing exposure to the right demographic at the right time.

We also explored a new ad format that maintained a reading experience without interruption, and used HTML5 video - a format that TrustedReviews were keen to try more of.

Video walk-through of the prototype

This case study was originally published on Clearleft's website.

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