Creating a blockbuster: how website layout affects revenue potential

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The prolific film writer and director Alfred Hitchcock once said he liked to play his audience like a piano, meaning he’d push their buttons and pull their emotions; he aimed for complete control, directing their attention and behaviour.

Much like filmmakers need to engage and please their audience, publishers need to understand how users consume content and figure out how to keep them engaged on a single visit or as repeat visitors, all while considering how to optimize revenue without sacrificing user experience. It’s quite the undertaking, but publishers can learn a lot from filmmakers when it comes to creating a blockbuster.

Don’t commit too early

Hitchcock was known for having at least one, if not many, alternate endings for his films. He was open to the idea that, once production was underway, the film could improve with some changes to the storyline. Even modern directors often screentest movies, showing their films with two different endings to two different audiences, to determine which version should make the final cut.

Publishers should take the same approach. They should be open to the idea that they might not quite hit their goals the first time, or that an initial idea won’t pan out the way they anticipated. This is where experimentation and A/B testing come in.

There are a variety of  tools that publishers can leverage to identify opportunities for improvement on their sites. Experimentation tools such as Optimizely allow publishers to A/B test web pages, and provides rich analytics to help inform decisions. Some publishers opt to implement heat mapping or scroll mapping software, like CrazyEgg, to understand how users are interacting with elements of their site, and where visitors are spending the most amount of time (and where they’re just scrolling on by). Google Analytics also allows publishers to run experiments, and measure success (achievement of defined goals, increased time on site etc.)

Publishers should also be willing to experiment with the content on their site. There is an overwhelming amount of competition for readers’ attention, and there is only so much time in a day for people to spend consuming content. Publishers need to understand their audience well, and work hard to continuously present content that will engage their readers and keep them coming back for more. Finding the right content formula can be challenging ” publishers need to consider medium, topics, authors ” but it’s an effort worth undertaking in exchange for building a loyal, engaged audience.

Advertising: the product placement of online publishing

Product placement can be a lucrative way to bump up profits from films and, done well, product placement can enhance a film (like Reese’s Pieces and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial). Done poorly, however, it can be uncomfortable and actually detract from the story (see Wayne’s World). While Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of product placement and, in fact, turned down offers to feature products in his films, many filmmakers rely on contracts with advertisers to help ensure their projects are profitable.

Monetizing a website through ads warrants the same consideration as placing ads in a film. Publishers need to ensure that they don’t jeopardize the experience they’ve worked so hard to create by distracting users with intrusive ads or worse, driving users away altogether.

There are a few key considerations for publishers when designing their site with advertising in mind.

Ad-to-content ratio

A common mistake that publishers make is believing that more ad space equates to more ad revenue dollars. While it can be tempting to jam ad units into every square inch of free space on your website, doing so can actually have adverse effects by driving users away from your site. In addition, some dominant industry players, such as Google, will penalize publishers for having too many ads in relation to the content on the page.

If you’ve put a considerable amount of work into designing a site that your audience enjoys visiting, and creating content that they enjoy, it doesn’t make sense to make them want to leave your site by bombarding them with ads. You want to make it easy for users to find what they’re looking for, not distract them your valuable content with a page full of ads.


Once smart publishers decide to respect their users and maintain a reasonable ad-to-content ratio, they are tasked with deciding where to place them. There is extensive research available on how to place ads for maximum visibility and interaction, and we even did our own research about the value of above the fold vs below the fold placements.

Understanding how users interact with your site through the heat mapping exercise mentioned above can help guide your ad placements. It’s important to place ad units where users will actually see them, while taking care not to interfere with the content.

It’s also important to ensure that you’re not accidentally violating ad placement policies ” most notably, Google’s policy, which prohibits:

  • Encouraging accidental clicks,
  • Drawing unnatural attention to ads, and
  • Placing ads under a misleading header.

Last on the list of layout factors to consider (but not last in importance) is the size of ads on your site. The Interactive Advertising Bureau[1] (IAB) has created a commonly accepted standard for ad sizes and to maximize the potential for advertisers to place ads on your site, we recommend laying out your site to accommodate IAB-approved ad units.

So, was it a blockbuster?

A ˜blockbuster’ as it relates to the movies refers not only to profit, but demand and ticket sales. The public desire to see the film was so overwhelming that the line-up at the box office for tickets would stretch down the street and around the block. Filmmakers can have confidence in their films, but there are no guarantees (remember Battlefield Earth? No?). Even though producers can get a sense how their film will be received through test screenings, sometimes they just have to cross their fingers and hope for the best. They won’t know if it’s a success until the numbers and reviews are in.

Unlike the movies, websites and digital content are dynamic. There are multiple levers publishers can pull to improve their content offering and keep their audiences more engaged. Through data monitoring and analysis, you can see patterns and trends, and start to measure the return on your investment in content and marketing. If something isn’t working the way it might have been expected to, you can adapt it. What makes digital publishing so unique is the ability for it to be dynamic and organic in the way it’s ever-evolving to the needs and consumption habits of audiences. Publishing is fluid and not static; there’s always an opportunity for refinement and to make a site a blockbuster success.

Build your production dream team

No director – not even Hitchcock – has ever been successful without the support of a team of experienced experts. Publishing is no different.

1. Interactive Advertising Bureau. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) empowers the media and marketing industries to thrive in the digital economy. Its membership is comprised of more than 650 leading media companies, brands, and the technology firms responsible for selling, delivering and optimizing digital ad marketing campaigns. The trade group fields critical research on interactive advertising, while also educating brands, agencies, and the wider business community on the importance of digital marketing. In affiliation with the IAB Tech Lab, IAB develops technical standards and solutions. IAB is committed to professional development and elevating the knowledge, skills, expertise, and diversity of the workforce across the industry. Through the work of its public policy office in Washington, D.C., the trade association advocates for its members and promotes the value of the interactive advertising industry to legislators and policymakers. Founded in 1996, IAB is headquartered in New York City.

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