The internet is, well, huge. It’s ridiculously huge… 1.8 billion active sites and growing (as of the writing of this post).  To put that in context, you could spend the next 50 years surfing the web at a pace of five sites per minute, 12 hours a day, 365 days per year, and you’d still only visit 10% of the internet. 
The average search turns up just 0.03 percent of the information that exists online (one in 3,000 pages). Although most people click on the first few results simply out of convenience, doing so is the search equivalent to fishing in the top two feet of the ocean – the returned results are only a small percentage of what is actually available on the internet.
I often see this metaphor play out in digital advertising.  Brands choose to place their ads on a select few sites that are easy targets because they have the highest volume of traffic. Essentially what they are doing is skimming the surface but as a result, missing a trove of the unique opportunity that exists for those willing to explore just a little further down.  
When I speak with advertisers about their approach to buying digital advertising inventory, many say they simply choose the largest sites (based on traffic) because the domain names are recognisable and therefore assumed to be “safe”. Although, this assumption isn’t always correct. In an era of brand safety and concerns over fraud, I understand wanting to stick to sites that are familiar. However, for the advertisers that are employing a strategy that includes placements outside of the largest sites on the internet, they are discovering pearls of opportunity rife with reader engagement and high returns on ad spend.

The power of niche publications

Digital display advertising has come a long way since the first banner ad appeared on HotWired (now Wired) in 1994.  Although the minefield of unwelcome banners and flashy sidebar ads still exists on websites that are less interested in user experience and more interested making a fast buck, there is a bastion of passionate storytellers that run well-designed niche websites and produce remarkably engaging content for a loyal and engaged reader base.
From an advertisers point of view, finding safe inventory that delivers on reader engagement can be like finding the proverbial, “drop in the ocean”, especially since 99% of the 1.8 billion websites on the internet don’t meet advertisers standards. Fortunately, there are companies that have spent years searching the web and discovering these pearls of publishing. 
We are seeing firsthand that placing ads on quality websites with a niche focus has significant advantages for a brand.  The average internet user will visit 89 different websites in a month, covering a wide range of categories. According to our research across 1,000 publishers (comparing small publishers to those with larger volumes of traffic), readers spend nearly two minutes more per session engaging with websites that are aligned to their passion vs. simply reading a news article and then bouncing off a site.  
Think about your own web experience in a typical month, you may first read about a particular topic on a news site, then to learn more you will likely do a search and land on a website with a niche focus – i.e. collecting vintage cars or ethical eating.  When you find a website that you trust and is well designed, and the content helps to inform, inspire, or provide guidance for navigating your life more enjoyable, you become a loyal follower of that content and likely part of a dedicated community of readers.  

Connecting engaged audiences 

As a digital advertiser, your goal is to safely meet people where they are truly engaging with a publishers content while at the same time being mindful and not disruptive to their experience. When readers are routinely engaging with the stories and subject matter that interests them most, our research shows that consumers are more likely to recall an ad or feel more favourably towards a brand that understands their passion. In the paper, The Effects of Exposure Time on Memory of Display Advertisements, Yahoo! researchers, Goldstein, McAfee and Siddarth, report a strong correlation between exposure time and brand recall/recognition. The results for both tests showed that the longer the exposure time, the better participants performed in the brand recall and recognition tests, most notably between 0-60 seconds.
Additionally, a recent study by Banner Connect showed a much clearer connection between exposure time and ad performance. Unique contacts saw a much more pronounced increase: the click-through rate increases by 30% during the first 10 seconds, and this rises to more than 200% at 30 seconds exposure time. There is also a clear relationship between exposure time and CPA, with CPA being positively influenced by an extended exposure time.  

Ultimately, independent sites could be exactly what advertisers have been missing. Frequently under-recognised due to advertisers’ desire to stick to what they know, the value of subject-focussed inventory should not be underestimated. With engaged and interested audiences, contextually relevant content, and brand safe environments, these underappreciated sites are the best-kept secret of digital advertising, but perhaps not for long.
In the words of great ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, “the future is in the hands of those willing to explore”.  So for your next campaign, consider placing ads on safe websites with a niche focus – you will likely discover a whole new trove of opportunity waiting for you just below the surface.