The numbers are sobering.
While digital advertising has been growing at a 15 percent pace annually in the United States, the digital ad sales of news companies have largely plateaued, struggling to find any growth year over year. The New York Times Company reported digital ad sales down 4 percent for the 1st quarter, while McClatchy managed a 1.5 percent increase in the first quarter. Most news-based companies are significantly underperforming that 15 percent average — in the low single digits, either positive or negative. Meanwhile, the top five digital ad companies, led by Google, increase their share of ad revenue year after year and soon will hold two-thirds of it.
Why are publishers lagging?
Publishers describe their digital ad woe with these terms: “price compression,” “bargain-basement ad networks,” and “death of the banner ad.” Each describes a world of hyper-competition in digital advertising — a world of almost infinite ad possibility and unyielding downward pricing pressure.
Not long ago, news companies believed that their premium-pricing models would withstand the competitive onslaught. Now they’re retooling, trying to speed their adaptation to the new nature of the digital ad beast.
It’s a matter of survival. For some, all-access circulation revenues are a good positive (pushing overall circ revenue up 5 percent in the U.S. last year). All, though, find themselves running as fast as they can to make up both for the freefall of print ad loss and that overall digital ad pricing downturn. “The ground is falling away under you” is how FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw describes it.
Let’s look at what some of the leading digital ad innovators among publishers are doing to regroup. Let’s look at the newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain, checking in with two global publishers, The New York Times and the Financial Times, and two regional ones, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Digital First Media. They provide a snapshot of a world in ever-spinning change.
Their strategies are all fairly similar: employ a range of new techniques that will justify premium prices. Let Facebook, which controls as much as a quarter of all web ad inventory, sell at 80-cent CPM and make money on scale. Publishers know they will never win that game. They want rates *20 to 50* times that, offering increasingly better targeting of their affluent readers.
Climbing the ad food chain is mainly about three things: technology, creativity, and sales relationships. It is also, overall, about differentiation, the roar of a lion in a crowded landscape.
Grimshaw, a former ad guy, says simply: “You’ve got to be doing something unique.”
Let’s look at each of the areas:
Digital advertising is all about technology in 2013, and you’ll see lots of talk of the ad-tech stack, and who owns it. Google, of course, owns much of it, through its successive AdWords/Doubleclick/AdMob and more creations, acquisitions and integrations. Its stack is so efficient that many publishers feel compelled to use it, though they are wary of getting their businesses tied ever more directly to Google — or the Google “Death Star,” as some critics call it.
For most publishers, Google is the classic frenemy. They work with it when they think the advantages outweigh the hazards, even as top publishers build their own programs. In fact, expect to soon see U.S. news publishers transition their Newspaper Consortium partnership with Yahoo into something intended to be broader, something that allows publishers to opt into and out of the ad programs of multiple portals — not just Yahoo — harnessing the ad tech of the day.
Six-month-old Smart Match is one of the FT’s latest innovations to stay “premium.” In brief, the content of an advertisement is matched, dynamically, to that of an article. The technology: semantic targeting of both article content and the FT’s current “ad library” for the best matches on the fly, as compared to standard keyword targeting.
Advertisers commit specific budgets for specific time periods, and the FT does the matching. The FT says it gets a major lift in ad engagement with the technology, an average of 9x over its average clickthrough. Ten clients are now live in Smart Match’s soft launch period.
Ad effectiveness isn’t a one-time process; breakthroughs like Smart Match require ongoing engagement with marketers, as publishers work with them to figure out what works and what doesn’t — and to tweak constantly. “Ads can’t be a fire-and-forget enterprise” any longer, says Grimshaw.
The FT is setting floors on pricing and better controlling inventory, testing small “private exchanges” with select ad buyers and agencies, working with Google in the U.S. and Rubicon in Europe. Exchanges have caused publishers lots of headaches, as too much of their inventory — mixed and matched with lots of “lower quality” inventory — helped drive down pricing and deflated the meaning of “premium.” So many have pulled back from exchanges in general; a few are starting to harness the exchange concept, but in a members-only approach.
“We are constantly evolving our approach to the programmatic marketplace, and private exchange activity is one part,” says Todd Haskell, the New York Times Co. group vice president for advertising. “We’ve been using private exchanges for a series of single-client buys executed using private exchange technology, and are now exploring several single buyer/multiple brand programs.”
One big notion here: minimize channel conflict, so that a publisher isn’t competing with itself, making its inventory available at variable prices here and there. Private exchanges are proceeding cautiously. Buyers get more flexibility, but within the control of publishers.
Such private exchange testing follows the adoption of RTB (real-time-bidding), which publishers are honing to get better rates for the ad inventory they can’t sell locally. “We moved away from a remnant inventory model a few years ago with the adoption of RTB and actively manage all of the programmatic demand that we see through the ad exchanges,” says Jeff Griffing, the Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer. “As a single-entity, local site publisher, our strategy is to make sure as many bidders/buyers as possible can transact on their audience impressions that we fulfill on our site.”
Similarly, Digital First Media is moving to add new data — including third-party data from traditonal sources like Experian — into its own systems. “As we move more into the programatic world, with our own Trading Desk and all our own inventory in our private exchange, we keep adding data to all that traffic and match it in a way that enhances the ROI for the small and medium advertisers,” says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran.
Ad tech is also allowing publishers to do things they couldn’t previously do. The Times is using new brand new ad formats to help marketers gain interactivity. One new program will allow for coupon delivery within an app.
The idea of delivering more experiences within experiences — rather than alongside — can be seen in another recent announcement. Twitter Amplify allows advertisers to deliver videos in-stream — part of a slew of ad-friendly moves, well described by Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch. Among the early partners to sign on: BBC America, Fox, Fuse, and The Weather Channel. The goals here: make ads both more experiential and more lead-generating.
Yield optimization is a term now part of everyone’s vocabulary. Optimization — the better use of data through adjustment of the digital pulleys and levers that adjust what’s offered, at which price points when — has always been a part of the advertising game. Cycle time, and sophistication, though, have markedly moved up. Where the Times used to adjust in 24-month cycles, says Haskell, it now makes significant moves in three-month periods.
There are lots of moving pieces to optimization. The Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer Jeff Griffing describes how his company does it: “The push to premium help us drive our effective yield on pageviews; we’ve established baselines that our different pageviews should meet or exceed and factor in our directly sold campaigns with those indirectly or programmatically filled. We have an optimal formula for how will fill inventory and have set up systems that make sure we’re delivering maximum revenue across all ad units.”
Of course, publishers have long adjusted based on supply and demand. Today, though, the complex external development — various sales partners, through networks, private exchanges and more — requires fine tuning to get the highest possible price for fleeting inventory.
If this all seems like four-dimensional chess, mobile adds a fifth dimension. Haskell recalls the boom in second-screen tablet usage found on election night last November. That development provides a new place for the text-, numbers-, and analysis-driven Times to play in what is usually an immediate TV story. Consequently, it opens up new ways for the Times to exploit the tablet as a second-screen, timely ad vehicle.
The tablet (and mobile, generally) is quickly moving from niche to main play for the Times and others. Of its 43.6 million U.S. unique users in March, 18.3 million arrived via mobile devices, the Times says.
There’s targeting — and then there’s super-targeting. So the Times is selling what Todd Haskell calls “super premium.” It is able to target, through its growing audience database, readers with certain job titles, reading certain sections of content. That kind of targeting drives higher rates, and it’s part of the Times’ plan to move up on the food chain, just as the middle and bottom of that chain widens infinitely.
Over the past year, publishers have reawakened to the notion of commercial storytelling. They now see it — a cousin to editorial storytelling — as a core competence, and one that many marketers envy.
“Agencies and many advertisers don’t know how to do it,” says Grimshaw. “There’s a constant need for fresh [marketing] content.”
Enter content marketing, which I recent covered in depth in “The newsonomics of recylcling journalism.” The Star Tribune’s Griffing points to his company’s first big foray into the field, a Kids Health site. Sold to a single sponsor for one year, Children’s Hospital, the new content was produced by Star Tribune staff and is a prototype for products to come. Griffing says the company’s innovations, overall, have pushed year-over-year digital ad growth into the teens.
2013 is the year of content marketing, from New York to D.C. to Minneapolis to Dallas to San Francisco. The creative spark comes from a combination of old-fashioned journalism skills, both editorial and marketing. Sums up Rob Grimshaw: “Publishers have tremendous assets that have never been exploited.”
Now, often, the creation and placement of “native advertising” are inextricably tied. As with the Times’ IdeaLab, the Washington Post’s Brand Connect, and Atlantic Media Strategies, global publishers have asserted their high-end editorial skills, applied to other people’s storytelling, and are packaging that skill with an ad buy. Haskell points out that the creative costs can be built into the ad buy itself, if the buy is big enough. “We’re not looking to make money on the creative,” he says.
That combination of the creative and the buy shows the newness of it all, and the early flux in the content marketing craft. Over time, we’ll likely see a greater cross-title placement of above-average creative, saving on creation costs. How then will the various content marketing works of a Times, an FT, a BuzzFeed, or an Atlantic Media compare? Which will become go-to creative companies, and which will return to the old comfort area of selling placement?
Video creation has also unearthed new creativity among the formerly ink-based wretches. In fact, most companies tell me that video ad demand, at anywhere from $25 to $75 cost per thousand rates (many multiples beyond display ads), is still outstripping supply.
The Star Tribune’s Griffing puts it this way: “This one is simple. We are selling as much video inventory as we have; 1.2 million plays per month, which is significantly more than the next closest competitor, a local TV station. That said, until we’re doing 10M plays a month, revenue for video will be relatively small.”
In a nutshell, that describes the dilemma. The New York Times recently hired Rebecca Howard, late of AOL/HuffPo, to expand its sold-out video inventory.
For Digital First Media, a pioneer in local news video through the Journal Register Company, new video formats offer premium possibilities. It’s going short, and long. “For short format we just closed a deal with Tout.com, and we are deploying their player in all our sites.” DFM journalists will take videos, through Tout (“The newsonomics of leapfrog news video”) and place them quickly on the sites, says Digital First’s Arturo Duran. “Some of those ‘Touts’ are embedded inside the articles. This is following what the consumers are doing, and the tests by WSJ and BBC. They have created snippets of 15 seconds of information that feed their sites with real time information on events. For end users, it’s a faster, easier way to watch it. There is a big play in the mobile arena, specially smartphones, as end users are watching more video in this [short] format than any other.”
Longer-format video is still in the planning stages for DFM, says Duran, pointing to the potential of live events, interviews with personalities, direct chats with readers, and more. It’s noteworthy that despite the success of video advertising, text-based sites still haven’t mastered greater quality production of greater scale and aren’t well-using third-party, “higher quality” video to satisfy ad needs.
In an age of self-service, spawned by Google’s paid search products, the sales channel is still multi-tiered. Self-service works profoundly for some products, but telesales and in-person, feet-on-the-ground sales forces are finding new life.
Blame complexity. The choices advertisers now have are endless. Top-tier advertisers are served by such specialized teams as the FT’s “strategic sales” unit. The group works matches the complexity of FT’s analytics-fueled approaches to marketing with advertiser needs.
At the other end of the spectrum, the burgeoning marketing services business (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”) is bringing these new approaches to smaller, local businesses. The Star Tribune’s Jeff Grilling, a major proponent of the marketing services business, has already learned some lessons from his company’s Radius marketing services foray.
“I’m finding more similarities than less, to our traditional sales approach. I’m finding that we are only as good as our sales people and the relationship they create, and that many small business customers have been approached by some sort of digital solutions vendor in the last few years. Make no mistake, there is no easy money in the SMB digital solutions business — it is very competitive and customers have are typically skeptical because of weak solutions they’ve experienced by other vendors in previous years. So if it’s a quick and easy revenue stream that a media company is looking for, I would look at options other than SMB digital solutions. I do still believe, however, that if your intention is to genuinely help local businesses grow, and you have the stomach for investment, strategy, execution, and patience, SMB digital solutions can be a viable product line.”
That tells you how long a haul this digital transition remains, and how many twists and turns even the innovators must endure.
Photo by NJR ZA used under a Creative Commons license.