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July 22, 2009, 9 a.m.

Ad Progress: Liberal sites plan an ad network without the middleman

In what may be one of the first publisher-owned web advertising collaboratives, a group of progressive media outlets, including Mother Jones, The Nation, and Air America, is launching the Ad Progress Network, a “one stop buy” for web advertising which is planned to debut early this fall. 

The basic idea of an ad network — smaller web publications teaming up to attract advertisers — is nothing new. BlogAds, one of the most popular, has been going since 2002. But Ad Progress is trying to “grow the revenue pie for all these independent media types” with a collaboration that will cut out the advertising middleman, Jay Harris told me. Harris is publisher of Mother Jones and co-chair of the coordinating committee for Ad Progress’ parent organization, The Media Consortium. He’s betting that by joining forces, these sites can achieve the kind of scale they can’t on their own — and thus appeal to advertisers they couldn’t reach independently.

Cutting out the middleman

There are plenty ofexisting networks that unite like-minded web sites — typically small or one-person shops who are happy to hand off the job of selling ads to a third party. Henry Copeland’s BlogAds includes over 2,000 participating sites — from Perez Hilton to Daily Kos to Wonkette — and tries to boost sales by clustering them into topic-based “hives”, like the Liberal Blog Advertising Network or its conservative counterpart. The hives allow advertisers to save time by purchasing ads from a swathe of related sites in one go; 80 percent of the network’s blogs are in one hive or another, Copeland told me.

But BlogAds is a for-profit service that takes a 20 percent cut of ad sales, according to Copeland. Because Ad Progress is publisher-owned, Harris said, “the revenue distribution structure will share a higher-than-usual proportion of revenue to the sites that are a) delivering the traffic and b) selling into the network.” He did not have specific percentage numbers yet. “We want to run this as a true co-op,” Harris said.

That works only because — unlike with most ad networks that target bloggers — Ad Progress’ members already have an apparatus in place for dealing with advertisers. They need scale more than infrastructure.

Wooing the big fish

The Ad Progress Network is a spin-off of The Media Consortium, a group of independent, politically liberal outlets I wrote about last week.  Since 2005, the members of the consortium have teamed up to strategize, promote their content via NewsLadder widgets and RSS feeds, and organize a series of 2008 election town hall meetings.  But the Ad Progress Network is their first attempt to directly monetize their collaboration.

With a million unique visits per month, and a “couple million page views,” Harris said, Mother Jones’ website has a fairly large reach for the world of high-brow political (bi)monthlies. But “when it comes to providing the reach that consumer product advertisers want, we’re small,” he said. “I think a lot of agencies are in a position where they don’t want to go around to a bunch of different magazines…and negotiate separate deals with each of them. Life’s too short.”

This was the logic that motivated Mother Jones, The Nation, and Air America and AlterNet — later joined by The New Republic, The American Prospect and the Center for Independent Media — to join together in order to create a “one-stop buy” for advertisers. “To compete for national advertising, you need tonnage,” Harris said.

Together, the members of the network can deliver “5 to 6 million unique hits per month,” and “25, 26 million page views.” Harris said.  And those 25 million page views are being accessed by a clearly defined target demographic of readers — “They write letters to the editor, to Congress people, they recycle, they contribute to PBS, it’s those kinds of people,” Harris said. “By being able to offer this engaged, media-hungry, media savvy crowd…that’s a pretty interesting proposition to advertisers.”

The network hopes to attract both nationally and regionally targeted advertising campaigns for “conscious lifestyle” products — including “Priuses and Escapes, eco-friendly appliances, responsible investing, television and entertainment, food products, household cleaning products, etc.,” Harris wrote in an e-mail. Network members have hosted these kinds of ads in the past, Harris noted. But by magnifying their size, “That does open up conversations with a substantially larger set of advertisers,” he wrote. (Ad Progress is looking to bring more independent media outlets into the group, Harris said.)

Sales staff from each of the member publications will be selling ad impressions on the network, Harris said, and ad revenues will be split between the sites delivering the ad impressions. An “extra big sales commission” will go to the selling entity, so sales staff have an incentive to market the network. The hope is that much of the premium advertising spots on each of the websites will eventually be taken up by network ads.

Working as a group

While collaborating to “grow the revenue pie” was one of the initial aims of forming The Media Consortium, the member groups worked in different media and had different production standards, Harris said. It took a few years for them to decide “rather than trying to coordinate ad sales across disparate platforms, why don’t we focus our efforts online and grow the pie there?”

A Media Consortium demographic study gathered together the reader lists kept by each member of the consortium and found 75 percent of all the names were listed with only a single publication. That was evidence that, even though consortium members shared a political perspective, there were lots of smaller audiences available to be aggregated.

The group hired a marketing consultant in the winter of ’07 / ’08 to test the waters, and got a go-ahead to develop the network in earnest over the past year. The nitty-gritty functioning of the network is currently in a testing stage, Harris said, and will “hopefully” be ready to go by Labor Day.

Photo of Copeland by Jeannine Harvey used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 22, 2009, 9 a.m.
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