Sunday, July 13, 2008

“How Publishers Are Taking Back Control of Their Brands with Scalable and Profitable Online Advertising Strategies”

On Thursday, July 9, I had the opportunity to listen to a panel assembled by ContextWeb, the primary ad network for our StoneHorse online publishing sites. The event was:

“How Publishers Are Taking Back Control of Their Brands with Scalable and Profitable Online Advertising Strategies,” with Wenda Harris Millard co-CEO and President of Media, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia; Sean Muzzy Senior Partner, Media Director;
Ari Brandt General Manager - Digital Media, Conde Nast Business Media Group; and
William Morrison Partner, Sr. Internet Analyst, ThinkPanmure; with Randall Rothenberg President, IAB, as moderator.

With the disclaimer that my notes should not be considered a full, or even particularly accurate, record of the opinions, facts, fables and other thoughts expressed by the participants, let’s begin!

Anand Subramanian, CEO of ContextWeb, opened the event. He tried to reconcile the seemingly contradictory situations of advertisers complaining that there is not enough available online ad inventory while publishers complain that they cannot fill their inventory. The conclusion Anand reached was that there is not enough of the right inventory and there is, unfortunately, too much of the inventory that no advertisers want. Closing this gap was the main theme of the discussion that followed.

Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the IAB, viewed the macro problem as a conflict between advertisers’ desire for scale, most likely a habit ingrained from many years of reliance on television, and their desire for the targeted relevance of the ad placements made especially possible by online advertising.

The question he posed to the panel: Are online ad networks the solution? If so, how should we deal with the struggle between branded online publications and online ad networks?

Wenda Harris Millard, the chair of the IAB along with being the co-CEO of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, characterized the conflict as being between “pork bellies and diamonds.” In her view, the ad networks started as the equivalent of retail outlet centers, dealing in commoditized distressed and remnant inventory and based primarily on price – “pork bellies” – as opposed to the “diamonds” of premium branded online content. She felt, however, that ad networks are evolving into the online equivalent of luxury shopping centers – essentially multi-branded upscale retail destinations. So to her, the question is how far along the path have they come?

[Note: Ms. Millard’s discussion on topics covered at this seminar and other issues can be viewed in an interview with Kara Swisher of D: All Things Digital on the ContextWeb site:]

Bill Morrison, an analyst at the Think Panmure boutique investment bank, attributed the growth of ad networks to the fragmentation of media, particularly online. His research showed that there are 160 million websites, of which 50 to 60 million are active, and approximately 1% are being monetized. Even at those low levels of activity, that still leaves 1.6 million websites contending for dollars, largely advertising.

The ad networks, in Bill’s view, grew in response to publishers’ need for revenue and advertisers’ inability to deal directly with the plethora of websites. The number of ad networks has grown in response to this marketplace need: there are now over 300 ad networks, compared to only 100 in 2003.

As the market has grown, networks have begun specializing beyond simple commodity sales. Bill felt, however, that there is yet no effective market for what he calls "premium secondary" inventory.

Multiple vertical ad networks aggregate sites with similar content. Through such aggregation, these networks are challenging the content leaders who seek to garner premium rates for their inventory on the strength of their brand and depth of their content.

ContextWeb, the host of the morning’s event, has a slightly different model, having constructed what are in effect “synthetic networks” of pages of related content, regardless of the editorial direction of the underlying sites.

Bill argued that the networks addressed other challenges faced by publishers beyond simply a means to garner advertising which they might not otherwise have the resources to reach. Another issue could be what Bill referred to as “inventory bursting,” i.e., volatility of traffic that is hard to predict and could prevent the matching of inventory to traffic.

Wenda raised what seems to be the key issue among branded publishers – that ad networks can create the commodization of online ad inventory: it's all about price, like TV. I was a little surprised at that last comment, as it had always seemed to me that television inventory, at least at the network level, avoided commodization by differentiating itself by quality of programming, demographic targeting, and buzz in general, such as premium pricing for events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars. Furthermore, if television is unable to avoid commoditized pricing, online probably stands even less of a chance, unless targeting or other techniques can demonstrate superior ROI to TV.

Ari Brandt, the general manager of, took a different tack. He contended that his property is not competing on scale. It wasn’t clear whether this was an actual strategy or simply making a virtue out of necessity, with properties such as CNN/Money being clear leaders in the financial news and analysis categories. Ari viewed the mission of to be that of empowering business leaders with online tools, although he did not go into much detail. He also said that took a lighter approach to news, which would seem to be similar to that of the magazine itself.

All in all, he professed to be very satisfied with success of, having 3 million unique visitors and 8 million page views monthly 15 months after launch, with a heavily male and affluent audience.

After the brief comments by each of the panelists, Randy Rothenberg asked: why are people replicating television metrics in their efforts to assess online advertising, such as reach and frequency?

Wenda agreed with the underlying premise of Randy’s question and said that her efforts at IAB included resisting the wholesale transfer of metrics from other media to online. Furthermore, as scale will continue to be a key objective of advertisers, she felt that television is becoming less important every year. She argued that digital media will eventually replace television, as magazines, which previously might have been a contender, can not provide the scale advertisers require.

For online, leveraging its unique strengths such as behavioral targeting combined with contextual relevance is key. She compared the online advantages to the mass “spray and pray” approach of television.

Bill Morrison commented that audience composition is as important as scale, another factor that would seem to favor online, particularly with regard to upscale audiences.

I asked the publishers on the panel about the importance of integrated marketing, particularly as a way to avoid the commoditization of online advertising through the creation of custom and multimedia packages not easily sold via a network. Wenda contended that advertisers were looking for true value creation in partnership with the publishers and that pricing was often the last concern, not the first. She also indicated that it was an advantage to have multiple media distribution channels, such as print, TV, radio, and the others available to MSO, as opposed to the online-only limitations at Yahoo!, her previous employer.

Randy next asked whether branded networks are an ad play or a content play. Wenda said that her objective is to serve her customers, particularly with regard to the branded network created under the Martha Stewart brand. She pointed out that MSO alone can not provide all of the content that their customers want, and that the Martha network enables them to extend their content reach. She cautioned the audience, however, that it is important to properly "curate" one’s network sites to guarantee the quality, both for advertisers and customers, and that not all networks do so.

When Randy asked about the relative values of new versus old branded networks, Bill seemed to indicate that it was not a critical distinction. He cited the example of Glam, which built a vertical ad network first, then built an owned-and-operated content site. In other words, it did the exact reverse of the MSO strategy.

Along the lines of extending content reach to provide quality inventory to advertisers, Randy cited the recent purchase by CBS of CNET which was done to expand its group of sites and build out its network of content, not just for ads.

Bill indicated that having such qualified content under a publisher’s umbrella was important in that IAB publishers, generally the largest publishers, accounted for 80% to 90% of total online ad revenue. The ad networks, on the other hand, while holding a market share of 10% to 15%, are growing much faster than the publishers, at a 30% annual clip.

A member of the audience asked about the widgetizing of content as a distribution channel, with or without ads. Ari seemed to view that as a likely further development, and cited Google Gadgets – a business travel widget – that has been syndicated across the Google platform.

Randy summed up the morning by saying that the keys to maintaining price include having trusted brands, providing a good consumer experience, and generating big ideas that create results. Hard to argue with that.