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May 30 2013

11:36

The newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain

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:

Technology

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.

Creativity

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.

Sales relationships

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.

August 19 2010

13:30

The Newsonomics of the FT as an Internet retailer

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Back in 2002, the Financial Times took a radically different path than most of its news publishing peers: It decided to charge its online readers to access its content. Flash forward eight years, and the FT model — a metered model — is the one many publishers are eying and beginning to test. The New York Times plans on debuting its metered model early next year; the Times Company-owned Worcester Telegram went metered this past week. Journalism Online is now powering MediaNews’ metering tests in York, Pennsylvania and Chico, California.

We can see the FT lineage in the Journalism Online Press+ pay solution. “The FT pioneered use of the meter as an elegant approach to freemium for news publishers — letting casual visitors continue to sample a selected number of articles per month while asking the most engaged readers to pay for unlimited access,” Journalism Online co-founder Gordon Crovitz explains. “In this way, the FT has been a pioneer.”

In the eight years since 2002, the FT has persevered through thicker and thinner markets. Now, it is one of the few companies showing advertising and circulation revenue growth and building a seemingly stable and successful model for the next decade. Its recent financial performance, most of which was released as part of its parent Pearson’s half-yearly report:

  • The FT group, responsible for about 8 percent of Pearson’s ongoing revenue and home of the Financial Times newspaper and digital products, showed an operating profit of £14 million, double last year’s profit. Revenue at the FT Group moved into positive territory, up 7 percent year over year, with advertising showing growth as well as readership revenue.
  • Overall ad revenue now makes up 45 percent or less of the FT’s revenue, down from 74 percent in 2000.
  • Digital readership increased by 27 percent, while the number of registered users — spurred by a no-unregistered views policy (with exception of home page and section pages) — saw a 77 percent increase to 2.5 million during that period.
  • Digital subscriptions grew by 27 percent to 149,000.
  • The FT raised its subscription rates by about 10 percent recently, with standard subscriptions now costing $225 or £190 and premium subscriptions going for $330 or £299.

That’s an impressive report. It contrasts with the experience of most news publishers, who are struggling to stave off continuing year-over-year losses in both ad and circulation revenue — and are finding themselves too dependent on ad revenue as the ad marketplace morphs away from traditional media.

We can parse a number of reasons for the FT’s upward trajectory. In the end, though, I think that FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw sums it up best, and in a way that should make all news publishers pause and re-think.

“Where we’ve found inspiration is Internet retail, not publishing,” he told me last week. “We’re becoming a direct Internet retailer and we have to have expertise to do that. When you do that with publishing, it looks like a different business.”

Internet retailing — think Amazon — seems like a very different business than publishing. In the endlessly measurable digital age, though, the parallels are striking. It’s not in what you are selling — books, electronics, or news stories — it’s what you know about your customers, their habits and wants.

In February, I produced a report for Outsell, a global publishing industry research and advisory company, about the FT. I called it “Five Things to Learn from FT.com,” and my greatest learning was that analytics, the smart gaining of knowledge from data, was at the heart of the company’s successes and plans. If we look at the emerging newsonomics under the FT business, we see how analytics are driving both of the FT’s two basic business lines, reader revenue and advertising revenue.

Reader revenue now accounts for more than half of the publisher’s income. While there are many moving parts under it, the FT’s pricing of its subscriptions, its targeting of markets, its tweaking of offers, and its valuing of paying customers are all increasingly done on the basis of analytics — not on the gut calls that have long fueled news company decision-making.

Much of it is “propensity modeling,” fancy words to say: What’s the likely reaction of what percentage of people if we offer them this, that way? The modeling grows out of the analytics, now put together by a team of nine people at the FT — up two from a year ago. The group is relatively new, and it’s one that Grimshaw says has produced a night-and-day difference for an outlet that, like most of its fellow news companies, used to “hold and manage” data, rather than using it to drive the business.

The FT has been able to gauge consumer behavior well enough that its subscriber volume and pricing have risen. Even though the site allows fewer unregistered clicks than it did a year ago, Grimshaw says page views overall have gone up — the result of the paying customers using the product more.

In addition, the FT has taken a new tack in the enterprise licensing of its content. Two years ago, it began to reclaim its syndication business. It still works with third parties to deliver the contract, but directly contracts and licenses more than 1,000 companies for its usage. The direct licensing does help a bit in pricing and margin, says the FT’s Caspar de Bono, who directs the B2B business, but the direct pipeline of customer-usage data it provides is the bigger win. Analyzing that data helps the FT improve its products and its delivery — and increasingly gives the content licensees themselves a view into the content’s usage and value for their workforces.

Advertising, too, is benefiting from the research work. The more knowledge the FT can share about its audiences, their habits and preferences, the better advertisers can target their messages. In addition, analytics support the FT’s eight-member Strategic Sales team as it customizes marketing approaches for firms and their agencies. Grimshaw says that by early 2011, advertisers themselves will get some access to FT audience data.

It’s all a work in progress, but one that is coming closer to offering a virtuous circle of business results. It’s a model — an Amazon model for the news world — that bears attention from months-old online news start-ups and venerable, nineteenth century brands alike.

March 04 2010

10:20

Making money from registered (non-paying) users

BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan Jones’ interview with FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw touches on the money-making potential of registered news site users – who don’t necessarily pay.

What’s interesting is that the middle group, those who register but don’t pay, are still proving lucrative. The 1.9 million people registered users have given some very basic information such as their job title.

That’s enough, according to Mr Grimshaw, to allow the FT to run a targeted advertising and marketing operation with high yields.

While the FT’s higher tier of paying subscribers brings in around £20 million a year, it is still thinking about the freeloading clientele.

So are non-paywalled publishers missing a trick by not setting up registration systems, for fear of traffic drop-off?

It’s perhaps worth going back to my interview with Rob Grimshaw in January:

User analytics
Monitoring the behaviour of 1.8 million registered users and 121,000 subscribers is a big part of the FT’s marketing strategy, he said.

“Their details are in a database: we have a lot of demographic information about them; we’re also able to combine that with their normal activity on the website. That data base is a goldmine that brings benefits to many parts of the business.”

Specific advertising can be exposed to a certain audience and direct communication can be made by email, he said. “1.8 million users have self-selected as people who are interested in our content and our business,” he added. “It is an area where there are enormous benefits to be gained.”

He argued that privacy is not infringed by the publication’s methods: “We never focus on behaviour of particular individuals: we are always looking at things in aggregate; how a sector of our database of users behaves.

“We would never allow an advertiser access to that [user information]. That would be both unacceptable and illegal.”

The success of companies like Amazon was due to carefully targeted marketing, he said:

“Some of the most successful companies out there have built their businesses by understanding the behaviour of their users in a very defined way; using their insight to develop their business decision making.”

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January 22 2010

15:23

Rob Grimshaw on the paywall backlash

FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw, regular spokesperson for the paid-for content model,  has a real problem with the language used by critics of the paywall, he told Journalism.co.uk yesterday.

“It’s always put into pejorative terms,” he said. “It doesn’t happen to any other product: you don’t talk about restaurants giving people a bad user experience by giving them a bill at the end of it.”

“It’s understood that something has been produced and it needs to be paid for; somehow with news content it has become a totally different argument,” he said.

It is almost regarded as a “sort of a criminal act to have the temerity to charge for some of our products,” Grimshaw added. “It’s something that we need to get away from.”

“We’re not a charity, we’re a company with shareholders: there’s nothing free about the information we produce – our editorial operation costs millions of pounds to run and we don’t see it’s odd to put a price on it. In fact, it’s probably the only way to run a reasonable business.”

Needless to say, he supports the NYT’s newly announced FT-style subscription model, scheduled for 2011: “Publishers need to get themselves out the hole and be a bit more bold and brassy,” he said.

Publishers shouldn’t, he added, be afraid to say their content has got a value. While he admitted the FT has a niche and affluent reader base for its subscriber model, he believes general news sites can do it as well.

“Our sense [is that] if other publishers do go for it, they will be able to build successful models.”

FT.com is not without its free content rivals, he said: “[W]e’re not short of competition – for every topic we cover on FT.com you can find a list of sites as long as your arm.”

“There are parallels between what we’re doing and what general news publishers will have to do as well. For me, the big thing is quality. It all comes back to quality. Whether it’s niche [or not] it’s got to be good”.

General news sites have the capability, brand and long heritage with which to build better quality sites, Grimshaw argued. They can be ‘far more compelling than one man blogging in a room,’ he said.

“There are numerous ways that publishers can create sites which people are prepared to pay for because they are better than anything else that’s out there.”

“I don’t see that the publishers are going to have trouble to get their users to pay for content.”

Grimshaw’s firm belief, as he has said before, is that newspapers cannot  live by advertising alone.

Citing IAB figures from last year (available at this link), he said it was paid-for search that took “by far” the bulk of the money: around 62 per cent; with 19 per cent to classified; and only 18 per cent to online advertising spend.

“It seems everybody in the whole world is trying to float their business on that [advertising model]. It’s just not big enough for every one of those businesses  (…) so something is going to have to give.”

“Either publishers are going to find themselves in serious difficulties, or they’re going to have to come up with another way of making money.”

FT.com’s forthcoming content plans include a new Blackberry app, “one day pass” subscriptions, and video for iPhone. Read more about it on our main site.

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