The Premium Publisher Case for Programmatic

Meredith Levien is CRO and group publisher of Forbes.

The business of premium publishers is to match brand advertisers with highly contextual and trusted editorial environments. This tried and true model using a sophisticated direct-sales team has been and should remain the lifeblood of premium publishers. Yet the world is changing fast. Marketers no longer target audiences — they target individuals and participants in today’s digital, social and mobile world. This requires a new, complementary selling model.

Even the most successful premium publishers can’t go it alone when it comes to delivering individuals, because it’s not just individuals marketers want but individuals at scale. So unless you are a portal (and there are only a handful of those by my count), you should be taking ad exchanges as seriously as your ad buyers are.

Now, I’m not saying you need to embrace ad networks or the alphabet soup of companies that comprise the cookie-arbitraging ad tech ecosystem. But I am saying that putting your inventory out on the exchange can be good business. What’s required is having the right set of business rules and a strategically open mindset toward those players who can help you sort through and monetize your audience data in response to client KPIs.

It’s simple: Ad exchanges enable successful programmatic selling and buying that wouldn’t exist without them. According to eMarketer, RTB will account for 13 percent of total US digital display spending this year — and 25 percent by 2015.

Last week, a senior colleague at Forbes who doesn’t work directly on our ad business asked me why, in the face of explosive 74 percent growth to our site traffic over the last two years, we didn’t have similar growth in our number of direct-sold premium partnerships. In other words, why weren’t Nike and other mass marketers running on our site alongside IBM, Cartier and the other elite group of marketers targeting C-titles and the affluent you’d expect to see on, if our audience had grown so much? Couldn’t we make the case for runners, too, or myriad other audiences?

Before I could even muster what would have surely been a defensive answer, another senior colleague who runs our technology and programmatic efforts responded, “Oh, but we are,” he said. In fact, our number of partners has gone from a few hundred to as much as a few hundred thousand — and Nike might be right there among them, maybe not as a direct advertiser but one who buys on the exchange.

And then I jumped in: “We don’t carry Nike in the direct-sold world because it doesn’t make business sense at the moment to call on them.” We, like most other premium publishers, have a carefully constructed direct-sales force with just the right number of sellers, calling on just the right number of premium direct accounts, to drive just about as much direct business as our traffic can bear. And we do all that recognizing that much of what we sell on the direct side entails a combination of contextually relevant placements, some amount of audience targeting, some form of social amplification and a whole lot of brand assets that make the whole of the program greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, assets that drive the other component of what marketers need to accomplish for their brands – participation.

By focusing on selling premium programs through our direct-sales force and simultaneously making our premium audience available on the exchange, we ensure that any remaining inventory goes to the highest bidders: typically those willing to pay a premium because they can cherry-pick just the individual they believe will take action around their messages.

How is that different from selling your inventory to an ad network? Because if buyers can buy just the individuals (not audiences!) they believe will take desired actions, they’ll pay more for them. And we as publishers will know just who those buyers are and what value they place on the individuals they can reach and engage. That transparency on both sides, plus the real-time nature of buying, selling and optimizing means better business for both sellers and buyers.

In the best of premium publishing organizations, exchanges aren’t just a new revenue source but a virtual “advance team” for the direct-sales side of the organization, who can use the information they gain on the exchange about which individuals drive buyer success to upsell a premium program that drives participants. And that means a new model that delivers on what marketers really need to accomplish.

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