The Trials & Tribulations Of The Small Publisher

It can sometimes feel to the small publisher like the deck is stacked against them. There’s a set media system in place, predicated on scale, that tends to work against them.

The agency calculus is predicated on the size and perceived worth of a publisher’s audience, as well as the brand equity of that outlet. Agency ad buyers are under pressure from above to achieve a target CPM for buys. That means, inevitably, small publishers will appear to be more expensive. Also, doing direct buys with small publishers isn’t the most efficient use of time.

With over 1 million sites selling advertising, small publishers complain about getting little attention from agencies. For those looking to move beyond the commodity pricing of networks and exchanges, this creates a dilemma. Publishers need to be able to meet with agencies first to be able to explain why they’re different and shouldn’t be viewed as yet another field in a CPM-driven spreadsheet. However, oftentimes, a publisher’s value proposition takes a backseat to relationships, so much so that a publisher can’t even get a meeting with an agency if he or she doesn’t have a connection with a buyer.

“When I go client direct, I get traction,” said David Shadpour, chief revenue officer of JMedia Group, a publisher that operates 100 sites and gets about 2 million uniques per month. “The second I get transferred to an agency, it’s almost pointless unless I can build a relationship with them.”

That is the challenge for the small publisher. It must develop relationships with agencies that are too often too busy to worry about the small fries of digital publishing. Without those ins, these publishers are unable to differentiate. On a spreadsheet, a site with 2 million uniques is going to be passed over.

“Media teams are very busy and it’s often hard to find time to meet with everyone who calls on the agency,” said Sarah Sikowitz, group media director at 360i. “As a result, smaller publishers have a harder time getting their foot in the door because they often lack name recognition.”

The marketplace is full of second-and third-tier outlets that, once an afterthought for agencies, are now being discussed when a campaign is being created. According to The Awl’s editor Choire Sicha, advertisers are becoming more conscientious about how they spend their money throughout the process. Advertisers are experimenting with customized ads and sponsored posts across a bevy of publishers, including smaller ones, where they can convey their messages that resonate with a passionate audience.

“They’re figuring out that smaller publishers are more hands-on about making brand messaging fit with audience,” Sicha said. “We find that there are brands out there who love a smart fit and that those who are adventurous and thoughtful if getting the best services and distribution for messaging get rewarded handsomely by who they get to work with.”

But this belies another major issue: many agencies look at CPMs first and not custom ads. A site like The Awl, which got 262,000 uniques in June according to ComScore, has to push customization over CPMs, as its reach is minimal.

“If I’m looking at an opportunity, it’s got to be beyond capabilities,” said Suhaila Suhimi Haba, evp of digital at Initiative. “The publisher could give more information along the lines of the audience and why it’s relevant for brands, see how they can add value to that brand, and bring an insight they’re competitors don’t have.”

The same holds true for Apartment Therapy, which sits higher at 1.1 million uniques per month. According to Apartment Therapy’s director of sales and marketing, Chris Phillips, having the flexibility to do custom programs — and the speed to turn them around — has been helpful in standing out to agencies. But this doesn’t happen without a dedicated sales team who not only understands what they’re selling, but what their partners are looking for.

“Our reps are storytellers, not volume pushers,” Phillips said, who leads a sales team of four. “We find the place where our story and audience intersects with our clients.”

This type of conversation, however, typically doesn’t occur with the first line of agency responders, the young media planner. According to Suhimi Haba, it often depends on who a publisher is talking to. If, for example, a publisher is talking to a planner who has a task at hand — e.g., a client wants to put a plan together and needs it done in two weeks — then, at that level, the conversation will be CPM driven.

“If you’ve done custom integration or developed a creative event with the brand in mind, what did you do to promote event or leverage what you have, that should come through in the initial stuff, so when the time comes to hear ideas on how to support the strategy, it will be based on the larger strategy and less on the impressions,” Suhimi Haba said.

Smaller publishers need to find the most relevant advertisers. Several publishers said that they don’t deal with brands that rely on ad networks or exchanges, as they want to focus on those partners who understand the value of their specific audience. Phillips, for example, notes that while Apartment Therapy, who reorganized its team this year after leaving Federated Media, does sell backfill through Google and Rubicon, its highest impressions come from direct sales.

For agencies, it all comes down to what makes a publisher, no matter the size, different.

“We look for partners who have differentiated offerings, great service and competitive pricing,” said Sikowitz. “They need to have something unique that we can’t find with a higher tier publisher, such as access to a niche audience, unique targeting or creative technology.”

More in Media

NewFronts Briefing: Samsung, Condé Nast, Roku focus presentations on new ad formats and category-specific inventory

Day two of IAB’s NewFronts featured presentations from Samsung, Condé Nast and Roku, highlighting new partnerships, ad formats and inventory, as well as new AI capabilities.

The Athletic to raise ad prices as it paces to hit 3 million newsletter subscribers

The New York Times’ sports site The Athletic is about to hit 3 million total newsletter subscribers. It plans to raise ad prices as as a result of this nearly 20% year over year increase.

NewFronts Briefing: Google, Vizio and news publishers pitch marketers with new ad offerings and range of content categories

Day one of the 2024 IAB NewFronts featured presentations from Google and Vizio, as well as a spotlight on news publishers.