August 1st, 2007
Small publishers shouldn’t envy large publishers like MSNBC.com — the portals are selling out of their best inventory and losing out to ad networks that can mint more premium inventory by signing up more publishers. But MSNBC.com is betting it can beat ad networks at their own game by launching its own vertical ad networks with Pulse 360’s new Publisher’s Vertical Network platform — the first two network verticals will be politics and lifestyle, the latter anchored by the Today Show site.
I spoke with Mark Josephson, president of Seevast (Pulse 360’s parent company), and Kyoo Kim, MSNBC.com’s VP of advertising, and they made a pretty interesting case that MSNBC.com’s ad networks will have several distinct advantages over other ad networks:
- MSNBC.com’s experience with boosting the advertising value of their own content makes them better positioned to boost the ad value of affiliate sites, such as political blogs — and thereby deliver higher revenue per page view than other ad networks, most notably AdSense.
- MSNBC.com has more “skin in the game” than other ad networks because they are selling their own content alongside that of affiliates.
- MSNBC.com’s ad network will offer both CPM display ads and contextually targeted CPC ads, which are Pulse 360’s core product.
- MSNBC.com will syndicate a variety of content to affiliate sites, include video content that currently isn’t even available to NBC network affiliate sites.
The next phase of the online advertising race is increasingly focused on building broad, deep, and highly efficient human sales channels. The reality is that despite Google’s automated advertising revolution, most advertising dollars are still spent based on human relationships.
MSNBC.com is betting that the human talent of its large sales force will do a better job improving the monetization of small publishers than Google’s self-service, algorithm-driven system and other ad networks that aren’t as cozy with big brands and their ad agencies. Of course, Google and the other major players aren’t sitting still in the sales force race, with Google beefing up its head count in New York and other cities to target ad agencies across the country, and Yahoo, which already has a robust national sales force, working with its Newspaper Consortium partners to perfect a sales channel for going after the growing local advertising opportunity.
MSNBC.com intends to compete with all ad networks, but they are particularly keen to recruit sites currently using AdSense.
I pressed Mark and Kyoo on the question of whether highly influential blogs, such as those read by many other bloggers, should be able to command a high effective CPM — maybe even higher than MSNBC.com’s own pages — and whether page views were the best way for highly influential small sites to monetize their value. They were understandably reluctant to promise anything at this point, but they clearly have their sights set on cracking the code for how to value blogs and other niche independent publishers — to “raise the bar for how dollars are being spent today.”
I also asked them whether they have any standards or criteria for recruiting affiliate sites, and they said they were starting with U.S. English language sites that are “well-lit,” “professionally focused” and “community- and voice-driven.” Opinion is fine but hate or other overt nastiness is not.
Pulse 360 has other large sites in its pipeline for its Publisher’s Vertical Network platform — they haven’t yet decided how to deal with issues of category exclusivity and the potential for their networks to compete with each other — Mark focused on how many different vertical opportunities there are to pursue before they butt up against that issue.
The Publisher’s Vertical Network platform is full-service, in that Pulse 360 will handle recruiting affiliate sites, technology implementation, and otherwise make the network plug-and-play for the large publisher that is anchoring the ad network, so that publisher can focus on ad sales.
I found politics an interesting choice for one of the first networks, given that many big brands have been very gun shy about advertising on highly opinionated politics blogs that could be a lightning rod for controversy at any moment. But a brand like MSBNC.com is as well positioned as any to figure out how to make political blogs “safe” for advertisers. With 2008 presidential election dollars expected to flood online, it’s an interesting bet that could well pan out.
Looking at the larger trend, it strikes me that ad networks are the new media consolidation — except that now the larger players are affiliating with the smaller players rather than buying them. Google certainly demonstrated there is much greater efficiency — and much higher profit margins — in doing it that way on the distributed Web vs. the M&A that worked best in the previous age of monopoly distribution channels.
It will be interesting to see whether MSNBC.com finds outsourcing the ad networks makes the best business sense long term when other big players like Google, Yahoo, and AOL own their ad network platforms — but if the sales force is one of the key differentiators, perhaps it does make sense to focus there rather than worry about the technology.