What’s In Store For Gravity Post-AOL Acquisition

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Rob LeonAOL is both a technology company and a publisher, a fact that works in Gravity’s favor. Acquired by AOL in January, Gravity’s 45-person team is a part of AOL’s 4,800-strong workforce and its content personalization engine now powers internal links to AOL’s content repository, which sees 4,000 to 5,000 new articles every day.

Gravity’s engine is designed to make recommendations for paid and unpaid content, said Rob Leon, VP of sales and business development. That technology will soon show up on AOL’s lead homepage, in the form of a dynamic, personalized leaderboard with both editorial and native advertising placements.

For Gravity, the combination of being part of a technology stack and owned-and-operated properties means it gets to see both sides of the equation. “You can introduce a product knowing how it will work, that’s built and tuned for scale. It provides a lot of integrity and confidence for those products,” Leon said.

Leon talked with AdExchanger about what’s ahead for the personalization and recommendation technology now that its part of AOL. AdExchanger: What further integration is AOL planning with Gravity?

ROB LEON:  The most interesting thing will be injecting the personalization intelligence Gravity is providing into more elements of AOL. There is a dynamic leaderboard on AOL’s homepage, and we will personalize the leaderboard and the native ads within with our API.

We’ve had these APIs as of February of last year, and they allow you to inject personalization into any site, at any point. If it’s the end of a photo gallery, for example, you can call the API to recommend more content. Sites can use it for other widgets like “Popular Posts.”

Do you consider yourself a content recommendation engine or a native advertising tool?

Gravity’s technology is 1:1 targeting through personalization. If it’s a piece of paid content, that’s great. If it’s a piece of unpaid content, that’s okay too. 

How do you work with advertisers?

One way is amplification, trying to get eyeballs on content around your brand that is already out there.  Xbox, for example, can identify the types of content that are of value to them, and amplify that into a content discovery ecosystem. Others are doing it for direct response, to attract attention to a service or a product, and remarket to those folks to try to get them to purchase or join.

What kind of insights do you offer advertisers?

When they do that amplification, they don’t just have to look at how many impressions were delivered. We can look at the folks that engage with those native ads, and go back and say based on who engaged with your ads, this is your interest group, and they are also into researching vacations in Hawaii. That can help influence the next native content they produce. If the audience likes sports, for example, maybe you include that next time. They can start to understand what the audience intelligence is, and what they are interested in and clicking on.

Is Gravity’s native advertising going to be sold as part of larger packages at AOL?

Brands like Toyota and Sony are already buying placements on Gravity, which run across our entire publisher network, including AOL properties, which are sold through the Gravity sales team. We’re in the process of integrating our personalization offerings into the overall AOL seller package. They can advertise on the owned-and-operated properties and then amplify, of just buy amplification on their own.

It could be fully controlled if the OO [owned-and-operated] produces a third-party piece of content that is underwritten by brand, and brings to life the brand story.

Of the sites using your technology, how many are AOL properties? What’s the revenue split?

A large portion is AOL [and] I don’t know that revenue number. [AOL] did provide a big boost in the acquisition. We also had the pleasure of working with AOL properties like TechCrunch, Engadget and Huffington Post prior to the acquisition.

How does content recommendation work in mobile environments?

People are going to smaller screens and social channels for content. The way publishers get more traffic is to produce content and seed it out. A bunch of sites are transitioning to feed-based structures based on recency. It’s the most efficient way to have them scroll through an article. Imagine if the Facebook feed wasn’t informed by social graph. It would have very low value.

For small-medium publishers that want to be more than a snacking destination, they’re thinking critically about personalization and how to feed more relevant content to users. That will be the next phase of the content recommendation universe. There are publishers who are identifying these trends, and some are there in terms of how they’re architected their site.

Do you have specific widgets for mobile?

We currently power mobile placements that are responsively designed. Publishers can also use our API to power feeds. We think that having a content stream is the best user experience, or at least that’s what publishers tell us, but it’s more challenging for them to make their money. They have an ad system that’s built to support a different structure. There is going to be a back and forth, in terms of how many ads they can put in stream.

What kind of performance are you seeing in mobile?

We think we have a really unique solution that will help for people focusing on their mobile phones – but it’s still early in that game. Our ads have been successful on desktop, and we see them continuing that success on mobile and in mobile-first environments.

Our internal data shows that native ads in general do well on mobile. They perform differently depending on how the publisher constructs the site, which is the same with ads in general - how frequently they’re seen and if they’re in-view. If publishers design a site where our product is not in view, it’s not going to monetize as well. If it’s designed with the ad experience in mind, they perform as well on mobile as on desktop.

How do advertisers manage their campaigns on Gravity?

For direct response advertisers, they like to have their hands on a dashboard, and have an account manager’s cell phone. Google trained them to be hyper sensitive in the bidding system. Other folks are fine interacting with account managers. Once people see the campaign running, and see performance, they become less day-to-day trying to twist every dial.

Like any inventory online, it will start to go where people buy it programmatically, and it will be awesome when it gets there. Native will graduate into that class. We’re in that stage now where people understand the value, and that it’s going to be an important arena.

Is distribution of native content a challenge?

The market may be new in the content recommendation space, but there is tons of scale behind it.  There are other platforms like Facebook where you can also promote content besides [in-site native containers]. What matters is the nature of the content and where you want to promote it. You can try to outbid for a position in search, but that might not be the best strategy – it could be better to seed the content with Gravity, or with Facebook and Twitter.

There are direct response advertisers who have been there for a long time. They are always hungry to experiment with new ad products because they can see immediate return. Brands see it and are coming around to it. We can see data where native ads have a tremendous impact in brand recall. It works, and it’s even more effective than traditional branding. I see this as a very early stage for brand advertisers, but it’s on its way to making a big impact.

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