AOL Unveils 'Project Devil 2,' Doubling Down On Entertainment, Retail

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AOL opened up its presence for this year's Advertising Week by giving its "premium, brand-focused" Project Devil ads something of an upgrade. Although not greeted with the same kind of anticipation that is associated with the latest iPhone version, Project Devil is as crucial to AOL's revenue generation as the smartphone is to Apple's.

For much of the past year, AOL has seen its third party network revenue rise steadily. At the same time, its U.S. display dollars have remained flat. That has largely been viewed as a problem for premium ad sales and the pressure on the tw0-year-old Project Devil ad units is even more intense, especially in the face of Google's and Facebook's increasing share of the display marketplace.

"We've been very aggressive in developing the Project Devil formats and we've seen a lot of success over the past two years," says Sanjay Jain, the co-founder and CTO of AOL's Pictela, the unit that created and operates the Devil formats. He said Facebook has drawn 30 premium publishers and major advertisers including Procter & Gamble and Verizon.

Project Devil's second iteration includes two format changes and is intended to present a sharpened focus that recognizes different advertisers' needs. It's also meant to draw in marketers from particular ad categories, namely entertainment and retail brands.

The new 300x1050 has two apps, as opposed to three, within the unit. The idea is to give brands a larger high-definition canvas in the top module.  A smaller 300x600 unit features one large app.  AOL has also added support for additional IAB Rising Stars display ad units such as the Filmstrip and Billboard to round out its format portfolio.

But does it work? Since its launch, AOL claims that the Devil unit has earned an average Interaction Rate of 5.18 percent and an average Interaction Time of 24 seconds.

In contrast, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released its own stats for its list of Rising Starts ad units, which are intended to standardize brand-friendly digital ad formats. The IAB says that users spent roughly 50 percent more time interacting with  an ad through the Rising Stars format (5.8 seconds) versus the legacy standard IAB ad units (3.9 seconds). The rate by which consumers interacted with an ad through the Rising Stars format compared with the older IAB standard ad unit more than doubled – 9.6 percent versus 3.9 percent. (Read more in the release.)

Part of AOL's plan to drive more time-spent, both on the content side and the advertising side, rests on more video. Jain made a point of saying that the units would support greater high-def video, making it more likely that TV ad campaigns would make their way to AOL and publishers that offer Devil. Secondly, as e-commerce becomes more important, Jain noted that the ad units can also serve as virtual catalogs. The ultimate hope is to render the debate over whether online advertising is a direct response or branding medium moot. In addition, better targeting, whether it's behavioral or geo-location, is also receiving more importance.

"Online ads can be both a call-to-action and a way to create brand awareness; it's not an either/or," Jain said. "Over the last couple years, we focused on creating a beautiful ad format. Now, it's brains behind the beauty. We can take audience targeting and third party data. On the geo-targeting front, we can serve convertibles on the west coast as opposed to the east coast. "

On top of the targeting and simpler layout, allowing for more HD video and social media/sharing abilities, AOL has also tried to make a more direct appeal to media buyers who still find purchasing placements to be a chore.

Earlier this year, AOL introduced the beta version of "Pictela Enterprise," a platform that promises agencies "a clean, simple, guided self-service interface" to manage all their clients’ placements and efficiently serve them into premium online display.  The new service is expected to move into general availability by the end of this year.

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