MailOnline Considers Programmatic Amid Traffic And Video Gains

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Sean Oneal, Mail OnlineMailOnline's site is an endless broadsheet of breaking news, tabloid gossip and tawdry thrills (pictured: the money a stripper makes in just ONE shift – and it's more than most people make in a month). Some might consider this publishing format tailor-made for real-time bidding. But the site, which has its own dedicated editorial and advertising staffs separate from the UK print newspaper of the same name, has staunchly resisted the pull of programmatic, even in the face of tremendous traffic growth.

comScore says MailOnline has well over 50 million monthly uniques globally and is America’s third-biggest online newspaper, with 19.3 million uniques behind the NYTimes.com and WashingtonPost.com. The company's chilly regard for programmatic, however, may be thawing as it feels more confident in balancing its direct sales with automation.

MailOnline is in the midst of ramping up its video offerings. We spoke with Sean O'Neal, the former president of Nielsen's Vizu before being named MailOnline's global CMO in December, about the company's advertising plans around video and mobile, as well as where it sees some value for programmatic tools as part of its yield arsenal.

AdExchanger: What's been driving video view growth?  

SEAN O'NEAL: Our growth in video inventory is in line with our overall growth in traffic. On the Tuesday after the Boston bombings, for example, MailOnline broke a daily traffic record with 8.9 million unique visitors that day. While big news always spikes traffic, our page views have increased by over a billion year-over-year.

Part of why they come in such numbers is the amount of news and entertainment video content we have. We have been strategically increasing our investment in American video content, so the overall percentage of articles which now contain videos have more than doubled since the beginning of the year.

What's the connection between MailOnline's use of data to assist editors and how it supports advertising?

MailOnline’s content is generated by a highly-trained and experienced editorial staff of 150-plus global journalists. Our managing editors have unmatched instincts for what stories are going to be the most popular. That said, we have embraced data and analytics to further optimize the consumer experience. Because our traffic is so large, within minutes of publishing a story we have a statistically significant sample and can accurately measure whether it is popular or not. We can also dissect which elements of the story might be working and optimize to it. Since our own audience sample is so significant, we do not need to look outside at social media or search to know what to optimize in either our content or our advertising programs.

What's the company's stance on programmatic tools? How do you see the value – or lack thereof – of exchange-based RTB systems for publishers? Do you see any value in ad networks?

We do see some value in programmatic tools, particularly in setting up private exchanges for brand advertisers.  However, MailOnline’s most strategic solutions cannot be “programmed” and therefore cannot be bought via a technology platform or through a marketplace. That is one reason we have rapidly built a US advertising and marketing staff of about fifteen, because we believe that the most impactful programs are sold directly to the client.

For example, our branded content marketing programs (i.e. “native”) are highly customized and developed through close collaboration with the marketer. The programs incorporate content from the brand into dedicated environments which may also include curated editorial relevant to the advertiser. These programs are particularly impactful for our marketing partners because of how social our audience is…Well-executed content marketing programs on MailOnline are read, watched and shared. And the advertiser gets the "earned media benefit" of riding along with the content as it travels through the social sphere.

So is native advertising and content marketing where you see MailOnline continuing to drill down?  

As I'd mentioned, we do see some value in programmatic, at least when it comes to the idea of private exchanges. But that's very limited too. We really consider native advertising to be a strategic solution that can't be bought via technology platforms. That's why we made so much of an investment in ramping up our American marketing force.

We don't produce the content for them. What we do is create content hubs where their content will naturally fit in with our editorial. They may provide information about their products, videos showcasing their service and content relevant to topics in their product category.

So we bring years of content publishing experience and an understanding of what audiences want to read. The marketer brings years of category insight and product knowledge. The end result has to provide more value to the consumer than if we had done this on our own. It's in everyone's interest to create something that's entertaining. On top of that, it has to be clear that there's a sponsor involved.

You've seen a lot of mobile growth. The general view of publishers and advertisers is that time spent in mobile is way ahead of marketing budgets and advertising innovation. What's MailOnline's bid to close the gap?

There's an interesting conversation going on about the comparison between display and mobile advertising. We're talking about the disparity between consumption and advertising spend. Didn't we have that conversation – and aren't we still? – about measurement and metrics for display? Haven't we had the conversation about the creative limitations of display?

Since we've seen this movie before, there is no doubt in my mind that mobile is maturing and will continue to evolve. Ad spending will catch up with consumption in the US.

Interestingly, mobile advertising is more advanced in the rest of the world. And because of our global reach over the years, we've had to get good at mobile advertising. We are actively importing what we've learned into America – rich media, high-impact graphics across smartphones and tablets.

Mobile for us is a distribution channel. Our video ads, native ads, standard display run across all devices. In terms of what works, image gallery interstitials work very well, where sponsored images take over the tablet or phone. [They] show very high click rates and brand lift.

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