Can Imgur Go Native? Image-Hosting Site Plans Migration Away From Display

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imgurIf you’ve ever seen an online meme or a viral image (and these days who hasn’t?), chances are you either viewed it through the photo-sharing service Imgur (pronounced “imager”), or it was uploaded there first.

Founded in 2009 by then-Ohio University computer science student Alan Schaaf, Imgur has seen its financial support structure evolve from donations to advertising – the latter of which the company has gradually enhanced over the past five years. The latest development, announced Tuesday, is an analytics platform designed to track an image’s spread across the Internet after it was uploaded on Imgur.

For brands and agencies, this provides additional insight into how a campaign performs. “Throughout the day, we can tell when an image rises up and becomes popular,” said Schaaf, who now serves as Imgur’s CEO. “From there we added the ability to track where an image is being spread on the Internet. If you’re on Facebook, we track that, and we track what time it hits there. So if you share to Imgur first, what time does it reach Facebook and other sites?”

It’s a tool designed to help brands and agencies track the virality of native ads – essentially a sponsored image hosted on Imgur.

Imgur has grown dramatically since its inception. The company claims to host 650 million images and has more than 1.5 million uploads daily. Alexa ranks Imgur 25th in the US and 60th globally. And Quantcast statistics show Imgur has 2.3 billion page views (combined mobile and web) over the last month. On average, each person views 13.6 pages per visit.

But while Imgur has derived its revenue from display advertising since 2009, it has only recently expanded its ad products. In mid-2013, for instance, it introduced a self-service platform to develop direct relationships with advertisers.

The introduction of Imgur’s self-service platform, coupled with its analytics platform, represent an effort by the company to move its revenue from display advertising, which dominates today, to native advertising.

“We would certainly love display to be a smaller part of our business as we ramp up with real partnerships with brands and agencies and do more native advertising,” said Matt Strader, Imgur’s COO. “Everybody has seen the downward pressure on the long tail things, so the pressure is on for publishers to come up with new, innovative and impactful ads.”

Today, Imgur pairs native ads with display ads from the same advertiser. “We want to make sure there’s 100% share of voice, so they’re not competing,” he said. Imgur is coming up with other sponsorship packages. “We want to sell display as part of sponsorship packages as we ramp up.”

But one of the challenges Imgur might face as it increases its advertising capabilities is potential backlash from the social community responsible for the bulk of Imgur traffic: Reddit.

“The Reddit community and Imgur community is anti-advertising,” Schaaf conceded, “but it comes from more or less abusing what they’re doing with ads. You visit one site, you have six ads in your face and things are popping up. That gives a bad name to advertising in general. People install ad blockers, but we’ve seen a lot of people tell us they’ve white-listed Imgur. We try really hard to give the users the best experience possible.”

Strader detailed Imgur’s strong restrictions on native ads last year in a blog post: two formats, no auto sound, no auto expansions and no pop-overs or –unders. Imgur’s staff also tries to assess whether a native ad will be well-received or not. (“We’re sort of the experts on what makes an image go viral,” Schaaf said.) Additionally, Imgur only allows one display ad per page.

But Schaaf acknowledges that Imgur’s foray into native advertising is nascent, and as its ad products grow, it will likely work to expand the possible formats. The nature of these early relationships with advertisers – Paramount and ABC respectively initiated ad campaigns for the film "Anchorman 2" and the television show "Shark Tank" on Imgur – will also alter how the company activates both native and display advertising.

“Ads for us is relatively new and we want to be as native and organic as possible,” he said. “It’s important to note the sponsored images we’re doing now is very early stage. We’ve been running test campaigns. We haven’t even figured out a solid pricing structure. It’s test campaigns, and we’re trying to build up the relationships with publishers.”

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